Is Elmbridge Britain's Beverly Hills?
The Surrey borough has just been named the best place to live in the country, for the third year in a row. Now, footballers and celebrities are rushing to buy there. Oliver Bennett finds out why
Friday 21 January 2011
As I crossed Esher's fiendishly complicated village green – possibly the most top-end traffic island in the country – an Aston Martin almost ran me over. Still, it was quite flattering to be nearly killed by a key indicator, as such things are known in this part of Surrey.
Once again, the Surrey borough of Elmbridge, of which Esher is the hub, backed by Claygate, Cobham and Weybridge, has topped the Halifax's "best quality of life" survey for this country. OK, we're always hearing about how Vancouver gives great QoL, but Esher has the advantage of being half an hour away from London, still the global hub of celebs, tycoons and displaced plutocrats.
Read the Halifax report and it's like a different country from the rest of Britain. Elmbridgers have better school results, lower crime, better life expectancy, at 81.4 years, better employment, with a preponderance of over-a-grand-a-week workers, more room in their houses, better weather. They probably have better sex. It's Utopia in a neo-Georgian basket out here.
Of course, the district was always renowned as part of the Stockbroker Belt. Then in the Seventies, it became the Rockbroker Belt. Now they call it Superbia: the ultimate in five-star, opulent, out-of-town awesomeness. The stockbrokers have been joined by the light-ents and football crowd, and prices are high. A mansion in or near Esher will set you back nearly £5m.
So, who's in the area? John Terry. The Linekers. Lampard and Drogba. The Coles – give or take. Theo Paphitis from Dragons' Den. Television's Eamonn Holmes. Television's Chris Tarrant. Bollywood/Celebrity Big Brother star Shilpa Shetty.
Andy Murray. Max Clifford. Girls Aloud's Nicola Roberts. Peter Crouch. Ronnie Wood lives in Claygate, in a palatial gaff, Cliff Richard moved from Weybridge to Ascot four years ago, but something of his beneficence remains.
Waterloo's more discreet platforms whisk one via Metroland to Elmbridge, and I alight at Esher, where the station is faced by Sandown Park racecourse. Along with Epsom, Esher is a great racing town – another raison d'être and money magnet.
I nose into Knight Frank, one of several estate agents in the area. Inside there are Cyrillic brochures – an oddity on such an English high street – and literature for Esher's diffusion crowd with speech bubbles saying, "I thought Knight Frank only sold mansions in Claygate..." It's a variant of the Stella Artois "reassuringly expensive" campaign: you too can enjoy this prestige.
Alex Herman of Knight Frank is dismissive of Elmbridge's publicity, and a one-man myth-buster. "It's not all celebrities," he scoffs. Nor is it true that the former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho decreed that players should live within minutes of the nearby training ground, causing a celeb up-swell. Often footballers don't buy, due to the volatility of their career; they just rent for £5,000-£10,000 a month. "The truth is that 97 per cent is a domestic market of reasonably wealthy people," he says. "It's a London market outside of town."
Indeed, there's a bourgeois arc of transcendence: west London, then Esher/Elmbridge, then a village near Guildford when the kids leave and slippers go on. These are the three stages of life west London-style: a living version of that John Lewis advert.
Yes, but why is it quite such a big hitter? As Herman elaborates, there's a two-airport thing, an access-to-London thing, a within-the-M25 thing and a housing-stock thing. There was always a Weybridge effect, which was augmented in the Sixties and Seventies. There's an Elmbridge lifestyle magazine called Essence that carries a big photo story about John Lennon's time in nearby Tittenhurst Park, and since then, the celeb focus has ramped up. "It's an angle that journalists like," Herman withers. Weybridge is now for the international rich – the Indians, Russians, Chinese – while the celeb money has moved to Oxshott, near Cobham.
I walk over the road, taking care of personal-plated Aston Martins, Maseratis and Ferraris. There's a preponderance of kitchen shops, a deli, a spa or two, the Hair Club, which offers a "Brazilian blow-dry", and – key-indicator alert – a shop selling Farrow & Ball paint. Even the Oxfam shop sells a coffee table book about Porsches.
In Martin Moore kitchen shop, where a kitchen can cost £95,000, I meet William Rudgard and Pam Baker. "You really do see the Aston Martins in Waitrose car park," Pam confirms. "By day, you can still see the village. At night, it's different, glossier." Pam says she "can't afford to live in Esher myself" but confides that there is a degree of celebrity rubbernecking, and that she sees David "Kid" Jensen regularly. Now that's what I call a celebrity spot.
It's apparent that kitchens are important to Elmbridgers. They live off Poggenpohl and Gaggenau, and the social action is concentrated around the granite island, necking Taittinger. Elmbridgers also like media rooms, smart lighting systems. Their walls are often more plasma than plaster. Baths are never-lowly tubs.
Some ladies who lunch saunter by, on their way to the George – signature dish: lobster linguine – which is where I've been told the aspiring WAGs go to chat up expensive chaps over raspberry mojitos. Here I meet Jonathan Dunne, a local entrepreneur, who has an Esher hotel and another pub called the Albert Arms, which betrays its top-endishness by selling no fewer than 38 wines.
Dunne has just developed some £1.3m town houses behind the Odeon on the High Street and, unlike much of the country, is optimistic. "It's Knightsbridge with gardens," he beams. "It's hard to beat living in Esher." As it turns out, Dunne has even had a word with Beverly Hills about some kind of twinning arrangement. "It's true," he confirms. "I spoke to a guy from Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce." He's waiting for him to get back, but it's already become part of local folklore.
Dunne exercises the Esher positives. "Fifteen miles from the West End. Good shops. Good pubs. Stylish and comfortable." He leans over, and quietly explains the eminences of the various characters at the bar – they all turn out to be City brokers, this being a weekday. "If you put my Sunday lunch customers together they could probably hold Brazil to a draw." Still, he adds, the famous are happy in Elmbridge because they don't get hassled by the seen-it-all inhabitants.
He whizzes me out to see a place that has recently shifted for £12m. We agree it's nothing special, but that's not the point, is it? "Whoever bought it liked it," Dunne says. "That's the thing." I then go down to Oxshott and Cobham. Alex Herman has said that there the Chelsea training ground at Stoke d'Abernon, en route to Cobham, isn't a tourist attraction. But here on the wet weekday roadside is a group of chaps in the familiar blue shirt, holding autograph books expectantly.
A mile or two further is Oxshott, where many of the players are said to live. This is Crown Estate land, with private roads and grass verges. What happens behind these high hedges and electric gates? I'd wager there's a lot of hanging around the granite island and visits to Cobham village, to look at delis and kitchen shops, and perchance to get a Brazilian.
I park and stroll past the various mansions: some like mini-Chatsworths, a few Arts and Crafts-flavoured, and a growing smatter of Kentucky Fried Georgian mega-piles. The only people around seem to be gardeners, moving discreetly beyond the eerie remote gates of the mansions, which have names such as "Drumgath" and "Rush Leys". Each one's got an acre or so, separated from the others by walls and foliage.
They like them new here. Houses from the Fifties are often pulled down to be replaced by new mega-pads and the big developer is Royalton. "It's driven by developers here," Alex Herman says.
Oxshott is said to be a divorce hotzone, and it's odd to think that a little over 100 years ago, it was a pig-farming centre. As I leave on the other side of the estate, a silent, sinister unmanned gate closes behind the car. Elmbridge is having the last word.
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