diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 19, 2015

Beyond London (7): Elmbridge (part 1)

Unless you've lived there, or nextdoor, you probably have no idea where Elmbridge is. This rural-sounding Surrey borough was created in 1974, combining Esher with Weybridge and Walton-on-Thames. It lies almost entirely within the M25, indeed much of northern Elmbridge is closer to central London than Hillingdon and Havering. It's a wealthy district, once nicknamed England's Beverly Hills, and divided approximately in half by the meandering River Mole. And it's not especially touristworthy, other than being suburbanly picturesque with some glorious open spaces. I arrived by London bus.

Route K3: Surbiton → Esher
The K3 starts by Wimbledon Common and runs through Kingston, but I boarded at the last stop in London, alongside the marginally anomalous Victoria Recreation Ground. Ahead are the leafy avenues of Elmbridge, budding nicely at present, and ablaze with pink and white blossom. Indeed many of the front gardens and verges along the route appear to have been planted with trees chosen specifically to make mid-April a triumph of verdant colour. At first the suburbs merge into one, the first being Long Ditton, sibling of the more well known Thames. Next up (following the railway viaduct) is Hinchley Wood, whose shopping parade surrounds a gated garden and includes such demographically telltale outlets as a hardware store, an osteopath and a fruiterers. TfL is the only bus provider in this corner of eastern Elmbridge, delivering pensioners home from Waitrose and schoolboys to Saturday morning football. On the approach to Claygate the house type switches briefly from "large semi-detached" to "detached with a plot of land". Volunteers of all ages in community tabards are busy clearing litter from the triangular village green, part of an occasional Clean Up Claygate blitz organised by the parish council. Here the K3 heads off round a residential loop, only a couple of streets from Chessington World of Adventures the other side of the A3 Esher Bypass. In a rare show of electoral intent two (and only two) neighbours have erected posters in their front gardens, antagonistically announcing their support for opposing Coalition parties. The main church is a turrety gothic affair, unusually double-spired, while the shopping parade by the station provides everything a stockbroker and their spouse might locally require. Past more magnolia and cherry, the K3 turns eventually onto Claremont Lane, where finally the homes are large enough to be generally gated. And at the top of the hill we reach Esher town centre, a close-knit triangle of estate agents and civic greenery, round 95% of which the bus circulates before terminating. Almost London, but clearly not.
by train: Surbiton, Hinckley Wood, Claygate  by bus: K3

Somewhere sporting: Sandown Park
Surrey's a very horsey county, so it's no surprise to find three top class racecourses across the northern fringe of the county - Epsom Downs, Kempton Park and Sandown Park. The latter is Britain's first purpose-built racecourse, and covers the broad slope above the railway to the west of Esher station. The main entrance is close to the town centre, across an enormous car park that welcomes shoppers on non-race days. Indeed there's a glassy corporate look to the facade, which it turns out is because there's a conference centre behind there, which yesterday was hosting the South East Baby and Toddler Show. Parents and parents-to-be flocked across the car park pushing offspring on wheels and clutching printed-out tickets. Next weekend the racing takes over again with the official end to the National Hunt season (that's 'jumps' to you and me), where £28 will get you inside to watch top jockeys including the retiring AP McCoy. If other sports are your bag then Sandown Park has diversified with you in mind, with a half-mile go-kart track laid out inside the equine circuit, as well as a nine hole golf course and (this time outside) a dry ski slope and fitness centre. Head down the back lane to the rear entrance and you can wander into the site unchallenged, at least when no racing's taking place, and stand between the rails where hooves will (next week) thunder past.
by train: Esher  by bus: K3

Somewhere historic: Claremont Landscape Garden
To the south of Esher, about a mile down the Portsmouth Road, is a beautiful 300 year-old garden once graced by royalty. Claremont was kicked off in 1709 by architect Sir John Vanbrugh, and promptly sold to rising star the Duke of Newcastle, a Whig who'd later become Prime Minister. The Duke threw a fortune into redeveloping Claremont, replacing the house with a Palladian mansion, and bringing in landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman to refashion the grounds in formal style and create a serpentine lake. So proud of Claremont was the Duke that he eventually died here, the estate passing on to Robert Clive (of Of India fame) who brought in Capability Brown, because it seems everybody at the time did. In 1816 Claremont became home to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and his young wife Princess Charlotte, the only child of the future George IV. Alas Charlotte died the following year after a stillbirth, sending the entire country into a prolonged period of mourning, and Leopold built a mausoleum for her overlooking the lake. Queen Victoria used to visit when still a princess herself, enjoying the rare freedom that staying with her Surrey uncle made possible. The mansion now survives as a private school, and most of the estate was sold off for housing, but what remains of the garden has since the 1940s been under the care of the National Trust.

Spring's a fine time to visit the Claremont Landscape Garden, with green budding out all over, although the grounds are currently post-daffodil/pre-bluebell so less colourful than they could be. Paths meander around and above the lake, on whose banks geese strut and milky-white doves coo, with a pavilion hidden in the trees on the central island. This is about as far as most young families get, settling down on the lawns or swarming over the playground allowing toddlers to tire themselves out. Others venture up the tiers of the grassy amphitheatre, perhaps tumbling down the ridges with glee, or even find the kiddie-friendly thatched cottage in the woods. But few yesterday explored the upper extremities and backwoods trails where I enjoyed peace and landscaped contemplation. One of the best panoramas can be seen from the former mausoleum, marked by a simple plaque, or gazing up the long drive towards the castle-like Belvedere, alas a brick mirage (and out of bounds in the school grounds nextdoor). Prince Leopold's glasshouse has long gone, but several of the camellias within have survived, currently bursting and dropping blooms, with some of the specimens on the top terrace amongst the oldest camellias in the country. I spent an hour a-wandering, and another half with tea, my camera fully satisfied. [6 photos]
by bus: 515 (hourly) (or a 25 minute walk from the terminus of the K3)

Nearby: The Homewood - a Modernist home on West End Common, again under the care of the National Trust, accessible only by booked minibus tour from Claremont on alternate Fridays/Saturdays from April to October. Alas it was Friday this week, so I need to come back.
Nearby: Esher Common - a large area of acid soil heathland, part of an extensive network of commons hereabouts, and not quite desecrated by the pylons and the A3 dual carriageway carving through. Ideal for dog walking, hunting down large dammed ponds, and foresty treks.

(part 2 tomorrow)

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