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)

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit