This maligned suburb of London is in fact the model village par excellence

Surbiton, even for those who have never been there, has become synonymous with suburbia – Alamy

Only a few cities become metonyms. Surbiton, even for those who have never been there, has come to mean the Tudorbethan suburb, middle class commuters, The good life. All of these things are true of the place, but are they any more so than dozens of other former Home Counties townships that have been swallowed up by the sprawl of Greater London? Perhaps what sets Surbiton apart is its name – too similar to “suburb” not to be an archetype.

But the truth – and it’s almost a secret – is that it’s a pretty nice place to live, work or even take a break. Vacationing in Surbiton? Believe me, it ticks a lot of boxes and even does things outside of them.

Getting here was never a problem. The fast trains to and from the Smoke are legendary. It’s 15 miles on the A3 to London; the drive is a tedious 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 coach operators from nearby Kingston-upon-Thames stood up to competition from the Iron Horse. Consequently the London and Southampton Railway bypassed the most important town and stopped at an outlying township which was hitherto called New Kingston and New Town, and was even 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 to return home and arrive at the famous station – built by Southern Railway architect James Robb Scott (1882-1965), who was responsible for a series of stations modernists, signal boxes and electrical control centers. Its pure white, sparsely ornate simplicity must have been striking to local commuters when it opened in 1937; Art Deco was acceptable for Odéon cinemas, but for a train station, really?

    the Surbiton resident's greatest joy is returning home and arriving at the famous station - built by Southern Railway architect James Robb Scott - Getty

the Surbiton resident’s greatest joy is returning home and arriving at the famous station – built by Southern Railway architect James Robb Scott – Getty

Although I might be slipping into a stereotype – of a Surbiton family as a gray, stuffy town dude married to a church flower arranger and WI member. Reality is naughtier, darker and sexier, somewhere between JG Ballard and Margo Leadbetter. In her long, braless dresses and red-cheeked makeup, Margo was somehow the most interesting female character in The good life. Barbara was the safest, Margo’s meat vegetable. The TV series was filmed in Northwood, a sort of Surbiton on the Harrow side of London – but that’s not the point. Surbiton was a key part of the storyline.

What greets the visitor once he walks away from the railroad temple?

Victoria Road is a satisfying main street with a few 19th century listed buildings. It’s not fancy – there’s a Poundland, a McDonalds, a Greggs. Brighton Road and Maple Road are a step up, with a German cookery shop, the charming Lamb pub – which offers British cheeses to accompany its beers and wines – and a tax accountant. Flemish-style gables dot here and there, including the old post office and a private club. There’s a Waitrose, of course. Almost everything else in Surbiton is residential. This township is about living, not shopping or entertainment. Of the three conservation areas, St Andrew’s Square is the prettiest, like a little piece of Bloomsbury – although Virginia Woolf balked at Richmond and would have been bowled over by the idea of ​​a quiet life in Surbiton. Then there are tall apartment buildings and fine Georgian houses on the ‘river roads’ that connect Maple Road to the right bank of the River Thames.

This is where Surbiton comes into its own. Here flows the Serene River, briefly parting for the island of Raven’s Ait. The inhabitants wander, calm as water; Surbiton is off the Inner London daytripper’s radar. On the other side is Home Park, the back garden of Hampton Court. It’s not as busy as other royal parks, but a bucolic beauty, with red stags and fallow deer sniffing steam under old trees – although fences keep them away from Methuselah Oak, which was here long before Henry VIII.

Write that made me sad. I lived in Surbiton from around 2003 to 2012, on one of those river routes, and I still wonder why I left. I remember the ironic looks and sarcastic asides I must have endured from friends and acquaintances. I was born into a working-class family, but almost all of my friends and co-workers were middle-class and they expressed their contempt for provincial mediocrity – or, if you prefer, their self-loathing – by disparaging Surbiton as square and stuffy. How wrong they were. But maybe their sneers seeped in.

The good life was famous in Surbiton - Alamy

The good life was famous in Surbiton – Alamy

I should have thrown them into the Seething Wells. Now a campus of Kingston University, the place isn’t as smelly as it looks, the name is just a corruption of Siden Wells – which appears on 18th century maps. It has been recorded on railroad maps as a medicinal source. At the other end of town, on the outskirts of Kingston, is the River Hogsmill – a little further on in Tolworth is where Millais imagined the drowned Ophelia.

Specious etymologies say that Surbiton is a contraction of South Barton. But the name actually comes from the Old English “Sūth Bere-tūn”, meaning “southern barn”. It looks like a yokelly hamlet in Wessex and surprisingly Thomas Hardy wrote and published Far from the madding crowd while living here.

Wiser people than I have made Surbiton their home. Celebrities (I use the word as loosely as one of Margo’s caftans) 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 south-west of Surbiton near Weybridge – wealthier, often closed, more suited to successful artists. This is not a detail: Surbiton is neither London nor Surrey, neither ultra middle class nor confusingly “gravelly”. In a way it has a balance, a yin-yang quality, and while it doesn’t have the artificiality of a ‘model village’ it looks like a model of what a livable city should be . I see Surbiton as a sort of buffer between ideas and places. It is unpretentious, difficult to graft, homemade. Esher and Oxshott talk about brokerage money, football money, dodgy money. As the suburban queen once said, “Things like that just don’t happen in Surbiton.”

Chris Moss is the author of Smooth from Harrow: a compendium for London commuters.

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