The London mews: trendy home, tiny living space
While my apartment is in one of the city's poshest areas, it is really just a well-located closet.
I got an e-mail from a friend in the United States the other day who needed my address. "5 Prince Arthur Mews, London ..." I wrote back.
Her response was immediate: "I love your address!" she gushed. "It's so ... cute! If you ever collect your essays about living in London into a book, be sure to call it '5 Prince Arthur Mews.' "
I knew what she meant. It's as if someone compressed the entire sweep of the monarchy into a tiny, elegant phrase and then topped it off with a dollop of Devonshire cream for good measure: the sort of place where the Duke of York and Jemima Puddle-duck might coexist amiably.
In fact, "mews" is just an old-fashioned word for "stable." But it does serve as another fine example of the Brits' unparalleled ability to infuse even the most mundane aspects of daily life with a certain poetry.
While I also revel in the idea of the "mews," the reality is somewhat less romantic. Let's start with that basic American concept, legroom. Moving to London is a bit like moving to Manhattan; you trade off size for location. So while my apartment is in the heart of one of London's poshest neighborhoods, it's really just an exceedingly well-located closet – one which we suspect even the horses found cramped back in the day. When the mother of one of my daughter's friends came over, she couldn't hide her shock, momentarily at a loss for those famed English manners.
"It's a bit titchy, isn't it?" she finally mustered.
So when I want to blow-dry my hair, I kneel down before a mirror that is half-concealed by my children's bunk bed, which is itself stuffed into a small dressing room that doubles as the arts-and-crafts/playmobile/dress-up corner. Then there's the kitchen, which appears to have been designed for elves. The refrigerator stands about three feet tall – the assumption apparently being that one goes to market every day. My husband finds this all very charming and European, but he doesn't do the shopping. The fridge is also handily located right next to the stove. So if you happen to be warming something up in the oven, you can simultaneously heat your milk and meat. And the all-in-one washer/dryer "combo" – which sounds great until you realize that "dry" means "moist" – looks as if it's been on a diet.
Adding to the charm of our mews house is our landlord, a short, surly fellow whose small stature is compensated for by his volubility. He's constantly wheeling and dealing – the kind of guy who'd be cast as the merchant in a Mike Leigh film. Whenever one of our miniature fixtures breaks, he sends over a posse of "cowboys" to fix it, which over here means "untrained professionals." These are lovely people with fascinating life stories. But when one would-be plumber revealed that his family ran the Coca-Cola plant in Iraq, I realized why his talents didn't extend to fixing toilets.
And then there's the street itself: the small cobblestone semicircular drive that is Prince Arthur Mews. When we first moved in, I noticed this tiny, 8-1/2-by-11-inch sign that read: "Beware loose slabs. Works due to begin soon." And sure enough, a bunch of loose concrete blocks jut up out of the road, causing all of us to regularly trip. When it rains – and by the way, this is London – these slabs convert into small islands, so that when you step on them, your foot sinks into six inches of water. Getting in and out of the house becomes an elaborate game of hopscotch.
But when I broached these imminent "works" with my neighbor, he just laughed. "Oh, that sign?" he said, with a knowing nod. "That's been up for years." Apparently, the Mews is a freehold. So while the houses are all individually owned, the road itself belongs to a third party. And by some bizarre twist of English property law, while the homeowners must reimburse this mysterious person for any repairs done to the road, they don't have to cover replacements. Which means that either he agrees to overhaul the road himself, or the tenants agree to share the burden. Needless to say, neither of these ever happens.
"So it will just stay broken?" I asked my neighbor incredulously.
"I imagine so," he answered, and turned back to his tea.
And yet, even with all its flaws, at the end of the day I do have a soft spot for the Mews. It may not readily suggest the power of a "10 Downing Street" or the erudition of "84 Charing Cross Road," but 5 Prince Arthur Mews commands its own scrappy place in history. And for my Anglophile friends back home, it may be the closest I'll ever come to "living down the lane."