site unseen Blue Ball Yard mews, London

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The Independent Online
The recent stifling weather has caused a noticeable deterioration in the "air quality" of British towns and cities. The prime culprit is the motor car, and the Government now urges travellers to switch to public transport, that same form of conveyance which successive Conservative administrations have starved of funds.

It would be wrong, however, to romanticise the good old days and claim that our cities in the past were anything other than smelly. No sanitation, no drains, elementary hygiene, bad breath, worse armpits... you get the message.

In particular, the city streets were always full of live animals on their way to market or to slaughter houses. Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (1838) described the area around Smithfield: "It was market morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep with filth and mire; a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above...".

Horses too were previous generations' equivalent of the internal combustion engine, and they added considerably to the mess. Just as cars ideally require garages, horses need stabling, and therefore hundreds of mews were built in order to provide for equine needs. The horse went below, the groom lived above.

Despite bombing and redevelopment, it is extraordinary how many mews properties still survive in London - in the region of 12,000 - and of course, ironically enough, they are now some of the most sought-after and expensive residences of the lot. The grandest are just off Holland Park Avenue, but the most elegant still surv- ive right in the heart of the West End.

You do have to concentrate if you want to find them. Walk down traffic- laden St James's Street, past the gentlemen's clubs towards the old Palace. Halfway down on the right, or western side, is an unprepossessing entrance. Walk through it and catch your breath. Because there in front of you is the old Blue Ball Yard mews of 1742, elegant and correct and now used as 12 luxury suites by the nearby Stafford Hotel.

Gaslights, a slope for drainage, wine vaults - this was a functional and practical complex which, in typically Georgian fashion, was, and still is, a treat for the eye.

Now why can't garages look this good?

Blue Ball Yard runs off St James's Street, London SW1

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