Known to many as the “Stockbroker Belt” for its many high-income residents, Surrey has been a fancy sort of place for much longer.
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror gifted large tracts of what is now Surrey to his closest companions.
In Runnymede the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215, while later on Guildford became a crucial hub of southern England’s horse-drawn stagecoach network.
Now you have lots of market towns to uncover, each with a different background and personality, regal country estates and some of the south’s most stirring landscapes in the Surrey Hills.
This market town is in the Surrey Hills and has rambling country estates all around.
There are six manor houses minutes from Dorking, all built in the Georgian and Victorian periods and intended to make the most of the beautiful views afforded by the area’s lush chalk downs.
These hills are covered with yew forest and fields scattered with wildflowers in early-summer.
Box Hill at 224 metres was where the road cycling race took place for the 2012 Olympics, and offers one of southern England’s most joyous rural panoramas.
Dorking is also known for rearing the Dorking Cockerel, noted for its extra toe, and at the local heritage centre there’s a informative little section on this breed.
With the sublime green hills of the North Downs, beautiful streets with Georgian houses and a solemn medieval castle, the market town of Farnham has a bit of everything.
There has been a market in Farnham since the 12th century when William the Conqueror’s grandson ordered the motte and bailey Farnham Castle as a seat for the archbishops of Winchester.
They remained here for the next eight centuries, while there’s still a first-class farmers’ market on the fourth Sunday of every month.
Volunteers provide free tours of the castle, which has the circular outline of a “shell-keep”, while you’ll also want to dawdle around the town for a pleasant afternoon. Castle Street, lined with stately Georgian townhouses, is just gorgeous.
With masses of culture and heritage, Guildford came to prominence because it was equidistant to the naval base at Portsmouth and the admiralty in Greenwich.
Travellers riding between the two would stay the night at this staging post, and a couple of the inns for this purpose are still here.
On High Street see the Angel Inn, which retains its old signage and is still a working hotel, containing building work from the 1300s.
High Street, laid with cobblestones, is crammed with historical buildings like the Guildhall, erected in the 1300s and with a clock that projects over the street from the 1600s.
Minutes from the town centre are country estates like Polesden Lacey, Hatchlands Park and Loseley House , and there are more minor attractions than we can do justice to in one paragraph.
Surrey’s reputation as one of the poshest counties in the UK is anchored in towns like Godalming on the south bank of the River Wey.
Minutes away is the exclusive Charterhouse, one of England’s original “Public Schools”. On the high street you’ll get an idea of the great age of the town, particularly at the market square, bounded by Tudor timber-framed houses.
At the centre is the Pepperpot, Godalming’s former town hall, built in 1814 and arcaded to create a cute covered marketplace.
In the 17th century the Wey was dredged and fitted with locks to make it navigable to barges.
And that’s still the case today, with handsome old longboats tied to the wharfs on the north side of the town.
Here’s your destination if you want to venture out and see more of the bucolic River Wey.
Starting next to the train station in Weybridge is the Locks and Levels trail, a light walking route on the towpath of the river, with locks and other 17th and 18th-century infrastructure to add some historical interest.
And like Farnham Weybridge benefits from lots of Victorian and Georgian properties, imbuing the centre with period character.
Still, your main motive for coming should be to see the Brooklands Racing Circuit, dating to 1907 and so the first track built specifically for car racing in the world.
Brooklands was also an aerodrome, and so the track’s excellent museum has both majestic vintage race cars like a Napier-Railton, and a wonderful aircraft collection including a real Concorde.
Another exceptionally wealthy town, Oxted’s fortunes changed in the late-19th century when the railway line put it little more than half an hour from central London.
But there had been a town here for many centuries before that, as Oxted was mentioned in the Domesday Book, when it was the property of Eustace II of Boulogne, a close friend of William the Conqueror.
For something special, book a tour of Titsey Place, which has paintings by Caravaggio inside and exquisitely manicured grounds with a lake, greenhouses and a lovely walled garden.
There are stables providing one-off horseback rides and superb local amenities like the Barn Theatre, staging Shakespeare plays in a restored 13th-century barn.
An engaging town in the sumptuous countryside of the Surrey Hills, Leatherhead is littered with old properties.
The town can provide you with a heritage trail leaflet to direct you to the most significant.
There couldn’t be a more appropriate setting for Leatherhead’s town museum than the rustic Hampton Cottage, which is an evocative wattle and daub cottage that dates to the 1600s.
There are intriguing finds from Anglo Saxon and Roman sites close by, as well as more recent artefacts from the factories that used to be based outside the town (vintage “Goblin” brand home appliances and gas lamps).
Families with bored youngsters should keep Thorpe Park in mind.
It’s the second most-visited theme park in the country and is aimed specifically at teenagers and young adults, laying on all sorts of white knuckle rollercoasters and flat rides.
The town is also on the Thames and crosses the river at Chertsey Bridge, which was reconstructed by the feted Georgian architect James Paine in 1784. In summer you could take a cruise on this quieter and narrower stretch of the Thames and on Sundays bring little ones for a brief trip on the Great Cockrow Railway, a 50-year-old miniature rail made and preserved with a lots of love.
Even those who know nothing about horse racing, like us, may be aware that Epsom Downs is the home of the Derby race, which has been run since 1780, placing it among the oldest sporting events in the world.
The Derby runs on the first Saturday of June and is the most valuable event on the racing calendar in the UK. In the town the Playhouse Theatre is a well-regarded little venue, with something on almost every night, be it a touring comedian or band.
The kids’ attraction, Hobbledown is a sort of animal farm with a Tolkien-esque fantasy style in Horton Country Park.
There are llamas, alpacas, meerkats, otters, sheep, pygmy goats, pigs, and lots more for children to meet and pet.
Right in the inspiring countryside of the North Downs, Reigate is an affluent town with a rural feel even though it’s in touch with Greater London.
Amble along Reigate’s High Street, which has locally-owned shops in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, and a traditional covered market.
The terrain gets almost precipitous just behind the high street, and atop this hill is where Reigate’s Norman castle used to be.
Now it’s a pristine little park guarded by an 18th-century folly resembling a medieval gatehouse.
Hewn from the soft chalk underneath these gardens is a walkable former road tunnel constructed in 1823 and claimed to be the oldest in Europe.
Brushing the northern edge of Egham is the Runnymede water meadow, where the Magna Carta was sealed between King John I and the barons that had rebelled against him.
The charter granted a number of rights to these barons, including protection from illegal imprisonment and is held as a pioneering constitutional document.
There’s a National Trust monument at the site, chosen because it was so close to Windsor that King John could come here and get back quickly and safely during what was a time of war.
For a moment of reflection also visit a monument to JFK by the river, at the top of 50 steps, each representing a different state.
Surrey’s southernmost town shelters in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the upper limit of the South Downs National Park.
On Petworth Road and the high street you’ll be left in no doubt that Haslemere is an upmarket sort of town replete with Georgian townhouses and adorable tile-clad cottages.
You may be taken aback by the extent of Haslemere Educational Museum’s collections, which mostly cover natural history (most of all fossils) which were assembled in the 19th century by the prominent surgeon Sir Jonathan Hutchison.
And the natural amphitheatre, the Devil’s Punch Bowl, is minutes uphill from Haslemere and praised as one of the South’s natural wonders.
13. Virginia Water
The little and typically well-heeled town of Virginia Water is named for the lake on its western edge, which is part of the 2020-hectare Windsor Great Park.
Virginia Water’s magic lies in these stunning surroundings and the luxury amenities and interesting pieces of heritage that come from being next to a royal estate.
Wentworth Golf Club is world-renowned, and was the venue for the first ever Ryder Cup.
And then there’s the lake and its 4.5-mile perimeter footpath.
These waters have been a shooting location for Harry Potter films, and on the shore are compelling old monuments like an obelisk erected during the reign of George II in the mid-1700s.
Although a southwest London suburb, Esher falls under the County of Surrey and despite being a low-key place is dotted with Grade-I listed sites.
One is the Church of St George, which was built in the 1500s and welcomed worshippers like Queen Victoria.
Unlike many English churches St George’s wasn’t updated in the 1800s, so keeps its Tudor fittings and character.
Claremont House and its gardens also have Grade I status and were bought by Britain for Princess Charlotte and her husband Prince Leopold of Belgium in 1816. The gardens, owned by the National Trust, still have the same layout they had in the 1720s.
Ask most people to picture an archetypal southern English village, and what they have in mind will be pretty close to what will meet you in Shere.
Think, country pubs with benches out front, a Norman church, a chuckling stream, a tea room and timber-framed houses that hint at old trades like a wheelwright and blacksmith forge.
You won’t be able to resist a wander, and the village has set up a trail to let you know what some of the village’s buildings used to be.
After a pub lunch you could go up to Newlands Corner, a wondrous lookout at 173 metres, where the chalk North Downs roll out before you.