I am happy, and I might add privileged, to count myself a resident of Esher, a well-heeled, well-bred suburban enclave in the ‘stockbroker county’ of Surrey.
I say privileged because Esher is regularly listed in surveys as one of the most desirable places to live in England. A twenty-minute commute from London, the town is home to thousands of investment bankers, lawyers and corporate high-flyers. A semi-rural oasis within the endless landscape of semi-detached uniformity within the M25, it offers a leafy sanctuary of gated communities overlooking golf courses, farms and unspoiled woodlands veined with bridle paths.
Esher is the kind of place Englishmen like to call “a nice part of the world”.
Sadly, it is also a soulless part of the world.
The town centre straddles a busy thoroughfare, the old Portsmouth Road, designated on maps as the A3. In the bygone days of British oceanic supremacy, it formed part of the highway linking London with its most famous and biggest naval port. The great Lord Nelson himself must have rattled through Esher dozens of times; Queen Victoria, too, on her way to her summer residence, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight – and one of her daughters lived in Esher, in a house built for Clive of India. Nowadays, though, with the town skirted by a three-lane by-pass, the road is merely traveled by locals, predominantly the speeding Range Rovers and BMWs operated by forever harassed suburban mothers.
I mention all this because the town’s dissection by the old A3 is a serious inconvenience; it tends to reduce Esher to little more than a drive-through. All the more reason therefore that its commercial establishment – dominated these days by restaurants, estate agents and kitchenware outlets – ought to make an effort to improve the place as an amenity, to make it attractive to diners and shoppers. It does no such thing. Nor does it, at this time of year, attempt to brighten the place up for the festive season.
Last night, for example, on the small green wedged between the town centre’s two traffic lanes, I attended a brief ceremony to switch on the Christmas tree lights. A small choir singing carols was drowned out by the roar of passing traffic. About twenty hardy residents, braving a wind-driven rain, joined them. The tree was a rather spindly specimen, with a few strands of white lights casually, almost apologetically, draped over it. Nothing could be done about the weather, of course, but the ‘celebration’ could have been more ardent.
But Esher doesn’t do ardent. Esher is an enclave of wealthy recluses.
The cost of the tree, as well as the organization of the ceremony, was borne by the Esher Business Guild, a fledgling group of local professionals and retailers attempting gallantly to make the town a more attractive, friendlier place. They are fighting a losing battle on both counts. Most of the town shopkeepers donate nothing to its seasonal decorations. Most don’t even take up the Guild’s invitation, for a relative pittance, to install a small, illuminated tree above their premises. “Times are hard,” they complain.
Hard times indeed they are, but in Esher?
Various of the Guild’s attempts to give Esher a genuine sense of community – a music festival and a regular weekend farmers markets among them – have all fallen flat. Nobody shows up. In this town, community spirit is a stranger, apathy the lord of the manor. Here, rich men in their castles pull up the drawbridge every night.
By contrast, the satellite village of Claygate and the nearby town of Cobham organise all manner of community attractions, drawing to them hundreds, sometimes thousands of residents. The lighting of the Christmas trees in Claygate and Cobham were genuine calendar ‘events’ this year, as they always have been. The contrast with Esher is clear and inexplicable.
If David Cameron’s Big Society concept is catching on in some parts hereabouts, Esher remains impervious to the idea, its residents loftily resistant to all attempts to undermine its stuffy image.
The surveys accurately point out that Esher is affluent and convenient. What they don’t mention is that it is haughty and cold.
If Esher were a woman she would be a stuck-up, fusty old maiden aunt, a modern Miss Havisham.