Welcome to Celebrity Central

Chris Evans isn't the only one to have set up home just outside the quaint Surrey town of Godalming. Oh no. In fact, so many members of the rich and famous have moved here the Mayor carries a prompt card to remind her who's who
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The Independent Online

The Mayor of Godalming roots around inside her handbag and produces a prompt card. It's a necessary aid, so often is she asked to reel off the names of stars living locally. For Godalming in Surrey - or Celebrity Central, as it has been dubbed - is at the heart of a group of villages, all within a nine-mile radius of the town, which have become home to dozens of members of that select group known as the Rich and Famous. This week, Chris Evans, who bought a mansion in the area in January, became the latest local to feature on news pages, following complaints by neighbours about alterations to his £6m home.

The Mayor of Godalming roots around inside her handbag and produces a prompt card. It's a necessary aid, so often is she asked to reel off the names of stars living locally. For Godalming in Surrey - or Celebrity Central, as it has been dubbed - is at the heart of a group of villages, all within a nine-mile radius of the town, which have become home to dozens of members of that select group known as the Rich and Famous. This week, Chris Evans, who bought a mansion in the area in January, became the latest local to feature on news pages, following complaints by neighbours about alterations to his £6m home.

Cllr Maureen Nyazai takes a deep breath as she starts at the top of her two-sided list. ''We've got Ringo Starr, who has just moved into Cranleigh. Eric Clapton used to live very, very close but I think he's now moved out. Anthea Turner, of course, and Grant Bovey have just moved into Dunsfold.

''Damon Hill has just moved in with his family to Hambledon. Roger Taylor from Queen has lived at Thursley for some years, and Penelope Keith lives just outside the boundary of the town. Sir Harry Secombe lives in Shamley Green. Phil Collins used to live in Shalford, but I think he's now moved abroad. David Shepherd, the wildlife artist, has lived just outside the boundary for many years.

''Bruce Grobbelaar lives in Ewhurst, Chris Evans lives at Hascombe, and David Coulthard, I'm reliably informed, has just bought a house just outside the town. Rick Parfitt from Status Quo lives locally, and I've just been told that Jim Davidson lives at Ewhurst. And somebody else told me this morning that David Jacobs, the disc jockey from perhaps my era, lives locally as well,'' says Cllr Nyazai, adding that she used to live opposite Terry Scott in Witley.

The mayor believes there may even be more of them out there. Indeed, Christine Napthine, Godalming district reporter for the Surrey Advertiser, can name others. Former Genesis singer Mike Rutherford lives in Ewhurst, and Tony Banks, the band's keyboard player, lives in Wormley. Then there's Gary Brooker, formerly of Procul Harum, whose most famous hit was "Whiter Shade of Pale", who lives in the same road as Anthea Turner, and Virginia Bottomley who lives in Milford.

''Some of them you don't see at all,'' says Cllr Nyazai. ''But there's a hard core of them who come into Godalming, and when they do they're very much left alone. We don't have massive crowds swamping them. We're used to having celebrities walking around doing their shopping. Their privacy is respected. We're a well-behaved crowd in Godalming.''

One reason why celebrities don't get mobbed in Godalming may be because some residents have no idea who they are. One such is Tom Major, 81, a retired machinist, who was born in the town. Has he ever seen Chris Evans? ''I've never heard of him,'' he admits. What about Anthea Turner? ''I recognise the name, but I can't place her.'' Roger Taylor? ''That's not the tennis bloke, is it?''

Cynthia Civil, 53, a retired university administrator from the town, says she has only ever spotted the late Terry Scott and Virginia Bottomley. ''I'm short-sighted and never wear my glasses, I could pass them and not even notice,'' she confesses. One resident, who declined to be named, has had more luck. ''I've seen Chris Evans in Waitrose. I've seen Kate O'Mara - she used to live here, and Alvin Stardust whose his mother lives here.''

Indeed, the town's Waitrose and Sainsbury's are particularly good for celebrity spotting, as are village fêtes, says reporter Christine Napthine. ''It's quite nice when you see all these famous faces wandering about doing their daily business. You never know who you are going to see around the next corner,'' she says.

''The celebrities in this area are great, they are very supportive of local events, and are more than happy to open them and chat to people. Damon Hill and his son were manning a stall at the recent Hambledon village fête.''

So why have so many celebrities moved in? Colin Swait, associate director of Hamptons International in Godalming, where a detached family home starts at £300,000, says one of the main reasons is the fact that the town lies only 34 miles from the capital. ''It's got very good communications to London,'' he explains. ''The A3 is probably one of the best routes in and out. The train service, although the rolling stock is awful, is pretty efficient. And it's in unspoilt countryside - we are in the green-belt so there is no new building effectively.'' Often, top of a celebrity's list of requirements is privacy, which the area, with its leafy lanes, and long sweeping driveways offers aplenty. Other essential needs that can be catered for include space to land a helicopter, swimming pools, tennis courts and staff cottages.

The town, which has a population of 22,000, also had a number of famous residents whose lives ended in tragic circumstances. The mountaineer George Mallory was a master at the town's Charterhouse school (as was Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who conquered Everest, the peak on which Mallory died). Jack Phillips, chief wireless operator on the Titanic, was also a local. His memorial is the largest to a victim of the Titanic in the world, says John Young, a volunteer at the town's museum. ''Southampton has 60 memorials all around the city, but you could put all 60 into our Godalming one,'' he says.

It is debatable, however, whether residents of Hascombe would put up a memorial to Chris Evans, should he meet an untimely end. Neighbours have already complained about the alterations to his Edwardian mansion, Hascombe Court, provoking a visit by Waverley borough council.

But at the White Horse, Evans's local, landlady Sue Barnett insists the Virgin Radio disc jockey is popular in the village. ''This thing about the village not liking him isn't true: most people think he's great. He's done some nice things - he's bought the cricket team's whites, and he's supplying lots of stuff for the village fête [on Saturday].

''He's a really nice guy. When we heard he was coming to the village we thought 'Oh my goodness' - we had heard all sorts of outrageous things about him. But he's really quiet - we're noisier than he is. He doesn't want to be made a fuss of, that's why we like him so much. He comes in once or twice a weekend when he comes down from London, which is about every other weekend. He has his lunch or dinner here because he hasn't got the house finished.''

Landlord James Ward says the pub tries to stop celebrity customers being pestered by fans. ''We try and police it a bit, so they feel they can come in here and enjoy themselves.''

While the pub is enjoying a swell in famous customers - Damon Hill, Anthea Turner and Grant Bovey have also recently visited - not every star would be welcomed. ''The only celebrity we haven't had in is Michael Winner,'' says Ms Barnett, "and we don't want him. Please don't put that in because he will be here like a shot. We dread him coming in."

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