Modern Times

Modern Times

The Coronation of our present Queen was the first to be watched on television by thousands of Surrey people. The event was a renewal of the camaraderie and sense of unity which had existed during the dark days of the war. Now, whole streets of people, sometimes crammed into one living room, sat glued to a nine inch square piece of glass. Outside there were street parties and parades in every town and village and optimism was in the air. The disappointing hardships following an expensive war had gone on far too long, but things were beginning to change. It was a time to rebuild – to throw out the old and bring in the new.

In Surrey, as in many other parts of Britain, ‘bringing in the new’ often meant the wholesale destruction of anything ‘old’ which was in the way. In many of our towns ‘worthless’ old buildings gave way to modern shops and tall office blocks and the human scale was lost. Other important factors also influenced the rapid changes taking place. As prosperity returned, the number of cars in the county began to increase dramatically. Planners sought to alter the town to fit the car. In Croydon, for example, during the 1960s the old town almost completely disappeared to be replaced with tower blocks and a town centre traffic fly-over. All this attracted the money of London city firms looking for cheaper office space and brought prosperity to the town. It is questionable whether it was a price well paid.

The Saxon town of Kingston also bowed to the pressures of developers but at least the character of its ancient market place has been retained. The Victorian railway towns of Woking and Redhill have also been extensively redeveloped in recent years. In Woking’s case it seems to have happened twice in the last 15! Gone are most of the original buildings, just as the patina of age was beginning to make them collectable.

During the Second World War many scientific and military research units moved out of London into Surrey. As a result, in the late 1940s science-based companies developed as one of the mainstays of the county’s industry. The aircraft manufacturers, Vickers at Weybridge and Hawker at Kingston, formed the focal point for a wide range of engineering companies and component manufacturers. Commercial and public vehicle production continued on a large scale at the Dennis factory on the outskirts of Guildford. Throughout Surrey there was a large number of small-scale manufacturers making a plethora of different items, including electrical and plastic goods.

Between 1960 and 1980 the construction of modern office blocks in towns such as Guildford and Woking encouraged a number of large companies to base their administrative headquarters in the county. A survey undertaken in the 1970s as part of Surrey County Council’s structure plan showed that about 60% of the working population of Woking were employed in the town. A further 15% commuted not to London but to other Surrey towns, whilst only 18% made the daily trip to the capital. This trend has continued into the 1990s and dispels the myth that Woking is a dormitory town in the heart of London’s ‘commuter belt’.

Since the war, most of Surrey’s towns have been developed as commercial centres almost to the exclusion of all else. It is a rather bizarre fact that, as a result, the number of people living in the centres of our towns has dramatically fallen. Shops run by local people who lived above their businesses have given way to national chains who use the spare floors for office space or storage. Streets of terraced houses have been demolished to make way for car parks. Each town has sprouted suburbs of its own, where every home has on average more than one car. The car is now used to transport the suburb dweller back into the town where he once lived – the result is traffic chaos especially in the morning and evening!

In Guildford, the priority of the motor vehicle has given the town a gyratory road system, which has destroyed the character of the riverside areas and severed the ancient High Street from the Town Bridge over the river Wey. At the top of the county town’s High Street, still paved with granite sets, a multi-storey car park towers over the Norman keep of Guildford castle, Holy Trinity church and much else besides. Only recently has such sacrifice been seen as folly. The result has been something of a reverse of policy, beginning with the increasing introduction of pedestrian-only shopping areas and ‘park and ride’ bus schemes. Plans to discourage drivers from bringing their vehicles into town are now seen as a priority.

Since the 1950s Surrey’s varied and often beautiful countryside has been under constant threat. Major road schemes have been in progress somewhere in the county throughout the period and they continue. The ever-increasing traffic has brought about a plethora of road improvements, bypasses and, of course, the M25 motorway. A measure of the problem for planners can be appreciated after ten seconds of standing, for example, in Esher High Street. When the town was bypassed many thought a rural peace would descend upon the place but now, after only a few years, the traffic is as heavy as before.

The flood of suburban building has been contained, to a great extent, by the green belt policy, which aims to retain a circle of countryside around London. But there have been many pressures on the green belt and recent comments from central government, hinting at a relaxation of these policies. Meanwhile a great deal of ‘infilling’ has taken place, the results of which can be seen in pleasant estates adjacent to several Surrey towns.

Even the skies over Surrey have become overcrowded. Although only a baggage terminal at Heathrow is officially in Surrey, and Gatwick was transferred to West Sussex in 1974, a huge number of aircraft overfly the county. Noise is a constant problem for those living under the flight-paths.

With all these threats it seems amazing that the unique nature of the Surrey countryside still survives – or is it just an illusion? Is there anything left to save? The answer has to be an emphatic ‘yes’. Salmon now swim again in the river Thames for the first time in 160 years. Parts of south-west Surrey are home to several rare species of bird and animal found in very few other places in Britain. Many areas of rural Britain have become featureless prairies of winter wheat, with hedges removed and trees chopped down. In contrast, within the gardens of suburban Surrey, birds and butterflies, foxes and frogs have found a safe sanctuary.

More than ever there are groups of Surrey people dedicated to the restoration and preservation of both the natural environment and those man-made features which are an integral part of our county’s history. This enthusiasm to discover and record as much as possible about the county’s past is reflected in the huge number of active local history and archaeology groups and societies that exist in almost every town and village. The Surrey Archaeological Society was founded in 1854 and it continues to be a focal point for research at all levels. But from Nutfield to Newdigate, Wonersh to Walton-on-the-Hill, groups of enthusiasts are rediscovering the rich legacy that is Surrey’s past.

Many people have been hard at work restoring those important physical features of the landscape such as village ponds, antique gardens and waterways. At Normandy, for example, a local group has spent thousands of hours bringing their pond back to its former glory. At Painshill near Cobham, the impossible has been achieved and a unique 18th century garden has been saved from dereliction. But the prize for dedication and persistence must go to those who have brought the Basingstoke Canal back to life again.

From almost any high vantage point in the Surrey hills such as Box Hill, Leith Hill, Anstiebury or Hydon’s Ball, the southern view is of a seemingly endless green countryside stretching to the horizon of the Sussex Downs. But it is a man-made landscape, where the conflicts between land use and preservation will never go away. It is up to all of us to ensure that the balance is kept and a landscape maintained which will always be uniquely Surrey.