Britain's alcohol problem: Our green and drunken land

Beneath the bucolic tranquillity lies a dark secret: the Surrey district of Runnymede contains the nation's biggest proportion of hazardous drinkers. Jonathan Brown reports

"How much do I drink?" pondered Linda Withers as she took another sip of Foster's lager served, as usual, in an oversized wine glass in the lounge bar of her local pub, the Rose and Crown. "Well, I don't fall over every day," she laughs. "But I admit we are a boozy lot."

The drinkers of Virginia Water and their well-heeled neighbours in the prosperous Runnymede area of Surrey have been branded problem drinkers. In a study by Liverpool John Moores University, the area topped the table for Britain's most hazardous drinkers. To qualify in the study as a hazardous imbiber it seems you must consume between 22 and 50 units of alcohol per week. In other words: two bottles of wine for men and one and a half for women.

The study has given rise to the thesis that Britain's wealthiest areas contain its most determined recreational drinkers – raising the fear that Middle England is sitting astride an alcohol time bomb set to explode some time soon with an epidemic of liver problems, heart disease and cancer.

And it doesn't come much more Middle England than Virginia Water. Just 40 minutes from Waterloo station, this is where Surrey becomes seriously leafy. A smallish house on the village's sought-after Wentworth Estate, where General Pinochet sat out his lengthy extradition hearings in well-appointed exile, will set you back £1.5m.

Its proximity to London and the quality of the local golf courses makes the village the epicentre of the stockbroker belt, a place where you might find yourself standing in the queue at the local Budgens next to celebrities such as Bruce Forsyth, Sir Elton John and Sir Cliff Richard.

But if the health prognosis was worrying Ms Withers, 67, she wasn't letting it show. "We were talking about cutting down this morning, but I said 'Why? We're nearly dead anyway'."

Her show of defiance was greeted with a roar of approval from fellow customers whiling away the early afternoon in this timber-beamed 14th-century coaching inn. "I'm cutting down," says the pub manager, Danny O'Leary, to more laughter. "I've given up drinking between drinks."

It is estimated the 26.4 per cent of people in Runnymede – one in four of the local population – are consuming alcohol in a hazardous fashion. The area ranked alongside other gin and Jag hot spots such as Harrogate inYorkshire, Surrey Heath and Guildford at the top of the table. The team of researchers found that while regular "everyday" drinkers predominated in wealthy areas, it was people in the industrial cities and towns of the North-west – Manchester, Liverpool and Rochdale – who were doing themselves most harm. There, between 7 and 9 per cent of drinkers were harming themselves on a regular basis by knocking back more than 50 units a week, resulting in soaring alcohol-related hospital admissions, crime and even death.

But it is the scale of the problem among middle-class drinkers that has sent delirium tremors through the posh suburbs and smart market towns of Britain.

For those who work to help people with drink problems, the figures confirm fears about the UK's burgeoning booze culture. "We are not surprised," said Mike Blank of Surrey Alcohol and Drug Advisory Service. "This is a very wealthy part of the country and people are often shocked that there are drink and drug problems in leafy Surrey. But if you are wealthy one of the things you can spend your money on is alcohol.

"People work very hard and very long hours. There is a high level of family break-up. These are all factors that drive people to seek refuge and relief in alcohol."

One of the biggest problems, he said, was a general level of ignorance and lack of information among people over exactly how much they were drinking and the strength of their preferred tipple.

One middle-aged woman, who was unloading a case of Australian Chardonnay into the back of her people carrier on Virginia Water's main shopping street, appeared to confirm this. While she was happy to talk about her drinking she did not want to give her name.

"I don't want all my friends at the bridge club knowing what I am up to," she said. "My husband says you have to have a glass of red wine every night, though I prefer white. People have different views about the health benefits and that is ours."

As for how much she was drinking each week, she admitted she didn't count, though the figure was close to two and a half bottles – excluding dinner parties. And far as giving up was concerned she was aghast at the suggestion. "Goodness. No."

That Virginia Water has a taste for wine is, perhaps, unsurprising, but the growth in the demand has been rapid. A new wine warehouse opened this year, and Sonny Jaffri recently established The Wine Circle, an upmarket independent wine merchants where bottles of the finest clarets can sell for anything up to £700 a go.

The flavour of this month, apparently, is a "beautiful" Burgundy, a £29.99 Moray-Saint-Denis premier cru, currently shifting at the rate of between eight and 10 cases a week. "There are some very heavy drinkers in the area," he says. We see that in our restaurant. But the danger lies when people drink every day, well in excess of accepted limits.

"You can see people over a period of time being affected, people who three or four years ago were a little bit quicker and more effective. If you drink for 15 to 20 years like that it will have an effect."

Of course not all the residents of this corner of Surrey are boozing themselves into an early grave. Rates for liver disease are well below the national average, while longevity rates are higher than poorer areas.

What clearly irks people here, however, is the sense that it is now the middle classes who are being targeted by an increasingly overreaching and nanny-ish state.

Geoff O'Connell and Melanie Demariveles were enjoying an admirably alcohol-free lunch at The Wine Circle restaurant yesterday. She says she will drink once a week, while he enjoys "quite a lot" three times. Both are looking forward to a drink while watching this Saturday's Rugby World Cup Final.

"It is very much a case of the nanny state. It is getting so bad that you can't do anything without it being bad. It seems they are trying to control everything – whether it is obesity yesterday, milk the day before that or crisps. But then that is a Labour government for you," says Mr O'Connell, who has recently retired after selling his business. "If you listen to everything the Government said, you wouldn't eat anything," his dining partner agrees.

For Mike Blank, who spends his working life helping problem drinkers referred to him by doctors, courts and concerned families, the key to imbibing sensibly is understanding the risks and taking responsibility for your own actions.

"We don't want to point the finger and say to people you shouldn't be drinking too much. People assess the risks of all sorts of behaviour whether it is when driving, taking drugs or eating too much. People go though phases of their lives where they drink more and sometimes when they drink less."

He recommends that people who think they might have a problem should begin by taking a self-assessment test and then setting themselves goals such as not drinking on certain nights or interspersing alcoholic drinks with water at dinner parties.

But the underlying fact is that alcohol is much more readily available and cheaper than it has ever been before. "There is an assumption that people who have drink and drug problems are unemployed or have dropped out of society. This survey proves this simply isn't true," says Mr Blank.

Meanwhile, back in the Rose and Crown, Brian Ashworth is enjoying a quiet pint – one of 25 he savours each week – in the autumnal sunlight slanting in through the pub windows. Outside on the green, the leaves on the trees are a riot of oranges, reds and browns. It is an idyllic scene and one which feels both timeless and safe. "I am 67 years old and have been drinking all my life. I was in the Army when you drank on every occasion possible. People work hard and people like to enjoy themselves," he concludes.

But the last word goes to Linda Withers who says she has recently taken up drinking gin and tonics while cooking – chef's perks as she calls it. "I feel about 21 and am ready to go," she says. "It is the booze that keeps me young." Everyone in the pub agrees.

Hazardous drinking hot spots

Runnymede: 26.4%

Harrogate: 26.4%

Surrey Heath: 26.0%

Guildford: 25.5%

Mid Sussex: 25.5%

Mole Valley: 25.5%

Leeds: 25.3%

Elmbridge: 25.3%

Waverley: 25.2%

Woking: 25.0%

Percentage of adults aged over 16 regularly drinking between 22 and 50 units per week (men) and 15 to 35 units per week (women)

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