On an exceptionally sunny Saturday morning, a group of planners journeyed to the south-west London suburb of Surbiton. Having developed following the construction of the London and South Western Railway in 1838, it is considered by many to be the epitome of suburban life (having famously featured in the BBC’s 1970s classic “The Good Life”).
Aside from boasting a wonderful art deco station only 16 minutes by train from Waterloo, it’s very much defined by large homes with private gardens amongst well-ranked schools. Pleasant though this is, such suburban areas are often viewed as ‘commuter towns’; places to live and convenient for working in London, but with little else to offer. They’re described in a way that is pleasant but uninspiring; ‘white bread’ or ‘vanilla’. However, the people of Surbiton are starting to dispel this myth, actively rejuvenating their community spirit through a variety of innovative and engaging community activates. We were meeting the Community Brain, the action group at the heart of this movement. As we were whisked through the streets of Surbiton their members gave us a feel for the area and understanding of their aspirations for future improvements to the public realm (particularly along Brighton Street, which is dominated by through-route traffic). We discovered the former Victorian Seething Wells and pumping house before ending our tour at the local Lamb Pub where it all began.
Finding the spirit of Surbiton through myths and the game of Mousetrap
Where do you start when you want to build a sense of local pride? Well, according to our guides, in Surbiton it all started with “Homage de Fromage” Cheese Club, a monthly cheese tasting night held in The Lamb. This informal meeting gave rise to discussion and a realisation that there was a need to bring the community closer together. An ever increasing group of people were drawn into the discussion and together began to create fun events that would encourage both young and old to take part, from the building of the Giant Mousetrap, through to Surbiton Ski Sunday (where people strap blocks of ice to their feet and race down an icy path), Seething Sardine Festival, the King’s Soup through to the creation of a new folk myth the Mount of Seething and Legend of Lefi Ganderson, which is annually celebrated in the town along with other curious festivals.
Unravelling Surbiton’s role in defeating Cholera in London
Most interestingly, the creation of new myths and legends, accidentally led to the discovery of Surbiton’s real historic past. Research into the Wells identified their important role in defeating cholera in London during the mid-19th century. The water used to test John Snow’s hypothesis that cholera was caused by a water-bourne and not air-bourne disease was, for example, proven by testing the clean water that came from Surbiton’s Seething Wells filter beds and pump houses against the water that came from the public water pump on Broadwick Street. Snow later used a spatial dot map to illustrate the cluster of cholera cases around the pump. The result was a programme of water sanitation across the city and eventual eradication of cholera in London. But this is just one example. Another bit of local trivia is that Surbiton once had a Penny Farthing racetrack which produced a World Champion; a titbit which emerged after finding “the spoke from the first bicycle” at a children’s archaeological dig.
The Museum of the Future
So often, our past is what helps to inform the future. That being the case, Community Brain has recently been given a grant from Boris John’s high street fund to curate the ‘Museum of Futures’. Here, local residents will each contribute important artefacts from their lives and curate them, further building a sense of collective identify and past. It’s an innovative way to showcase the area’s past as well as providing an opportunity to think about its future.
Forthcoming Tour of the Seething Wells (19th/20th September)
To find out more about the future programme of activities in Surbiton, http://seethingwells.org/Welcome_to_Seething_Home.html
For those that are interested in visiting the Seething Wells, they are opened once a year, during the Open House Weekend (taking place between 19th and 20th September). Visit Open House London 2015 for more details. http://www.openhouselondon.org.uk/ Review by Zoe Green