Happy Birthday, Lilo Blum!
‘The first time I rode in Hyde Park was in 1937…’
I know readers will want to join me in wishing Lilo Blum many happy returns on her ninetieth birthday today. Born in Germany in 1927, Lilo and her family came to London as refugees escaping the Nazis in 1937 when she was just ten years old, but within a couple of years she had set up her own livery stable next to Hyde Park. Lilo Blum’s Riding Stables flourished for forty-five years as a popular London institution, occupying Lilo’s entire working life and proving an irresistible magnet for any celebrity, jetsetter or socialite who enjoyed a canter in the Park.
My meeting with Lilo Blum came about when her nephew Edward recognised a photograph of his aunt’s stables in Grosvenor Park Crescent in 1952 by Israel Bidermanas published on Spitalfields Life recently and wrote to me. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Lilo at her swish flat in Park Lane with a magnificent view over Hyde Park and hear her triumphant story in her own words.
“I was four or five when I learnt to ride. My brother was three years older than me and I remember he rode in a pony race, and I cried because I wanted to ride as well. So they got me a quiet pony and I rode round the course, quite a few miles behind the others, but at least it kept me quiet. Working with horses runs in our family and my father was a well-known veterinarian. He could tell at one glance if a horse was lame, because in those days they didn’t have x-rays and you had to be able to just say what was wrong.
I started my riding stables in 1943 when I was sixteen years old. I collected threepenny bits in an old whisky bottle and then I went with my father to the big sales at Newmarket where they sold racehorses. We bought one for fifty-five guineas and I called him ‘Pick-up.’ After I had bought him, I thought ‘What am I going to do with him?’ because he was baby racehorse and unbroken, so I couldn’t use him in a riding school. But I was lucky because I had some friends who worked at Knightsbridge barracks and they agreed to keep him in their stable for me.
The sergeant offered to ask his commanding officer if I would be allowed to take my horse riding from the barracks and, luckily for me, they allowed it during the war. The sergeant broke in my horse, and got him nice and quiet and civilised, so people could eventually ride him and I knew he wouldn’t throw anybody off. Then I sold ‘Pick-up’ to the Huntley & Palmers people and he raced for them and won some races, which was good for me. I can’t remember how much I got but it was enough to buy some ponies and that was how I started my riding stable.
The first time I rode in Hyde Park was in 1937. Before the war, you could see a thousand horses riding down Rotten Row. You had to dress up properly for riding then and the ladies they rode side-saddle – I tried it once, I didn’t like it. There were hundreds and hundreds of stables in the mews around Hyde Park then. I remember when all the mews were horses. It’ll never come back again. After the war, people didn’t dress up for riding any more. Society changed.
I had around twenty horses in my stable and lived for forty-two years in Knightsbridge in Old Barrack Yard, next to The Grenadier. I’ve spent many hours in their with some of our people and I’ve seen a few landlords come and go. If I had a penny for every time people asked me ‘Where’s The Grenadier?’ without question I’d be a millionaire. Most of my friends I met through horses.
I love horses but there were some anxious moments. It was always a gamble because you’d buy a horse in the country yet if it was no good in the traffic you might just as well get rid of it. My father taught me a lot and I had a great friend, an Irish racehorse trainer who was very good at picking out horses.
My favourite horse, we called it ‘Decision’ because we saw it at a sale and my father wasn’t quite sure about it but then the owner asked, ‘What’s your decision?’ He was very popular and he made me a lot of money. He lived to be old and he worked really hard and we thought ’Well, he’s done well for us,’ so we turned him out in a field but he didn’t like it. He was so used to working and being in the traffic that he died soon after.
With horses, it’s seven days a week, twelve hours a day starting at 5:30am. Often, I would have just locked up and put all the horses away when a whole lot of people would come down, but I would never refuse them. I would unlock the door again, get the horses out and show them all around Hyde Park. It’s nice when people appreciate what you do for them.
Once I started my stable in Grosvenor Crescent Mews, I had loads and loads of famous people coming to ride. Zsa Zsa Gabor kept her horse with us for a little while, but she liked to go one better so she took him down to the Duke of Marlborough in Wiltshire where she galloped all across his lawn and he wasn’t too happy. So she brought her horse back again and rode him out in Hyde Park. Then she decided to go abroad and asked me to sell her horse, and he became the symbol of Lloyds Bank and starred in ‘Black Beauty’ with Vivien Leigh and ‘Knights of the Round Table’ with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. A very famous horse.
I remember one day we had our ponies out and the Household Cavalry were training and making an awful lot of noise, so I called Andrew Parker-Bowles, who was officer in charge, and said, ‘You’re upsetting my ponies!’ To be fair he was very nice about it, and he was always very nice to me after that. In fact, one of my horses had an injury and he took it into the barracks to have it treated, so it didn’t do any harm to tell him off.
Topol lived in the house on the corner and we had Jean Simmons & Stewart Grainger at the top of the mews with their daughter Tracy who used to come and mess about with the ponies. Paul Newman came, Raquel Welch was another regular, and Stirling Moss – he lived in our mews, I knew him when he was a kid.
Luciano Pavarotti was a heavy man and he used to sit at the front of the horse, so I said to him, ‘Hey mister, you give my horse a sore back! Sit further back in the saddle.’ Mohammad Ali rode one of our horses in the Park too, but after I shook hands with him I felt mine was going to drop off! Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister’s husband, the Polish Prince Radziwiłł kept his horses with us and that’s how I got to know the Kennedys. I taught the little children, Caroline & John Kennedy to ride but I always had to have a police escort when I took them out.
Sometimes we got these pushy mums. I’ll never forget one lady, she said to me, ‘When are you going to teach my little girl to trot?’ and I said, ‘Give her a bit of a chance, she’s only two years old.’ I told the little kid, ‘Your mummy wants me to teach you to trot,’ and she did it once it, but she couldn’t get the rhythm so she said, ‘Enough now!’ I’ll never forget that but, in time, she turned out good.
I ran my stables until 1988 and it was a great success. Eventually the Duke of Westminster built the Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner and he didn’t want any more horses in the mews. It was very disappointing after forty-five years, but life goes on. Everything has changed so much hasn’t it?
It has been an interesting life I must say. You’ve got to make the best of it. I keep telling my friends, ‘It’s a rehearsal not the real thing,’ but they don’t take any notice. I made money and blew money like everybody else. I was lucky I always worked for myself which is a great thing. I’ve done alright. I can’t complain! If I see a horse I like out in the park from my window, I still think ‘That one’s nice, that would have done me nicely.’”
Lilo Blum’s Riding Stables, Grosvenor Park Crescent W1 – as photographed by Israel Bidermanas in 1952. Lilo’s dog Peggy sleeps in the foreground.
The Grenadier, Old Barrack Yard, Lilo Blum’s local for half a century
Archive photographs courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute
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