Elmbridge is blissfully free of crime, dog excreta - and anyone under t he age of 60. Rosie Millard looks round
Suddenly, it's chic to be old. Richard Wilson is a cult figure; Mary Wesley got a New Year's honour; Barbara Windsor commands more respect now than she did in her Carry On days. Old people are not all lonely pensioners shivering in council tenemen ts; many are smart, discerning and independent people with money and energy.

The latest lifestyle choice for the vibrant elderly is the "retirement village", an American invention pitched somewhere between Club Med and Brookside, destined to become the apple of every estate agent's eye.

These villages began in the 1980s: nasty, low-rise blocks of flats with a warden poking about and horrid communal lounges providing a couple of easy chairs and a telly. Ten years on, the change is remarkable, as developers have realised. The idea isn't so much Age Concern as Credit Card Hotline. Retirement villages have become today's Barrett Homes, their brochures conjuring up pictures of clipped lawns and halcyon days. "Worry-free" and "luxury" are the buzzwords, with apartments boasting Neff ovens, smoke alarms and "Tudorbethan" architecture of "charm and character".

"We appeal to the A/B demographic category," says Ray Brown, whose £4m country mansion in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, has just opened complete with study, library, snooker room and restaurant. The 130 bungalows and cottages in the grounds are selling leasehold from £89,000. We are sitting in the administration block of Brown's previous triumph - Elmbridge Village - built for £5m in the moneyed Surrey enclave of Cranleigh, just outside Guildford. It is worth an estimated £23m. There are 40 people on the waiting-list. New residents are usually accommodated within two years, say the PR people. Wannabe owners who have their hearts set on a particular cottage have to sit it out until the previous incumbent dies. One couple waited four years to move in.

Elmbridge looks like a ski resort. Beyond impressive, flood-lit stone security gates, 221 gently gabled "apartments" are arranged in courtyards around a croquet lawn. Smartly dressed residents sit chatting on park benches or drive Ford Sierras, very slowly, down wide tarmac roads. There is no litter, or dog excrement, although there is a field behind the village where pets may be walked. At night, everything is well-lit. A waterfall tinkles gently in the distance, past the village grocery shop, This iscotton-wool old age.

Muriel Velde, 81, has lived alone in Elmbridge for 12 years. She walks into the residents' bar in a smart tweed suit, a silk Hermes scarf and perfectly sheer stockings. She is wearing lipstick and matching nail varnish. She looks fantastic.

"Moving here was the best thing I've ever done," says Mrs Velde. "It was a big step. I'd lived in the same house for 30 years; but I had a large garden, and my gardener died. Then I was at the mercy of some louts who were under contract to do the garden,and my home help was even older than I am. All in all, it was a nuisance." She gazes around happily. "I'm proud of being 81, but I couldn't deal with living in my old house."

Behind her is Elmbridge's restaurant. There are about 50 tables, all neatly set with napkins. It looks institutionalised, in a low-key, boarding-school sort of way. The restaurant serves three-course lunches every day. There isn't much call for dinner, so it closes in the evenings.

Mrs Velde doesn't seem to mind having exchanged independent existence for institutionalised life. Her former home and all her friends are 17 miles down the road in Horley, thus enabling her to keep up with all the local gossip. Eighty per cent of Elmbridge's "villagers" come from the surrounding area.

Each resident pays a yearly service charge of £1,500 for a one-bedroom "unit", (which costs from £60,000), or £1,950 for a two-bedroomed unit, (£78,000 to £110,000). This fee covers cleaning, building maintenance and 24-hour nursing care. Pressure pads in the halls of each home sound an alarm to the nurse if they're not walked upon twice a day; so if you collapse, it won't be the milkman who finds you three days later.

"People who move into smaller houses when they retire are stupid," says Mrs Velde. "It's just more of the same. If the tiles fall off my roof here, it's not my roof. Once you can come to terms with being a resident in Elmbridge, rather than the sole occupier of your house, it's fantastic."

The prospect of having more than 200 neighbours between 60 (the official entry age) and 100 doesn't worry Mrs Velde, who clearly does not envisage living out her days surrounded by rude teenagers, aggressive businessmen or uncomprehending foreigners. "When I told my friends I was going, some of them said, `They'll all be old.' I said, `That's precisely why I'm going.' "

"It's not an old people's home. You simply have to accept you are over 60," says Major Eric Payne, 76, who is head of the residents' association. Major Payne, an upright man with a thin moustache (circa 1943), spent 31 years in the Blues and Royals. He looks proudly around the small bar, which he runs. It is very clean and tidy, with bar mats and shiny bottles of whisky which hardly look touched. The village buys drink at warehouse prices and keeps the profit from any mark-up. Last year it made enough to buy a grand piano for the theatre.

"We all know we're going to die here, but we don't dwell on it," he says philosophically. "I was having a drink one Friday night here in the bar with poor old John Rolf. Then the next day he was gone. Stroke."

"I'm living on borrowed time," butts in Mrs Velde chirpily. "If I had to live with my daughter, I'd say I was living on stolen time. Her time. If you're going to live until you're old, you're going to be a problem to someone, and it's best it's not your family's problem. You have to plan for it. Even if I end up in a nursing home [Elmbridge does not offer full nursing care], I've planned which one I'm going to go to."

Ray Brown agrees. "The Government has made it clear that when you get older, it's your problem. And people are financially better off having a small investment in property." He believes that many property-owning pensioners are "trading down" - selling the large family home, buying a unit in a "quality" retirement village and living off the remaining capital.

"Our apartment looks straight on to fields and a canal," continues the Major, who lives here with his wife, Clare. "Before, we lived in real suburbia. And there's so much to do here."

He hands me a copy of the "village" newsletter, Elmbridge News. The sheet lists an enormous number of activities: visits from the Cranleigh Methodist Choir, an embroidery group, whist drives and something called Medau (apparently a form of yoga).

"We also have allotments," the Major adds. "Fruit and veg. I think it's jolly nice.

"If I outlive Clare, I'd carry on here. There are a number of widows and widowers. It would help. To move away would be a dreadful mistake." He stands up smartly. "I have to get a move on. I have to organise our Medau group in the theatre."

People are eagerly gathering outside the theatre. Inside, the brightly lit hall is set out with seats. A woman with a neck brace called Grace Ellis bounds up. She is a big Medau fan and also does ballroom dancing every week with her husband.

She gestures towards some oil paintings of spaniels. "I did them! I'd never painted before I came to Elmbridge. And I'm 77! Have you seen our screen?"

We wander over to a screen decorated with applique shapes referring to the four elements. "I did fire," says Mrs Ellis, modestly, "but another woman did the rest. Don't you think it's brilliant? She's gone now." Mrs Ellis looks pensively into the cloth flames of her fire. "Into a home."

Mr Ellis waves to us across the room: now is not the time to be thinking of homes. Behind him efficient-looking women are laying out fruit cakes which are to be raffled. I feel as if I have been transported back to the 1950s.

Elmbridge, with its restaurant, snooker room, croquet and theatre, seems to the onlooker much like a sort of up-market, greying Butlins, the sort of place many over-sixties would loathe. But with the growing alienation within urban communities, plus an alarming trend of violence against vulnerable, elderly people, the idea of Elmbridge - safe, well-lit and securely middle-class - must be a welcome one to those fearing the years ahead.

"There's some purpose to it all," says Elmbridge's librarian, 79-year-old Fred Scott. "You don't have old people sitting around a lounge going ga-ga or wandering about aimlessly waiting for God."

Mr Scott shows me round the library, whose 5,000 titles were all donated from domestic collections. "We've got everything here," says Mr Scott. "Joanna Trollope, Mills and Boon, Evelyn Waugh. We had 2,647 Book Movements this year."

He bends over to reach for a book from a lower shelf. "There's even the Kama Sutra! Yes, we've got two copies, and I can assure you they have been borrowed."