Farnham dull? No, this is Surrey with fringe benefits on top
hen I answered my mobile phone and told my friend where I was, he said: “Farnham? That’s a boring little town in Surrey, isn’t it?”
Well, up to a point. It is in Surrey and, as the taxidriver said as he drove me along the bypass: “There isn’t much to do here, except count the cars.”
But, architecturally, it is a different matter. The town grew up around the Bishop of Winchester’s palace, the land having been given to the Church in the 7th century. Much of its character, however, reflects the ministrations of Harold Falkner, an Arts and Crafts architect who loved brick. There are all sorts of brick flourishes here: such as brick quoins and Baroque cartouches surrounding tablets, on which lettering has been carved on to brick. Some of it is genuinely Queen Anne. Lovely.
I was in Farnham to visit the museum that occupies an early Georgian townhouse in West Street. Falkner is one subject of interest: the museum has his hat, which looks as though it may have been accidentally put through a washing machine. (He became something of a local character in old age.)
Another character was George Sturt, one of the great chroniclers of the Edwardian countryside, nearly all of whose books are now, alas, out of print. The son of a wheelwright, he trained to become a teacher but had to return to the family business when his father died. He was deeply uncomfortable with it. It did, however, give him the opportunity to study the men toiling in the workshops at close quarters. The skill with which a tree trunk was turned into a cart held an almost mystical fascination for him.
He lived in Farnham to begin with, but later retreated to Bourne.
Bourne is only just outside the town and has now virtually become joined to it, as part of a mini-conurbation. There are paddocks, lilac blossom, a pub called The Fox Inn and a Toyota garage. The sports centre, shared by Farnham Rugby Club, shaped Jonny Wilkinson.
But a century ago, Bourne really was rural, with many inhabitants employed in the hop fields (Farnham hops commanded a premium), as their forebears had been. Life could be grindingly hard. Yet, already, the first inkling of a different order had appeared. I retreated to a mahogany table in the museum’s local studies library to read Change in the Village, written under the pen name of George Bourne.
“The labourer can hardly look from his door without seeing up or down the valley some sign or other telling of the invasion of a new people, unsympathetic to his order.”
Tokens of social disintegration included the lights of villas, impinging on the primordial darkness of the night, the sounds of piano-playing, “the affected excitement of a tennisparty” and the “braying” of motorcars.
Hope might have survived in Wrecclesham, another village that has now been swallowed up by what might by called Greater Farnham. There, in 1872, Absalom Harris had founded a pottery which thrived, for a time, by making green glazed ware, inspired by (and originally copied from) Elizabethan examples. I did not find the pottery — said to continue, now making garden pots — but I noticed the Ceramics Cafe, perhaps an offshoot.
Camp Hill is a 17th-century house that George Sturt might have known. With six “spacious” bedrooms and three reception rooms, not to mention a pill box in the grounds, it is on the market for £1.3m (John D Wood, Farnham; 0845 330 0887). Savills is offering the mid19th century Hop Kiln, near Bourne Wood, for £1.25m (0845 815 1252). A goodlooking Victorian terraced house is on the market with Tarrant & Robertson for £695,000 (0845 688 6070). I can’t help wondering what Sturt would have made of these prices. Even someone with more up-to-date views than him would be struck by the bungalow that Savills has to offer on Middle Avenue. It is an example of cedar-shingle construction from the 1950s, one up from a prefab at the time it was built but now several steps higher than that, to judge from the asking price of £635,000. The estate agent’s description of this “singlestorey residence” is a masterpiece of the genre.
On the way home, I noticed collectors from Shelter seeking donations in the town centre, and someone tried to sell me the Big Issue at the railway station. Perhaps Sturt’s world is not as distant as one might think.
Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life.