In July 2016, a couple of weeks after the Brexit referendum, I moved, very reluctantly, from South London to Surrey. It was the right decision for my wife and two daughters; it didn’t feel like the right decision for me. But, three versus one – they did the maths.
I loved living in London. For years I had run a guerrilla campaign against my wife’s desire to move to the country. But then – annoyingly – she found a place that even I had trouble faulting. So we upped sticks. Soon after the move, I turned 40, which didn’t help my mood. I was a commuter; I had to buy a lawnmower; I even started driving a Volvo. It was like I was on a hot streak in a game of middle class cliché bingo.
And, worst of all, I was back living close to where I was brought up. It felt an awful lot like defeat. There was little left to do but just try and get through the days somehow and wait for the sweet release of death. In the meantime I could, at least, do the one thing that is unarguably better in the country than the city: I could go for a run.
It soon became clear that we had accidentally bought our house slap bang in the middle of the ramblers’ equivalent of Spaghetti Junction – a tangle of paths, bridleways and byways interlinking with the old Roman roads, pilgrim routes and disused railways. No two runs needed ever be the same. And the more ground I covered, the more I kept finding stuff. This surprised me. The city was where stuff was; the country was supposed to be about the absence of stuff. And yet, in contradiction of my townie logic, here was stuff. Sometimes pretty amazing stuff.
A couple of miles south of my house I stumbled across the site of a Roman temple. It’s really just a clearing in the woods with lines of brick embedded in the ground to mark the buried foundations. But it’s more than enough to give you what the author Ian McEwan, who likes walking in this neck of the woods, describes as the “psychogeographic tingle” of standing on a spot that you know people have been standing on for thousands of years. To the east I squeezed through the bushes on a hill behind the stately Albury Park to look down on its 63 unique candlestick chimneys designed by Augustus Pugin, who also dreamed up the Big Ben clocktower at the House of Commons.
To the west are the overgrown ruins and man-made waterways of Chilworth gunpowder mills, established by the East India Company in the seventeenth century and in use until just after World War I. And, a short jog north of my village is the spot where Agatha Christie abandoned her car in 1926 before going missing for 11 days, sparking a real-life mystery and a manhunt that drew in the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who unhelpfully took one of Christie’s discarded gloves to a medium) and Dorothy L Sayers (whose visit to the scene inspired her novel Unnatural Death).
My most taxing runs take in a ridiculously steep and sandy hill to the north-west called St Martha’s, which has a church of the same name at its summit. One day, while trying to regain my breath and vision in the graveyard, I came across the final resting place of a man called Bernard Freyberg. His headstone said he was a Sir and a VC so I was intrigued and looked him up. Dear God, what a life.
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Born in Surrey and raised in New Zealand, he trained as a dentist, got bored of staring into people’s mouths and so ran away to fight in the Mexican civil war as a captain under Pancho Villa (as you do). When the First World War broke out he made his way back to Britain paying for his passage by winning a swimming tournament in Los Angeles and a prize fight in New York.
Back in Blighty he blagged a commission from none other than Winston Churchill. At Gallipoli he volunteered to swim ashore and light flares on the beach to distract the Turkish troops from the real landings taking place elsewhere. On the Western front he won the Victoria Cross for commanding an attack on a strongly fortified village in the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme despite being badly wounded. By the time of the Armistice, Freyberg was one of the most decorated soldiers and the youngest general in the British army.
During the Second World War he commanded the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in North Africa (where he helped Montgomery beat Rommel) and was nicknamed Salamander by Churchill for his ability to survive under fire. Having just about made it through two world wars (his men said that there was barely a patch of his body that wasn’t covered in scars), Freyberg died in 1963 and, after spilling his blood on most of the world’s continents, was buried where he was born and married – in Surrey.
While running around the countryside I have also – as a reluctantly transplanted city-dweller, a man teetering on the brink of middle age and a journalist writing about pro-Remain businesses for a pro-Brexit newspaper – been in my head crisscrossing the no-man’s land between the two sides of the UK’s great schism.
Distilling the billions of words that have been expended on this topic into a one-sentence synopsis: most Remainers believe leaving the EU is an act of economic self-sabotage while most Leavers think it makes sense for the UK to have more control over the rules that govern it. Like many Remainers, I was sceptical of the sovereignty argument. I thought that, in this day and age, patriotism was anachronistic at best and a hop, skip and goose step away from chauvinistic nationalism at worst.
But my runs have given me pause and caused me to reassess what it means to be a centrist. Within jogging distance of my house are clear reminders of this country’s long history, its institutions, its industry and its culture. These concepts may be abstract but there’s little doubt they nevertheless foster trust, encourage co-operation and breed self-sacrifice. It’s hard to argue that patriotism is just a fairytale at the foot of Freyberg’s grave.
That’s why I’m also becoming increasingly conflicted about a second referendum. Lots of people I normally agree with are pushing for one. But the truly centrist position is, I believe, knowing that you would vote to remain in a second referendum while simultaneously arguing that you shouldn’t be given the opportunity. Centrism is compromise. Centrism means backing Theresa May’s deal.
That it causes me almost physical pain to write those words might be an indication I’m on to something. Real centrism is hard work; our common ground is constantly shifting and mapped out in shades of grey. It’s unlikely that the centre is now located where it was before July 2016. That’s why those who claim to be centrists must always be striving to understand their country a little better. Perhaps we should all start by dusting off our trainers.
Ben Wright is the Business Editor of The Telegraph