Luxury with a humble past

Last Updated : 09 April 2015, 13:50 IST
Last Updated : 09 April 2015, 13:50 IST

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In the 18th century, mews houses in London represented a row of stables, with carriage houses below and living quarters above. Richard Holledge learns that many home seekers are warming up to the idea of these expansive, archaic properties as their abodes.

When the dashing French rally car racer Antoine Lurot moved to London, he needed more than just a roof over his head. He had to have somewhere to garage his souped-up Ford Cortina 1600E.

Chatting with fellow racers – Peter Gethin, John Surtees and James Hunt, top names in the racing world of the 1970s – he discovered they all lived in mews houses. Once used by the wealthy to house their servants and stable their horses, they were ideal for people whose passion was horsepower of a more high-octane variety.
Immediately, Antoine, who moved to London from France in 1971, bought a house and has lived in a mews ever since.

There’s something quintessentially London about mews houses. The earliest were used as long ago as the 14th century to keep falcons, and the name is derived from the annual “mewing” or moulting of the birds’ feathers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the wealthy bought large terraced houses with elegant facades facing on to gardens, while at the back, small buildings were used for the servants and, on the ground floor, horse stalls and a carriage house. Often they would be back to back with another set of mews properties, which created what today are pleasing oases of quiet.

Antoine saw a gap in the market for the quirky, classy mews house. He jumped on his motorbike and documented every single mews street in the city – about 800 of them, with a total of 10,000 houses. Now he owns three real estate Lurot Brand
offices and claims to sell almost half the mews houses that come on the market.

One immediate selling point is that they are not only in the smartest parts of
London, such as Holland Park, Kensington and Notting Hill, where only the wealthiest could have afforded the addition of a mews, but they are invariably in areas designated by the government to be preserved for their special architectural and historic interest. This ensures that their distinctive facades remain untouched, though their interiors can be gutted and transformed into surprisingly spacious family homes.

Take Queen’s Gate Place Mews in Kensington, just off the busy Gloucester Road and near many of London’s great museums, such as the Victoria and Albert. Out of the 42 original houses on that short street (four have been converted into single-family homes), seven are having basements added, which will increase their space by 10,000, or in one case 15,000, square feet. A two-to-four-bedroom mews that has not been extended can cost from 1,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds, or $1,485 to $4,455, per square foot, depending on the area, the character of the property, the layout and finish.

From the outside, No. 22 looks like the typical mews, with a garage door taking up half the front of the house, which opens to reveal a lustrous Bentley on loan to add cachet and to show just what the buyer could fit into the space. The basement
contains a cinema, a gym, a steam room and wine racks that reach the high
ceilings. A curving staircase with a steel and glass balustrade leads to the living area and six bedrooms, including the master bedroom with a slick en suite bathroom. There is a little roof garden and a light well that reaches from the top down to the basement level. It is on the market for £7,495,000.

Marlon Malcolm, a Lurot Brand real estate agent, said: “Light is more valuable than space. If the light well was not there and the space – about 6,000-8,000 square feet – had been used for living, the price of the property would not be any higher. The light improves the value of everything else.”

One temptation for many buyers is to convert the garage space into living
quarters. “That can be done, as long as the exterior is not affected,” said Marlon.

“But in London, having somewhere to park your car is a major plus.” He finds the properties are sought after by men-about-town bachelors, young married couples who are starting out and old married couples who are downsizing and are attracted to buying a freehold property with space similar to that of an apartment, but without the often crippling service charges. “Many mews have a sort of club feel,” Marlon said.

“Residents are usually like-minded people who consider themselves part of a small and privileged community.”

And, even today, many are car lovers. Next door to No. 22 is Fiskens, legendary among the cognoscenti for selling some of the most expensive classic cars. Not far away, in Reece Mews, Kensington, is Hexagon Classics, another selection of shiny motors. Morgan, which makes the fashionably retro-designed sports cars, is opening a showroom in another Kensington mews.

While Queen’s Gate Place Mews reverberates to the sound of the builder’s drill, Bathurst Mews in Bayswater is a peaceful, indeed positively bucolic, haven, off busy Sussex Place. Little more than a cobbled passageway, it has been planted with olive trees and is lined with potted plants and picnic tables – and it boasts the unmistakable odour of horses. This is the only mews still used for its original
purpose – as stables – and it is popular with locals who fancy a canter around nearby Hyde Park.

Theresa Mossessian, who lives there with her husband, Michel, and three-year-old son, recently renovated a three-bedroom house by opening up the living space to create a 40-foot living area, which has been ideal for a rambunctious toddler. At £1,995,000, the property is only eight feet wide, but its appearance belies the 1,493 square feet of space inside, with its three double bedrooms, one with en suite bathroom, a shower room and a living area with a skylight.

“It is so central here,” said Theresa. “Twenty minutes to High Street Kensington, Notting Hill Gate and across Hyde Park to Knightsbridge. You can’t hear the noise of the Lancaster Gate roundabout, just the gentle whinnying of horses. The neighbours are so friendly you virtually have to disguise yourself when you are going home, in case you get whisked in for a drink and spend the next hour in an alcoholic haze.”

Published 09 April 2015, 13:50 IST

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