The name ‘Surbiton’ might have been created especially for the massive boom in suburbanisation of the 1930s, as the suited hordes poured out of inner London into freshly-minted speculatively-built housing with matching lawns, drives and decorations on the front door. The area has a unique and instantly recognisable place in British culture as the home of such suburbia, primarily because of The Good Life (probably more specifically, Felicity Kendal’s bottom) but also Stella Street, Monty Python and the like.
It would be easy to presume that Surbiton sprung entirely in this era: Paul Barker describes the process in Kenton of housing, followed by transportation, followed by commerce in the 1930s. In fact, records of Surbiton as a community in its own right start c.1178, although this was basically a farm which happened to become the location of an early phase of railway expansion, when the mainline was rejected from Kingston and a site had to be found further south. Today’s station is very much not from 1838, but is a monument to the art deco stylings of the 30’s, even more so than Charles Holden’s epic Piccadilly line stations, like Arnos Grove. After the advent of the railway, the community found itself growing, and received visitors and residents of the stature of Thomas Hardy, Enid Blyton, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.
Today’s Surbiton, the gateway to Esher, is the archetype of London suburbia. An entirely different ethnic composition than I am used to, a community based entirely around its proximity to London, and a high street dominated by chain stores. Nevertheless, there’s good charity shopping to be had in Surbiton, even late in the afternoon on a cold February Saturday. British Heart Foundation was as overly-displayed (and thus overly-crowded) as any, and Princess Alice Hospice and Oxfam were closed (earlier than stated, in the latter case, so watch out for that…). There is also, Google Maps informed us later, a Fircroft Trust shop tucked away on St Andrew’s Road – I can’t comment on that, but it is there on the Trust’s website.
That leaves a good but unmemorable Cancer Research and next door, an excellent Fara. The latter are consistently good charity shops in this part of the world (cf. Whitton and Richmond, particularly), and this was no exception: a basement level contains a good spread of menswear and a sizeable wedding dress section, while the upstairs has an entire section devoted to party dresses. It does what it says on the tin: it’s actual grown-up party dresses, of the like you’ll more often see on a Disney princess or a little girl. I managed to resist, although I did break my fiction embargo with Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.
The best in Surbiton was probably The Children’s Society. A somewhat camp extravaganza of feather boas and masquerade masks awaits you in the window, alongside antique sewing machines and a wicker elephant, and these are complemented inside by some, well, fabulous Tiffany-esque lamps. Some good stuff to be found here.
Surbiton’s a bit of a cliche to most, but it’s actually a very pleasant stop-over if you’re in the general Kingston direction, and I heartily recommend you to visit.
Find: Surbiton @ Google Maps
Consume with: a quick stop in the area meant that only Caffe Nero was sampled…
Visit: you’re in the vicinity of the Western-most point of South London’s great swathe of green, running from Bushy Park, through nearby Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common, right through to Blackheath in the East. Richmond is definitely worth a visit, larger than Hampstead Heath and entirely enclosed by wall.
Overall rating: four feather boas