The battle of the home counties: Which is the best?
Sorting the Guildford girls from the Buckingham boys
The lucky few who live in the lands around London won’t ever stop going on about it, and who can blame them? There’s nowhere in the world quite like the Home Counties.
They’ve all got the rambling walks, the idyllic country pubs and the mildly intolerant old folk – but who does it best? We thought we’d let writers from the nine most glorious counties in the country stake their claim.
You’re only as good as the company you keep and with Queenie sitting on her Windsor throne in the Royal County, Berks is the king of the home counties. Granted, a lot of it is pretty ropey. Head east of Reading, famed for producing Kate Winslet and the country’s dullest university, and the pleasant green countryside ebbs away into the breezeblock coloured symbols of dashed hope. You were promised London, but you were instead delivered to Bracknell, Maidenhead, or Slough.
But that’s the beauty of it – we’re self-deprecating to the point where we produced shows like The Office, so now we can all enjoy how crap Slough is. We do that so you don’t realise we have the good bits: Henley, Ascot, and George Clooney’s new crib Sonning. Because, really, Berkshire is too good to share.
Think of any other home county and you get a picture of dignified, upper-class white people playing polo and having afternoon tea. Think of Essex and it’s perma-tanned aspiring celebs with low IQs and questionable tattoos. Now which of those sounds more like a true depiction of the real Great Britain, the one they don’t put on postcards or show on Midsomer Murders? Exactly.
If the other home counties are stuffed-up royals, Essex is Prince Harry in Vegas with no trousers on. Essex is the county of vajazzle, Blur, Russell Brand, Victoria Beckham’s right foot. Victoria Beckham’s left foot, come to that. It’s a magical place, where all manner of freaks and oddballs can find their home. Where else could you get a UKIP MP who isn’t anti-immigrant elected by people who hate immigrants in a town with virtually no immigrants? Anywhere else this would be mad: in Essex, this is a Monday.
Aside from the deathtrap that is High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire is quintessentially countryside Britain. In a short drive you can go from getting mugged by rudeboys to getting hunted by red-faced men in tweed jackets and plus fours, and that’s the beauty of the place – Buckinghamshire’s diversity perfectly represents modern Britain.
Yeah, you can call Milton Keynes ugly, but have you got a fucking indoor ski slope? No, so pipe down.
Sure, Stevenage and Hatfield may not be the most glamorous of places – and we may not boast the likes of Oxford and Bournemouth – but Hertfordshire is the absolute dream. Just ask the Romans: when they set up Verulamium they knew they were onto something, and a couple of thousands of years later the Harry Potter producers had the same idea. Seriously, Dumbledore’s office was built on our soil. Even if Aquasplash in Hemel died an untimely death (RIP), we’ve still got St Albans’ beaut cathedral and the creepiest natural history museum ever in Tring.
Most importantly, Hertfordshire is home to some of the most legendary clubs in the whole of the UK: whether it’s the mighty Oceana Watford or the hallowed halls of Batchwood, which punters flock to from far and wide. The latter, a country manor/golf course/nightclub combo, says everything that needs to be said about the people of Hertfordshire. We may look classy as fuck on the outside and yes, we may often be taken for granted: but all that matters is that we know we’re the life of the unashamedly tacky party.
Kent is the garden of England. It’s the green and pleasant land. It’s lush and verdant. And you can get out of parts of it using your Oyster card. This is why Kent is incredible: it’s a balance of suburban, commuter conurbations like Gillingham, Chatham and Maidstone (whose main selling points are their proximity to London) and winding country paths, small unstable stiles, pubs with rosy maidens swilling Kentish ale. Places like Chilham Hill and Bishopsbourne, even Rochester (if you close your eyes when you look at the high street).
No-one wants green and pleasant all the time; no one wants to see the Odeon on the industrial park from their bedroom window all the time. But you usually want one or the other – and Kent balances both. You can be at your parents’ in the countryside one minute, then on speeding into London minutes later. I can get home to north London in an hour door to door (thank YOU HS2).
It has terrible clubs – Tap n Tin really sticks out – and terrible buses and terrible traffic jams, and you feel inordinately fond of all of them, because you spent your teens dancing in them, and sitting on them and sitting in them, rolling your eyes at your parents’ lack of originality in moving to this place that was almost but not quite London.
And you’re glad about that too.
When people think of a Home County, they’re thinking of Surrey. Majestic rolling hills, pleasant little villages, cobbled high streets with farmers’ markets. Sure, it may be a bit stuck up at times, and yeah, Staines is technically in Surrey – but nowhere’s perfect. As long as you stick to Guildford, Walton, Cobham or the villages you’ll have a great time, blissfully unaware of anyone who doesn’t own a horse or has never played a round of golf.
Compared to the other home counties, Surrey is the jewel in the crown. We don’t have Reading, we don’t have Luton. We have tiny villages like Abinger Hammer or Frimley Green where they still serve warm pints in dusty glasses and people play cricket on the green. Surrey summers are some of the best on earth – filled with gin, country walks and long boozy barbeques. But even the winters are perfect. There’s a reason they filmed The Holiday in Surrey – it looks like how the rest of the world feels at Christmas. Surrey is thatched roofs and roaring log fires, it’s glistening yellow fields and Golden Retrievers. It’s a perfectly placed perfect place between London and the sea. It’s classic, it’s traditional and It’s the only real home county left.
East Sussex has all the beauty of Surrey without the bad name. It has The Downs, incredible and dramatic scenery plus the Seven Sisters coastline, the most amazing combination of country and seaside in the UK. Yes, we gave the world Piers Morgan and drowned Virginia Woolf – but you can forgive us, right?
Not to be confused with West Sussex, East Sussex is West’s older and more classy sibling, but not its horrible snooty step-mum. That’s Surrey.
West Sussex may be a vortex whose denizens live in thrall to the vastly more interesting cities on its edges – Brighton, Guildford and Portsmouth (yes Portsmouth) – but it’s also a idyllic hills-and-seaside sandwich. The Witterings is considered great surfing if you’re a virgin, Shoreham was the centre of the British film industry 100 years ago, and we’ve got a great track record of producing slightly below world class England rugby players – looking at you, Marler, Launchbury and Twelvetrees.
West Sussex is a great county if you skirt around its dull and scummy towns – a life lived without visiting Littlehampton, Worthing or Crawley is a life well spent. Stick to the countryside and you’re grand – after all, isn’t that what the Home Counties are for?
Bracknell, Romford, Dartford, Sarajevo in 1993. What they all have in common is that you’d never find them in Oxfordshire. The thickly forested hills and rolling plains of the real “The Shire” are home to only the most charming market towns, and the world’s most academic uni – which everyone always ask us if we study at – we don’t.
Not enough to distinguish us from the other distinctly unsatisfactory home counties? We also gave you the palace in which Winston Churchill was born, so we’re sort of responsible for him too. You’re welcome, Britain.
Contributions from Marc Mayo, Alexander Whyte, Daisy Bernard, Hugh McDaid, Bella Eckert, Craig O’Callaghan, Phoebe Luckhurst, Matt McDonald and Josh Kaplan.