I was hardly aware of the existence of the Royal Mews: they were not on my “to do” list for London. In fact, they do not seem to be high on the tourist radar at all. I found them by accident, when I saw the mile long queue snaking around Buckingham Palace, and hastily changed my mind about the morning’s activity. The Royal Mews, just a stone’s throw away, was a welcome alternative, relatively devoid of queues or crowds. But what is the Royal Mews, and why is it worth a visit?
What is the Royal Mews?
Historically a mews was a group of stables, a place to house horses and the people who looked after them. Over time cars have replaced horses, and most mews have been converted into small but fashionable houses. However the Royal Mews retains its original purpose. It is a home for the Queen’s horses and state coaches, and its staff are responsible for all of the Royal Family’s road travel, whether by car or carriage.
Standing in the main courtyard, designed by John Nash in the 19th century, you get the feeling that this place hasn’t changed much since Queen Victoria’s day. Perhaps it hasn’t: this is still where the grooms and coachmen who care for the horses and the carriages live. We picked up the excellent and informative audiotour and listened to one of the Mews workers describing how his father had lived and worked here, and his grandfather before that. For many people, it seems to be a family concern.
State Carriages and Royal Pageantry
From one side of the courtyard, we heard the sound of cameras snapping furiously at the carriages, which are still used for grand state occasions. This is the stuff of fairytales: the Irish Coach that makes its annual appearance for the State Opening of Parliament, and the Glass Coach which traditionally took royal brides to Westminster Abbey. The last wedding where the Glass Coach was used was that of Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. However, it was kept on standby (in case of bad weather) for William and Kate in 2011: in the event they used the open-topped Landau that was built for King Edward VII in 1902.
Behind the stables is the massive and ornate Gold Stage Coach. This was built in 1762 and has been used for every coronation since George IV. The carriage is pulled by eight horses, and it is decorated with painted wood panels and gold leafed sculptures. The interior is lined with velvet and satin. The glamour is only slightly dented by the revelation that successive sovereigns have complained of the extreme discomfort of the carriage!
Stabling the Horses
The Royal Mews is said to be one of the finest working stables in the world. However, most of the horses were on duty elsewhere when we visited. They were nowhere to be seen when we peeked into the riding school – where young horses are trained – or into the horses’ sleeping quarters, where each horse is identified by name and age. But there were more carriages to be seen in here, including Queen Victoria’s sleigh, which she used to ride in the snow at Balmoral. The audiotour informed us that today Santa Claus uses it to visit the Royal Family at Christmas.
In the smaller stables by the exit, a few horses who were not out at work were munching contentedly and ignoring the visitors. This was obviously the highlight of the visit for a group of excited Brownies in their yellow and brown uniforms, who were busily trying to catch the horses’ attention.
We left the Brownies to their patting and stroking and walked past the Palace. Here we were treated to a view of some of the Queen’s other horses, the immaculately groomed Household Cavalry, marching down The Mall.
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