Mews Pubs

For some people in London the term mews pub probably means a pub lost down some alleyway but for others less interested in high street corner offerings the London mews is a hidden world where time forgot.

For an explorer like Archie his desire to explore the more hidden pubs of london was no more exemplified than the night we went to the Grenadier. Phil had almost scrabbled his way around via some gardens and, at one point, it looked like we would have to turn back, perhaps with the sounds of a disgruntled neighbour in our ears. But the red sign of the pub under a distant light, glowing in the distance like the star of Bethlehem was a sight to behold (coupled with a few disbelieving “no way”s).

There are very few “hidden” pubs in central London like this which makes it such a special occurrence to encounter the Grenadier, but the mews pubs of London offer these sunken havens and the potential for sequestered pub.  So is that the Grenadier a mews pub? Actually, no.

Definition of a mews

In the english language a mews is a singular word used originally to describe a row of stables, usually with carriage houses below and living quarters above, built around a cobble-stoned yard or court, or along a street, behind large city houses, of which there are many in London, and date back as far as the 17th and 18th centuries. The word now may also refer to the lane, alley or back street onto which such stables used to open. It can also now be applied to rows or groups of garages and not all lead to pubs or houses at all.IMG_20130519_162406

Be careful as there may be a right of way but it doesn’t mean it leads to anything and, of course, some are private. Today most mews stables have been converted into dwellings, some greatly modernised and considered highly desirable residences. Certainly The Horse and Groom and The Star Tavern on Archie’s Belgravia crawl were classic examples of hidden gems and walking down a mews in any neighbourhood has that potential magic – the fact that a lot of them are back yards and, with lots of right angle turns, it’s hard to know like in any maze whether the effort is worthwhile – or time to turn back.

Horse and Groom

The Horse and Groom (7 Groom Place SW1X 7BA) is a small difficult to find pub in a quiet mews in Belgravia with wood panelling dating back to 1864. Aapparently it was not allowed to serve liquor on account of the local employers who would not want their servants falling into ruin. No such problem these days and proudly serving Shepherd Neame and entered in the GBG 2013.

However, if there ever was a definition of a mews pub then The Dover Castle (Weymouth Mews, parallel to Portland Place) is a beautiful example not far from Harley Street, tucked away on another dark cobbled street, perhaps dating back to the 18th century.  dover-castleAgain wood panelling throughout, packed full of original features, a real fire in the winter and some evidence of partitioning.  Altogether a fine example in the Sam Smiths estate, meaning the pricing is unusually low for such a nice pub.  Apparently The Who came here regularly while recording Tommy in 1969, a perfect backstreet hideaway; or probably because it was the nearest to the famous IBC studios.  Many more rock legends could have found the secretive pub to their liking.

The Dover Castle is a classic but the main area for mews these days is South West London, for example the aforementioned Belgravia, a pre-requisite is usually big houses and cobbled streets behind.  Sometimes the pubs are accessed via a connected mews, drowning on how you approach then, best to have a satnav in the other hand.

Yet to feature on one of the crawls is The Queens Arms, on a corner in Queen’s Gate Mews. Here many a thirsty punter has come away from the Royal Albert Hall looking for replenishment and missing this gem.  But for how long this pub escapes the zone 1 pub crawl compendium can’t be certain.  Many of the mews in this rich area have featured in film sets and it’s easy to see why, there’s something romantic about a mews like Queen’s Gate Mews, with its cobblestones and winding wysteria.

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More good mews

Archie favours the Cleveland Arms, featured on the Lancaster Gate crawl and in fact the pub is at the entrance to a mews (Upbrook Mews), so I am calling this pub a “coach inn” later on.  He has spent over 3 years touring the world solo, checking out some of the most fascinating roads less travelled.  From The Silk Route of Central Asia to bagging peaks in Bolivia, he makes a habit of leaving tourists not only behind but they’re already on the air conditioned bus going back to their hotel.  So mews pubs are right up his, er, street!

cleveland-arms-crop

Archie was born in Melbourne where he has spent most his life. It is unusual to come across an Aussie with a vast knowledge of London streets, most of his compatriots in fact do not stay much longer than the standard two year visa. And an evening on the beer in Melbourne is more typically in pubs with less history and character and are more trendy affairs with true locals few and far between. “Nothing like the time we have discovering remarkable new parts of London every month”, commented Archie

“Sometimes you go through an arch to enter the mews, others you need a map to find, and you have to be brave to enter some of them”,  he said.  “But the beauty of seeking out these places it’s that you avoid the tourist places.  The most hidden ones are more hardcore local, secret, hidden, elusive, the ones tourists couldn’t ever see, because they’ll never have the time or inclination”.

The term “mews” can be traced back to 1377 when king’s falconry birds were kept in the King’s Mews at Charing Cross. They later became stables before Trafalgar Square was built on the site. The term became more widely known for stables but only when accompanying large city houses and generally not country estates. So why should pubs be found in effectively stables?

Mews territory

The answer could be signposted by Archie’s second crawl which began near Sloane Square and headed towards the wealthy neighbourhood of Belgravia.  It’s here where mews houses can go for millions of pounds -still a fraction of the adjacent white buildings – and their owners would say that their mews houses are cosy cottages; after all, most have no rear aspect and they make the most of their modest frontage.

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Belgravia is typical of what West London housing for wealthy people would have been like 200 years ago, streets of large terraced houses with stables at the back, which opened onto a small service street. The mews would originally have horse stalls and a carriage house on the ground floor, and stable servants living accommodation above, often mirrored by another row of stables on the opposite side backing onto another row of terraced houses facing outward into the next street. Sometimes there were variations such as small courtyards behind pubs, but these I refer to as coach inns*. Most mews are real streets named after one of the principal streets which they back onto, for example Stanhope Mews West and East adjacent to Stanhope Gardens in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The classic Star Tavern, where allegedly the Great Train Robbery was planned

Take The Star Tavern (6 Belgrave Mews West, Belgravia, London SW1X 8HT); a classic pub with hanging baskets serving Fullers on a cobbled Mews, which can be traced back to 1848 and has appeared in every edition of the GBG. From it’s impressive exterior, which you could imagine has not changed much, you enter an open bar which would have been divided into rooms.  Upstairs allegedly the Great Train Robbery was plotted.  One can see how easy it might have been to be secretive here – if you are looking for it then it’s best to approach from Halkin Street to the North, it’s not easy to get it right first time!

The Star is an example of a community pub in a mews established at a time when mainly servants and farriers would frequent such establishments and one could imagine how unpopular it would have been to the upper echelons of Belgravia society.  Belgrave Mews might well have been the main service street for nearby Belgravia Square and the arched entrance to the street is a compliment to it’s more celebrated surroundings

The fact that very few genuine mews pubs have survived might actually be due to the fact that they simply did not exist in large quantities. South Kensington is rich with backstreets, some leading to pubs, but the pubs are not in the mews itself. This fact is lost on Archie, who loves exploring these streets and would claim he has discovered a news pub after emerging from some zig zagging alley way. Such was the case on the Earls Court crawl.

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Noise inversion

So quiet are some mews that you forget that you are in a busy capital city; the advantage they have is no through traffic and, in the past, the sounds and smells of the stables were away from the main owners when they were not using the horses. IMG_20130519_133924It’s hard to imagine what these back streets would have been like back then, really quite the opposite of today.  In some cases it is curious to find facades, purpose built arches and doorways, such must have been the need to keep these alleyways invisible.  The archway at the entrance to Elvaston Mews is so ornate it is Grade II listed.

They were not so quiet in the past with all the horses coming in and out.  Where nowadays horseless carriages are parked outside the main entrance, you simply couldn’t do that with horses.  Now the large adjacent buildings tend to block out the noise of the traffic.  Of course mews lost their equestrian function in the early 20th century when motor cars were introduced. Stables became garages and, as is widely practiced, the garage becomes an extra room.  And over time, when it became less affordable to own large houses, the mews properties themselves became houses, relatively more affordable and certainly erstwhile fashionable.  Many have their own distinctive style and you can see the hideaway appeal of some private residential mews units.

And so we end our feature on hidden mews pubs in Zone 1.  The Mitre, well hidden of course, is not in this small list as we have been careful with the definition.  Pubs in the areas worthy of a visit if you wanted to experience something similar, feature in a number of crawls already – The Wilton Arms, The Grenadier, The Nags Head.  But the relative tranquility of a London mews is a special local phenomenon, a contrast, a sanctum.

We have also omitted The Duke of York (7 Roger Street, London) often referred to as a mews pub due to its proximity to John’s Mews and Doughty Mews.  Paddington is full of mews like the one below, all mainly residential.  Although there are around 700 “mews” in London if you are lucky enough to come across a mews pub in zone 1 worth an inclusion, you are (with Archie) probably in a very small group.

See also: Have We Got Mews For You

have we got mews for you?

*Note on Coach inn for the purposes of this article – Some examples of pubs with a preserved adjacent courtyard in Soho, if you want to look – The Wheatsheaf, The Black Horse, and The Pillars of Hercules,  These are old coaching inns and not strictly mews in the same way as whole service streets, but no doubt readers will have their own interpretation.

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