Only a few cities become metonyms. Surbiton, even to those who have never been there, has become synonymous with suburban Tudorbethan, middle-class commuters, The good life. All of these things are true of the place, but are they truer than dozens of other former Home Counties towns that have been absorbed into the sprawl of Greater London? Perhaps what distinguishes Surbiton is its name, too similar to “suburban” not to be an archetype.
But the truth – and it’s almost a secret – is that it’s a pretty lovely place to live, work or, indeed, take a break. A holiday in Surbiton? Trust me, it ticks a lot of boxes and does things outside of them as well.
Getting here has never been a problem. The fast trains to and from the Smoke are the stuff of legend. It’s 15 miles along the A3 to London; travel is a boring affair, all bottlenecks and traffic lights. Direct trains take 16 minutes. The reason for the high-speed line – for any line – is that the Victorian bus operators of nearby Kingston-upon-Thames have weathered competition from the iron horse. As a result, the London and Southampton Railway bypassed the major town and stopped in an outlying township which had hitherto been called New Kingston and New Town, and was also known for a time as Kingston-upon-Railway before becoming Surbiton.
Getting to work couldn’t be easier. But the greatest joy for the Surbiton resident is coming home to the famous station, built by the Southern Railway architect James Robb Scott (1882-1965), responsible for a series of modernist stations, signal boxes and electrical control. Its pure white, minimally adorned simplicity must have caught the eye of local commuters when it opened in 1937; Art Deco was acceptable for Odeon cinemas, but for a train station, really?
Though perhaps I’m slipping into a stereotype – of a Surbiton family as a serious gray city dude married to a church flower arranger and member of WI. The reality is more jaunty, darker, and sexier, somewhere between JG Ballard and Margo Leadbetter. With her long flowing, braless dresses and blush makeup, Margo was somehow the most interesting female character in The good life. Barbara was the safe one, Margo’s veg to meat. The TV series was filmed in Northwood, a sort of Surbiton on the London side of Harrow, but that’s beside the point. Surbiton was a key element in the script.
What welcomes the visitor once he leaves the railway temple?
Victoria Road is a simply fine main street with a couple of historic 19th century buildings. It’s not fancy: it has a Poundland, a McDonalds, a Greggs. Brighton Road and Maple Road are a step further, with a German food shop, the adorable Lamb pub – serving British cheeses to pair with beers and wines – and an accountant. Flemish-style gables are scattered here and there, including over the old post office and a private clubhouse. There is a Waitrose, of course. Everything else in Surbiton, almost, is residential. This township is about housing, not shopping or entertainment. Of the three Conservation Areas, St Andrew’s Square is the prettiest, like a little corner of Bloomsbury, even if Virginia Woolf flinched in Richmond and would have been heartbroken by the idea of a quiet life in Surbiton. Then there are large blocks of flats and some fine Georgian houses on the ‘river roads’ which connect Maple Road to the right bank of the Thames.
And this is where Surbiton comes into play. Here flows the Serene River, briefly dividing for the island of Raven’s Ait. The locals wander, as calm as water; Surbiton is off the radar of Inner London day-trippers. On the other side is Home Park, the back garden of Hampton Court. It’s not nearly as busy as other Royal Parks, but it’s pastorally beautiful, with red and fallow deer puffing steam under the old trees, though fences keep them away from the Methuselah Oak, which was here long before Henry VIII.
Writing that made me sad. I lived in Surbiton from about 2003 to 2012, on one of those river roads, and I still wonder why I left. I remember the ironic looks and sarcastic jokes I had to suffer from friends and acquaintances. I was born into a working-class family but most of my friends and business associates were middle-class and expressed their contempt for provincial mediocrity – or, if you prefer, self-loathing – by disparaging Surbiton as boxy and stuffy. How wrong they were. But perhaps their mocking criticisms have filtered through.
I should have dumped them in Seething Wells. Now a campus of Kingston University, the place isn’t as smelly as it sounds, the name simply a corruption of Siden Wells, appearing on 18th-century maps. It has been recorded on railway maps as a medicinal source. At the other end of the town, on the edge of Kingston, is the Hogsmill River – a little further on, in Tolworth, is the spot where Millais imagined Ophelia drowned.
Specious etymologies say that Surbiton is a contraction of South Barton. But the name is actually from the Old English “Sūth Bere-tūn”, denoting “southern grange”. It looks like a quirky village in Wessex and amazingly Thomas Hardy wrote and published Away from the madding crowd while living here.
Wiser people than me have made Surbiton their home. Celebrities (I use the word loosely as one of Margo’s kaftans) include Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton, Debbie McGee, Tom Holland, Rupert Bear (a blue plaque marks the residence of cartoonist Alfred Bestall), Mike Batt (The Wombles) and David Essex.
John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr lived just southwest of Surbiton near Weybridge – wealthier, often fenced off, more suited to highly successful artists. It is not a trivial detail: Surbiton is neither London nor Surrey, neither ultra-bourgeoisie nor confusedly “gritty”. Somehow it has a balance, a yin-yang quality, and if it doesn’t have the artificiality of a ‘model village’ it looks like a model of what a livable city should be like. I think of Surbiton as a kind of buffer between ideas and places. It is unpretentious, tough, self-made. Esher and Oxshott is about stockbrokers money, football money, cheating money. As the Queen of Suburbia once said, “That sort of thing just doesn’t happen in Surbiton.”
Chris Moss is the author of Running smoothly from Harrow: a compendium for the London Commuter.