Surrey used to be where you came when you were rich but too polite to say so. It was quiet and unassuming, with walled gardens, tile-hung houses and VW Golfs parked on gravel driveways. No one troubled you during your strolls across the Downs except for the occasional dog walker, which meant ‘dog owner’, because people would walk their own dogs instead of outsourcing the tedium to the specialists at doggy day care.
Not any more. It’s just a decade since I moved here from London (a writer in need of a room), but more and more I feel I might as well be in London. Legoland -houses, Aston Martins and live-in housekeepers have taken over the private estates. Every morning I watch a van of thoroughbred dogs being unleashed on to a -nearby field as their owners toddle off to work, or to yoga or floristry at the Medicine Garden. At the newsagent, someone’s maid is telling someone else’s maid that the best way to clean the floor is to wear coconut husks on the feet like slippers and slide around the house.
As one Surrey homeowner explains, despairingly, ‘The genteel atmosphere of understated wealth is being replaced by the more ostentatious new money of Premier League footballers and international money.’
The footballers — and their wags — moved in after Chelsea Football Club opened a training ground on the border between Stoke d’Abernon and Cobham in 2007. Since then the area has become decidedly more A-list. Earlier this year, Antonio Banderas moved into a Huf Haus in Cobham. He has spoken of his delight at watching foxes and deer prance through the garden. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who’ve often been seen scoffing Sunday lunch at the Black Swan pub in nearby Ockham, have lately been looking for property in the same area.
Little wonder that Elmbridge, which incorporates Cobham, Oxshott, Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames and the chichi town of Esher, has been dubbed the -Beverly Hills of Britain. According to Foxton’s, the average -property here today will set you back £2,522,129 — and for that you’ll get a four- or five-bedroom family home, not a manor. Elmbridge residents also pay more income tax on average than anyone else in Britain — £17,800 each in 2015, almost double the London figure. The tax bills aren’t much more digestible in Mole Valley (at the foot of the Surrey Hills) and Guildford.
Grocery shopping, at least, is more exciting these days. If I’m not clashing trolleys with Louise Redknapp in Waitrose then I’m wondering why the mad-haired man clasping an empty soup bowl is familiar and then realising it’s because he’s Mick Hucknall.
Anywhere else, I’d have worried for Hucknall, but he was shopping at the time in a kitchenware shop off Cobham High Street, where even the charity and second-hand clothes shops are stockists for Oscar de la Renta shoes and Valentino dresses. Some Surrey boutiques now offer me use of ‘the secret storage rail’: women wary of alarming their husbands with dozens of shopping bags may keep their new clothes here and slyly take them home one by one over a period of several months.
But not everyone sees the funny side. Increasingly, there’s a feeling that the rich and glamorous are -destroying the privacy and seclusion which led them here in the first place. Property is a particular source of contention. Newcomers from both overseas and the city (or City — many are bankers who are attracted by the sense of space and the easy 40-minute commute) are driving the demand for large new houses which bear little resemblance to the traditional redbrick Surrey vernacular.
‘They’re bombastic, gruesome, hacienda-style houses in clashing styles which are heavy within their plots: it’s like having five fat but expensively dressed passengers in rows C, D, E, F and G,’ says a resident of affluent Weybridge, home to the St George’s Hill estate, which is particularly popular with wealthy Russians.
‘Worse, all these houses are underlit at night with blue or gold lights in ridiculous glorification. It’s as if they’re religious icons.’
According to the estate agency John D Wood, large new-builds tend to be more popular than period properties because they require less maintenance. Celebrities, sportsmen and city workers want to come home to their Surrey pad and not do a thing.
Iceberg basements, the bane of London, are not an issue here, as there is no need to dig down when the houses are generally detached. But backland developments — filling in one plot with several new houses — cause upset. As does the construction of private cinemas, which are a particular problem since, as another agent tells me, ‘Pretty much any new development we do is going to have some kind of cinema in it.’
While some long-term residents concede that they must be grateful for the effect the new housing has had on their own property prices, they also can’t help but lament the cost in other respects.
‘I don’t know whether to be horrified or jealous or grateful,’ says one. ‘The wealthy neighbours are floating up the value of our own house, but that comes at a cost to the community. Very deep pockets fuel the urge not just to build a home but also to dominate.’
And dominate they do. Oxshott, a one-time hamlet of pig farmers, is now home to Andy Murray. Ever since it was reported in 2013 that he planned to invest £500,000 in the conversion of Cherkley Court, Lord Beaverbrook’s former Victorian estate in nearby Mole Valley, to a hotel, spa and golf course, there has been the inevitable question, ‘Where’s next?’ Many local residents (though not Sir Michael Caine) bitterly opposed the development on grounds of conservation, but the Court of Appeal gave it the go-ahead. Murray’s Oxshott development emulates Weybridge in its pretentions to Georgian and Arts and Crafts architecture.
Of course, there are areas where the celebrification of Surrey has been a force for good. The village of Chiddingfold near Haslemere now has an observably buzzing pub — owned by DJ Chris Evans. Shere has acquired the status of quintessential Surrey village since it was used as a location in the second Bridget Jones film and in The Holiday, starring Cameron Diaz.
For those of us who prefer country walks and old walls to fast cars and gated developments, we’ve learned to live with the fact that there are now two Surreys. Like the Venetians, who allow the tourists to have their city while maintaining a city of their own, we take consolation from knowing that behind the flashy side of Surrey which is what the newcomers see — the gated estates, the humming propeller plane that circulates every Sunday afternoon — there are cowslip woods and lakes, abandoned towpaths, vineyards, hills, and crumbling old houses to which we attach a price of our own.