Austen’s other county
Eleanor Doughty delights in the characterful villages of Surrey, the setting for picnics and summertime matchmaking in Jane Austen’s Emma, as well as some fine properties
IT is a truth universally acknowledged that Surrey is very, very lovely. It’s also well known that, if you live on the A3 corridor between Guildford and Oxshott, you can make the dash to London in just over an hour; that a private estate exists called St George’s Hill, where John Lennon once lived; and that, in Surrey, the Range Rovers never get dirty, because there’s no mud in Cobham.
This is not the real Surrey. No, the real Surrey is leafy and green—in fact, it’s ‘the most wooded county in England,’ says Mark Crampton of Middleton Advisors—with its own AONB, the Surrey Hills. And this year, it’s due a celebration, thanks to the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, the woman who put Box Hill, the county’s best bit, on the map.
Austen is often, and rightly, associated with Hampshire. She was born in Steventon, near Basingstoke, in 1775 and, in 1817, was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral. However, her masterpiece, Emma, published in 1815, is set in the fictional Highbury and Hartfield, in the very real county of Surrey.
She writes of Box Hill, summit of the North Downs, which is the setting for a socially disastrous picnic, despite the ‘burst of admiration’ inspired by the landscape, and Cobham, too, where Emma’s sister, Isabella Knightley, is reassured that ‘there is no scarlet fever’.
It’s the beauty spots around Box Hill, now owned and run by the National Trust, that intrigue the most. These villages, which perhaps inspired Austen, are slightly off the beaten track and offer a different narrative to the Surrey stereotype. The ‘clean’ Range Rover vision is a Home Counties thing, ‘not necessarily a Surrey thing,’ Mr Crampton emphasises. ‘In the northern part of Surrey—esher, Cobham, Weybridge—you will see a lot of it, but not everywhere.’
In the picture-postcard-pretty villages of Mickleham, nestled in the Mole Valley, Brockham, at the foot of the North Downs, and Wonersh, in the AONB, what you’ll get is timberframed houses, hunting with the Surrey Union and a string of thoroughly mucky cars.
In these villages, Mr Crampton says, you’ll find those whose time working 7am-at-thedesk jobs in the City has petered out. ‘Instead, it’s the guys who’ve been there and done that and are now working in a hedge fund or they’ve sold their business, so life is slightly different now. It’s more about family and schools and they’re more likely to be working from home or going up to London on a later train.’
In short, those in the neighbourhood are slightly older—‘perhaps the chairman, not the chief executive’, Mr Crampton suggests—as are their children, who are at public school, not prep.
Of course, this covetable situation comes at a premium. House prices remained robust through 2016, says Daniel Burstow, head of Strutt & Parker Guildford (01483 306565). Many of his sellers are taking part in National Open House Day on May 13: ‘We open the doors to all of our sales offerings on the same day, so buyers can move freely from one house to another without any pressure.’
One such property is the eight-bedroom Millwater, a grade Ii-listed Tudor house with a leisure barn, two miles from West Byfleet train station and on the market with Strutt & Parker (01483 378290) for £6.5 million. It’s situated off the A3 between Cobham and Ockham—prime commuterville.
Richard Winter, head of Surrey, Berkshire and West Sussex for Savills (01372 461900) explains that the realistic range starts at £450,000, but that anywhere up to ‘£2 million can buy you a very lovely home’.
‘This is not the real Surrey. No, the real Surrey is leafy and green