Down the A3 to the Middle Ages

The saturday story; The picture-postcard Utopia that is haven for the rich revealed its uglier side this week: snobbish, mean-minded, selfish, hypocritical. Peter Popham journeyed to a corner of England caught in a time warp: Surrey
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There is a corner of the Home Counties where the inhabitants live longer than elsewhere in Britain, where they earn more money, live in more splendid houses, drive more and bigger cars, enjoy more beautiful scenery. It is the lucky county, a little bit of California on the River Wey. It's called Surrey. It's also the county where this week 13-year- old Laurie Briggs was banned from a "families" golf competition because he was an adopted child.

Surrey is the epitome of southern England's picture-postcard charm. But it is also the incubator of all southern England's nastiest little ways, as the Briggs story exemplified: snobbish, mean-minded, selfish, hypocritical.

In case anyone has forgotten, the story went like this: at Burhill Golf Club, near Walton-on-Thames in one of the choicest parts of the county, Laurie, Brazilian by birth, had already progressed to the third round when another member complained that he was ineligible to play in the competition, and he was duly disqualified. Only after a vast hullabaloo in the media - including the sort of papers which enjoy big Surrey circulations - was the ban reversed. For petty unpleasantness it was a tale that took some beating.

Surrey looks backwards to a past that is too pretty and perfect ever to have been true, and forwards to a future of ever-increasing privilege, ever-increasing disparity between the folks on the hill and the proles in the Kwik-Save. Surrey holds up a mirror to the aspirational middle- class values of the late Nineties. Look into it and squirm.

The county is, of course, one of the truest blue corners of the country, and the present clutch of MPs provides some useful clues to the Surrey breed.

Lady Olga Maitland, who represents Sutton and Cheam on the northern border of the county, is a Surrey person pushed to the point of parody, with her shrill hounding of criminals and scroungers; she is also a real toff, which may explain why Sutton and Cheam took her to its aspiring bosom (she had failed to endear herself to at least 20 other constituencies before).

Kenneth Baker, the smarmiest man in the House, with his prim vowels and his unctuous grin, is a fair representative of the species; the head- girlishness of Virginia Bottomley captures another aspect of the Surrey soul.

Yet the people who have done most to draw attention to the county over the past 25 years are rock stars. A form of life less compatible with the Toryism of the county is hard to imagine: yet a succession of millionaire rockers has settled here, including various Beatles, Eric Clapton, sundry members of Status Quo, Roxy Music and 10CC. And while they may still wear funny clothes and even pick up a guitar once in a while, it's a fair guess that Surrey changed them more than they changed Surrey.

They became part of the scene. When one Surrey property developer prominent in the Sixties, who has spent his wealth sedulously turning himself into a Surrey squire, staged a local miniature sort of Glyndebourne for the diversion of the locals out Cobham way, in what they like to call High Surrey, Clapton himself turned up to play a set by the lake.

That is life among Surrey's immortals. The downside for ordinary people living amidst such a landscape of achievement is the social neurosis that pervades the county's life.

"Surrey has its own particularly hard kind of snobbery," says a local teacher who commutes every day from London.

"A friend of mine who recently moved to the county took her child along to a playgroup, and was dismayed when she got a rather cold reception. It was quietly pointed out to her that there was another playgroup it might be more suitable for her child to join. Socially the two were practically indistinguishable. She was baffled. Then she discovered that she came from the wrong side of the road.

"People in Surrey are very aware of their position on the ladder. They say things like, 'Addlestone [a relatively poor village] is where you live while you're waiting to move on to Weybridge'."

The most vital ingredient of Surrey's appeal is its distinctness from London. Driving southwest towards Guildford on the A3, one quite suddenly emerges from the long shapeless expanse of Tudorbethan suburbs; and this is one of southern England's most brilliant effects, because suddenly you have arrived back in the Middle Ages, before the clearing of the forests.

Here you are, only a few miles out of Europe's biggest city, and the ancient deciduous woodland stretches in wave after wave to the horizon, broken only (it seems) by this fast, sinuous road.

This is is the most complete of Surrey's deceptions, the most successful of its lies. We are not in real countryside, but green belt. Surrey has little true country: farmers constitute 0.8 per cent of the county workforce - half the national average.

Over huge swathes of Surrey, the gorgeous green cover is densely infested with commuting life.

But it is certainly beautiful. And at about the same moment that the scenery dramatically improves, the rain clouds flee away and the sun comes out. I left London in a dank drizzle, and arrived in Cobham on a lovely autumn day.

I mentioned this fact to the Scottish woman serving me in Cobham's book shop. Her face flushed with complacent pride. "Och, that's what it's like down here," she trilled, beaming. "It always seems to turn out nice in these parts!"

That's the way it seems to these lucky people: a vista of permanent niceness. But those who have scaled the ladder of wealth emerge beyond the clouds into the realms of the awesome. This culminates, for the seriously rich, in a mansion in the guarded, gated estate of St George's Hill, on the outskirts of Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames, which is claimed to be the most exclusive and expensive estate in the country. The smallest houses here cost pounds 600,000, and the grandest mansions several million.

One cannot simply walk around St George's Hill at will. On the other private estates around these towns, which are numerous, zealously implemented Neighbourhood Watch schemes mean that any outsider gets a frank stare if he ventures to wander around. At St George's Hill, however, you don't even get past the front gate without a good reason. So I decided to start shopping around for a half-million pound home for my parents, whereupon a Weybridge estate agent was happy to give me a tour.

The estate is so large that it contains a full-sized golf course, which runs through the middle of it. Like much of wealthy Surrey, the estate inhabits a strange, idealised rich man's past, where the trees are deciduous and mature, the architecture is vaguely (but imposingly) Queen-Anne or Georgian, but the Bentleys are the latest model, the fabric of the house is likewise brand new, and the subsidiary entrances to the estate are guarded by closed-circuit television. The mansions have grand names like Somerton House or Edgeworth; elderly ladies in tweed exercise small dogs along the meandering, deserted lanes in the shade of the big trees.

Time has stopped here at some perfect but unspecifiable point between the 1820s and the 1920s. Many of the newest houses are so huge they must have numerous staff. One imagines them touching their forelocks and living Downstairs.

The rich irony of St George's Hill is that, distinct from the fake past in which it is engrossed, it has a real history which speaks of an utterly different English tradition.

In 1649, after the Civil War, a labourer called Gerrard Winstanley, who herded cows in Walton-on-Thames, had a vision in which he was instructed to publish it abroad that "the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons". It was a vision of communist utopia, and on 1 April that year, Winstanley and up to 100 followers invaded St George's Hill and began to dig the land, insisting by their actions that the land belonged to everyone. They were called the Diggers: the community they instigated here lasted a year before it was finally put to flight.

The action of the Diggers was the high point of the English revolution that never happened. Winstanley was its prophet. "In the beginning of time," he wrote, "the great creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury ... But ... selfish imaginations ... did set up one man to teach and rule over another. And thereby ... man was brought into bondage ... And hereupon the earth ... was hedged into enclosures ... And that earth that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respecter of persons, delighting in the comfortable livelihood of some and rejoicing in the miserable poverty and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so ... "

Winstanley's revolution was not merely put to flight; here on St George's Hill its utter opposite has been erected. If Winstanley's ghost were to wander these shady lanes, you would surely know it by the sound of uncontrollable weeping.