Farewell then, Cobham. You were the place I ran to when the metropolis became too much, and urban life overwhelmed me. You were to me a shining beacon of blandness in an otherwise frighteningly exotic world. I loved you and held you in mythical esteem. In times of disappointment, I yearned for you every bit as much as Margo Leadbetter did.
‘Cydney! We’re moving to Cobham!’ I would shout at the spaniel whenever Lambeth Council did something Marxist, which was often.
We didn’t ever quite move to Cobham, but we kept the horses there. For nearly 15 years, this gave us a bolthole down the A3 to escape to, from Balham. We would get in the car — after going to get the car from a street in Streatham, obviously, because we couldn’t afford a £300 permit to park it outside the house — and our hearts would leap at the thought of what lay ahead in a convenient 40-minute drive. We would sail down that lovely road, passing Charrington Bowl and B&Q New Malden, before the suburbs melted without fanfare into the green fields of Surrey.
Turning off the A3, we would stop at Ockham Common for a dog walk, perhaps a tuna baguette at the café in the car park, and a friendly chat with the owner or his staff, a member of whom once asked if he could cover me in plaster of Paris and make a mould of me. I’m not entirely sure what that was about but I think he meant well.
In any case, this was a friendly place. Too friendly, really, because it became a very popular dogging site which was designated by Surrey Police as a ‘public sex environment’. It really wasn’t practical to stop off for a dog walk after, say, 4.30 p.m., because that was rush hour when the men in company saloons would come for a quick one on the way home to their wives. ‘Ooh, lamb chops,’ I once heard one of them say into his mobile phone, as he walked back through the trees to his Vauxhall Vectra, zipping up his flies. ‘My favourite, darling. I’m on my way home now. I’ve just finished my meeting.’
After a dog walk we would visit the horses and ride on the common, taking care to avoid the occasional daytime dogger in the bushes.
But while we could cope with these minor imperfections, it became clear that things were on the slide on a grander scale. Plans for 2,100 homes were pressing ahead. Farmland was to be turned into a ‘new town’, with blocks of flats, leisure facilities, affordable homes and a traveller site. All very well, I’m sure, but not really what Margo and I had in mind.
It started to ruin the whole concept of Cobham. I’m sorry, dear Cobham, but it did. And then, of course, we managed to break up with the builder boyfriend, so we didn’t really want to be bumping into him every five minutes.
So the spaniel and I began to look for a new place to escape to. And we came up with Dorking. We found a livery yard at the edge of the Surrey Hills, surrounded by National Trust land, which even Nick Boles would have a hard job ruining.
I’m fairly sure you can’t build on National Trust land yet. Hopefully, it will take a few years before an offshore developer, in league with some dopey local councillors, manages to persuade a government with no very heartfelt policies to allow them to concrete over the Surrey Hills for a billion pound profit in the name of ‘localism’.
So farewell Cobham, hello Dorking, especially designed to rhyme with walking. This is because one does a lot of walking in Dorking. And it usually involves a hill or 17. Once the horses were safely ensconced in their new home, the spaniel and I went exploring. We went up hill and down dale and even the dog got tired.
At one point I had to hang upside down gasping for breath. And I longed for you, Cobham — oh flat, boring, lovely Cobham. Functional, neat, manicured Cobham with the sort of countryside you can walk around in your Louboutin heels.
But we must put these fainthearted notions aside. If we want the real deal, sans dogging, sans ‘new town’, with affordable housing, retail park and traveller site, we must be prepared to climb a few hills. And get our feet stuck in some really deep mud. And trip over a few rocks and stones. And suffer a hernia.
The view up here really is something. From certain vantage points, I fancy I can see Waitrose on the junction of Oakdene Parade. But it’s probably just a mirage.