Surbiton – Frontier Town

Richard Jefferies was a writer fascinated by the areas where city and country blend together, come into contact. In his book ‘Nature Lear London’ (1883) Jefferies explores the ‘frontier line to civilisation’.

IN 1877, Jefferies, a countryman at heart, moved from Swindon to Surbiton. This was then the frontier he was looking for. Robert MacFarlane, in his great book “Landmarks” (2015) , writes: “Surbiton was then at the limit line of London’s growth: a high-Victorian edgeland.”

Jefferies had been born and raised in Coate, near Swindon. His father was a farmer, and he explored the countryside from a young age, hunting, fishing, and became an essayist and a writer. Then, with wife Jessie and son Harold, he moved to Surbiton.

McFarlane writes: “London’s edgelands today comprise jittery, jumbled grounds: utlilities infrastructure and haulage depots, crackling substations and allotments, scrub forests and sluggish canals, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerrilla ecologies.”

The Surbiton Jefferies encountered was very different. Country lanes, fields, woodland, streams, cottages – and space. Although London and its sprawl, or more particularly Kingston and its sprawl was gradually beginning to encroach. Major roads ran through the little town: to Brighton, to Portsmouth, to London. The railway had opened in 1840.


(Ewell Road, Surbiton in the early 1900’s)

But, as McFarlane reveals, Jefferies still then found that suburban streets suddenly became fields; footpaths led into copses and woodland. “It was recognizably a marginal zone.” It was travelled through by people trying to escape London – and get to it.

Jefferies also writes about the birds he finds in Surbiton: the chiffchaffs, the willow wrens, the thrushes and blackbirds, chaffinches, greenfinches, wood pigeons, turtle-doves, tree-pipits…larks: “As for the nightingales, I never knew so many in the most secluded country.”

Where have they gone?

(Robert McFarlane “Landmarks” 2015. His other books are great too)

The Scribbler.

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