I was thrilled to see Boris Johnson pedal his way over the Surrey Hills during the summer. There’s nothing like a bit of panting, groaning and chafing to prove that there’s more to a place than “handsome semi-detached houses, and stockbroker Tudor, and Joan Hunter Dunn and the pine-y smell of Betjemanesque suburbia”, to quote from his Telegraph column.
Surrey has a hard time shedding its reputation as a showy stomping ground for tasteless technocrats, footballers and City boys. And North Londoners — Johnson is an Islingtonite — are the most likely to share such a skewed vision of the place.
When I was 17, my family decided to uproot from London and settle in the Surrey Hills. Even then I remember picturing a hedge-filled — and hedge fund-filled — backwater. Worse, my London friends told me I’d be neighbours with Chelsea Football Club, which had recently decamped to a new training ground near Cobham. And now Cobham High Street’s shop fronts are aflutter with casting calls for Surrey Hills, a forthcoming reality-TV show in the mould of Made in Chelsea.
But just as Chelsea isn’t representative of London as a whole, so the flashy estates rumoured to be at the centre of the new series — Fairmile in Cobham, St George’s Hill in Weybridge, and pockets of Esher and Oxshott with their Legoland mansions — do not constitute Surrey.
You are more likely to stumble across a Norman church or National Trust property than a footballer. The real Surrey is little changed from the place Samuel Pepys called his “old place of delight”, and John Evelyn “the Country of my Birth and my delight”.
As then, its proximity to both countryside and city is appealing. As the rolling hills of Tuscany were to E.M. Forster’s Florence in A Room with a View, so the Surrey Hills are to London.
And that must be why so many Londoners are quick to write it off. Few can face travelling from one side of the city to the other. Londoners have always enjoyed debating who has it better, those who live north or south of the river. South Londoners are slightly more capable of seeing Surrey as an extension of their city. North Londoners find it hard to accept that there is a more picturesque, exclusive place than Hampstead, let alone one that is near enough to central London to make the journey times from each almost equal.
Now that the Mayor of London has seen that there’s more to Surrey than he thought, I hope he’ll also see that there is something geographically inconsistent about the fact that you can use your Oyster card in Watford, but not in Epsom.