Why I like it here
Binscombe, South-West Surrey

An edited version of this essay appeared in 'Downs Country' Magazine No 22 May/June 1998

A family is more than just beginnings and endings, a transference of genes ...
it is a history, a way of looking at things, shared jokes and a special dialect - and, if it's lucky, a locality
- Unknown speaker on BBC2, early 1990s

I like it here because - well, firstly because I suppose I'm just pre-programmed to like it. Ten generations of Whitbourns have lived out their blameless yeoman - and printer and publican - lives roundabouts from the seventeenth century onwards. The first I know of, Henry Whitbourn (?-1708), the 'Abraham' of our tribe, farmed Tiltham's Farm a shade over a mile from my present house beside the North Downs.

Succeeding generations ventured off a few miles here, a few miles there, but without exception remained 'sons of Surrey' - and Downs country, south-west Surreymen at that. That sort of continuity is rare nowadays and I value it. If my forebears' collective wisdom approved of their homeland then who am I to differ ? What's bred in the bone comes out in the meat as the old country saying goes.

On the other hand, I've a mind of my own and if the place didn't suit I'd be on my way. After all, we Whitbourns can't stay put till Judgement Day or humanity reaches the Galactic Rim! (or can we?). There must be positive reasons for remaining as well as the inertia of history and family piety. Obviously there's something to this area because They all come back is another local saying. Crazy property prices and 'gentrification' notwithstanding, it remains true. I did.

As a youth I didn't fully appreciate the richness of Downs Country heritage: all the propaganda of the age was against it. Love of your locality was - just about - okay for quaint Tuscan peasants encountered on holiday or - at a pinch - the occasional 'ethnic' Scot, but a sense of place amongst the plain old English ? Too, too, ghastly darling .... The 'swinging sixties and seventies' wasn't having any of that!

I needed to travel and live in other places, like London, Reading, Wales and Scotland, to learn that there were worse things than home - a lot worse in some cases (memories of the London concrete wastelands for instance). So I 'came back'. like they all do apparently.

Came back to what? To a place amongst the least vivacious and most threatened people in the world (according to The Guardian and a Russian political commentator respectively), the aboriginal south-east English. This still isn't widely accounted a first prize in life: ours is a unfashionable tradition. Amongst the hot-house blooms of the London media set we're accounted to live in the Stockbroker belt and so presumably we're all filthy rich stockbrokers. Well, we have to pay stockbroker prices .....

That facile prejudgement, that writing-off of us and everything-we-are really riles me. Sure, there are rich slices of Surrey - and Sussex and Kent, well-to-do pockets of affluence parachuted into the generality. The proximity of the Great Wen [cyst ] as the Downs Country hero William Cobbett called it, BabyLondon the Great, means it could hardly be otherwise.

Yet that's to wipe out the remaining 95 or whatever % of us who don't live the stockbroker lifestyle because they're just plain ordinary folks, earning I dare say, a fraction of the salaries of those prejudiced commentators. Our entire life and history and presence are dismissed as invisible or contemptible with a few taps of a thoughtless journalist's keyboards. The same thought process is used to dismiss whole continents: the rich vastness of South America becoming merely Uncle Sam's backyard apparently.

Therefore, so what if property prices ethnically-cleanse whole Surrey villages of Surrey villager life, as threatened, for example, in the two Clandons and Horsleys? So what if our way of life is systematically ignored or derided? Dafydd Wigley, the leader of Plaid Cymry dismissed us as gin-soaked Surrey. We're supposed to just take that. It doesn't matter because we don't exist, not like real people such as Welsh speakers or Islington intellectuals.

No, what I like about the real South Country - or just one of the things - is that there really are - still - deep ties of history binding here; binding people here and binding them together. There's old family names which crop up time and time again when you consult the parish registers and militia lists and charitable subscriptions. Many of them remain with us. I can recall the litany of those names from school register days - I may not have much liked some of their modern incarnations - but I now recognise their age old rootedness. They'd come back - if they'd ever been away.

None of this need be an exclusive sort of thing. It has to be recognised that modern day people move around to the point of bewilderment. Sometimes that only acts for good: new blood comes in and finds a place to love and both parties are thereby enriched. Many of those I know to be most devoted to the history and preservation of the South Country are 'newcomers' and all the more welcome and vocal and convinced for that reason. It's as it should be, for the entity - of whatever sort - that doesn't at least take notice of the new is on the inward looking road to fossilisation - and then oblivion.

Contrawise, I think there's few things sadder than to (over)hear someone boast Oh, I don't care where I live; it's all the same to me! In my humble opinion they're missing out. When granddad lived in London, dad lives in Bristol, son moves on to Dundee and grandson's destined for Brussels - and they're all the same to them - then every place is just a temporary dormitory - and will be treated as such.

But, as I've said, there's got to be more than roots. Does anyone love Tolworth or Toxteth even if their family moved there just after the ice sheets retreated? There must be things to love.

Well, I do have more than the backpack of history weighing me down to here. In my books I've been known to wax quite loquacious about those reasons (About Zion I will not be silent, About Jerusalem I will not grow weary. Isaiah 62:1)

Binscombe was probably born in the Iron age, if not earlier, and then adopted by the Romans with their villas and comforts and continental civilisation. It was refounded by our own Saxon 'Moses', Buden the Saxon. Though definitely around at the time, the Domesday Book, the Norman's loot-tally, looked straight through us - and there, doubtless, hangs a tale. It was thus not until 1227 that Binscombe (or Budenescumbe, 'Buden's valley') felt ready to stride, gorgeous and pouting, onto the world stage (well, the Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum) for its first written reference.

Amidst all the only-to-be-expected mundanity, it has .... interesting features - like most places if you only look. Nearby - in the 'old tongue' - is Dragon Hill and Wild Cat Hill and Witch's Valley. The pagan gods lingered longer roundabouts, and left a renowned group of missionary-proof place names like Tue(Tiw)sley and Thur(Thor?)sley. A suspicious looking bump bides unregarded in the fields below Binscombe Ridge, perhaps a second Silbury Hill awaiting its Howard Carter.

On this landscape trod some remarkable people, such as Theophilus Oglethorpe, valiant soldier and Jacobite, duellist and all-round English-icon who had the good taste to buy Binscombe Manor. In 1685 his mad cavalry charge into Keynsham changed the course of our history, and the great truism dead men tell no tales may be attributable to him.

Back when the Quakers were dangerous radicals, their founder, George Fox, came to Binscombe and the barn he preached in bears his name. As a result we have our very own martyr, done-in by the Church of England back in 1660. Thomas Patching of Binscombe Farm heard Fox's words and took them to heart, dying in a foreign land (Kingston-upon-Thames gaol) accordingly. His body, brought home, now rests (one trusts) in the old Quaker burial ground beside that very barn.

Not far away, in Godalming, Mary Tofts astounded the 18th century by giving birth to 18 rabbits we have her word on it). In the adjoining and equally loved Farncombe, the telegraphist-hero, Jack Phillips, of Titanic fame, grew up and became what he was. A short way down the road, in a hamlet still isolated-obscure, a lone Saxon, Wulfwy the Hunter retained his land even after the Norman ethnic cleansing. And a 'person' of sorts (no less revered), has made its home amongst us for several centuries now: the Surrey Puma, indigenous, mysterious and never-yet caught, still prowls round about and makes the local papers most summers.

In short there's romance and mystery aplenty in this little valley and ancient village and not so ancient council estate. From it I take inspiration for my books and most of them have either been set here or at least make honourable mention of it. Even in Popes & Phantoms, set amidst the Italian Renaissance, I couldn't help but drag its anti-hero, Admiral Slovo, all the way to England's South-country for a typically murderous adventure. My To Build Jerusalem must be one of only a select few science-fantasy novels to be mainly set in Guildford! And next year, God willing, I pay proper tribute to my homeland with the Binscombe Tales, the at-long-last collected version of a monster (sic) series of local-set supernatural tales published separately and variously since 1987. 1998 should also represent light of day for my The Royal Changeling, a quasi-historical story mainly set in the Godalming and Binscombe area, featuring the aforementioned Theophilus Oglethorpe.

All in all, I feel privileged to have been born and raised here, and lucky to been able to come back. If I can praise the place in print then I shall - and thus feel that I've paid my debt - in some small part - to the beloved South Country !


A Binscombe Tales Spiel - A complete list of Binscombe Tales - Homage to Surrey

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