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Mews is a primarily British term formerly describing a row of stables, usually with carriage houses below and living quarters above, built around a paved yard or court, or along a street, behind large city houses, such as those of London, during the 17th and 18th centuries. The word may also refer to the lane, alley or back street onto which such stables open. It is sometimes applied to rows or groups of garages or, more broadly, to a narrow passage or a confined place. Today most mews stables have been converted into dwellings, some greatly modernised and considered highly desirable residences.
The term mews is plural in form but singular in construction. It arose from "mews" in the sense of a building where birds used for falconry are kept, which in turn comes from birds' cyclical loss of feathers known as 'mewing' or moulting.
From 1377 onwards the king's falconry birds were kept in the King's Mews at Charing Cross. The name remained when it became the royal stables starting in 1537 during the reign of King Henry VIII. It was demolished in the early 19th century and Trafalgar Square was built on the site. The present Royal Mews was then built in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The stables of St James's Palace, which occupied the site where Lancaster House was later built, were also referred to as the "Royal Mews" on occasion, including on John Rocque's 1740s map of London.
The term "mews" is not used for large individual non-royal British stable blocks, a feature of country houses. For example the grand stable block at Chatsworth House is referred to as the stables, not the mews. Instead the word was applied to service streets and the stables in them in cities, primarily London. In the 18th and 19th centuries London housing for wealthy people generally consisted of streets of large terraced houses with stables at the back, which opened onto a small service street. The mews had horse stalls and a carriage house on the ground floor, and stable servants' living accommodation above. Generally this was mirrored by another row of stables on the opposite side of the service street, backing onto another row of terraced houses facing outward into the next street. Sometimes there were variations such as small courtyards. Most mews are named after one of the principal streets which they back onto. Most but not all have the word "mews" in their name. This arrangement was different from most of Continental Europe, where the stables in wealthy urban residences were usually off a front or central courtyard. The advantage of the British system was that it hid the sounds and smells of the stables away from the family when they were not using the horses.
Mews lost their equestrian function in the early 20th century when motor cars were introduced. At the same time, after World War I and especially after World War II, the number of people who could afford to live in the type of houses which had a mews attached fell sharply. One place where a mews may still be found put to equestrian use is Bathurst Mews in Westminster, near Hyde Park, London, where several private horse are kept. Nearby, the mews' stables have been put to commercial use, Hyde Park Stables, where horses may be let for guided rides in Hyde Park, £64 for the hour (2013 price). Some mews were demolished or put to commercial use, but the majority were converted into homes. These "mews houses", nearly always located in the wealthiest districts, are themselves now fashionable residences.
Contemporary movements to revitalize and creatively re-use historical and traditional features of urban environments have also cast some appreciative light on mews. Perhaps the most interestign as well as practical contemporary presentation of the some 500 former horse stables in the city of London, may be the book, published by Webb & Bower in 1982, titled The Mews of London: A Guide to the Hidden Byways of London's Past (Webb & Bower, London, 1982, ISBN 0-03-062419-3). Written by a pair of Americans - harpsichord maker and social activist Wolfgang Zuckermann, together with art administrator and writer Barbara Rosen - the book won the London Tourist Board Award for Guidebook of the Year and maps walking tours that suffice for many days of exploration.
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- Part of Belgravia in London – There are numerous mews on this map of Belgravia. Belgrave Square has mews on each of its four sides, although one of them is called Montrose Place.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911: "Mew"