The ultimate model village is hiding in South West London

Though perhaps I am slipping into a stereotype – of a Surbiton family as a staid, grey City chap married to a church floral arranger and WI member. The reality is saucier, darker and sexier, somewhere between JG Ballard and Margo Leadbetter. In her bra-less, wafting long dresses and flush-cheeked make-up, Margo was by some way the more interesting female character in The Good Life. Barbara was the safe one, the veg to Margo’s meat. The TV series was shot in Northwood, a sort of Surbiton on the Harrow side of London – but that’s not the point. Surbiton was a key element in the script.

What greets the visitor once they walk away from the railway temple?

Victoria Road is a merely satisfactory high street with a couple of listed 19th-century buildings. It’s not posh – it has a Poundland, a McDonalds, a Greggs. Brighton Road and Maple Road are a step up, with a German kitchen shop, the lovely Lamb pub – which does British cheeses to go with its ales and wines – and a tax accountant. Flemish-style gables are dotted here and there, including on the old post office and on a private members’ club. There’s a Waitrose, naturally. Everything else in Surbiton, almost, is residential. This township is about dwelling, not shopping or being entertained. Of the three Conservation Areas, St Andrew’s Square is the nicest, like a little patch of Bloomsbury – though Virginia Woolf baulked at Richmond and would have been harrowed by the idea of a quiet life in Surbiton. Then there are large apartment blocks and some handsome Georgian houses on the “river roads” that connect Maple Road to the right bank of the Thames.

Which is where Surbiton comes into its own. Here floweth the serene river, parting briefly for the island of Raven’s Ait. Locals wander, tranquil as the water; Surbiton is off the radar of the Inner London daytripper. Over on the other side is Home Park, the back garden of Hampton Court. It’s nothing like as trafficked as the other Royal Parks, but a bucolic beauty, with red and fallow deer snorting steam beneath the old trees – though fences keep them away from Methuselah’s Oak, which was here long before Henry VIII. 

Writing that has made me sad. I lived in Surbiton from around 2003 till 2012, on one of those river roads, and wonder, still, why I left. I remember the wry looks and sarcastic asides I had to suffer from friends and acquaintances. I was born into a working-class family but almost all of my friends and work colleagues were middle-class and they expressed their disdain for provincial mediocrity – or, if you like, self-loathing – by denigrating Surbiton as square and stifling. How wrong they were. But perhaps their sneering put-downs seeped in.

Recommended For You