Whilst other towns have derived their names from attractive local features (Watford from the ford over the river Wat; Sevenoaks from, well, seven oaks), Camberley, in an early example of corporate branding, was originally named Cambridge Town after the Cambridge Hotel. The name was only changed to assist geographically-challenged 19th century posties who struggled to distinguish the Surrey-based interloper from its more illustrious namesake a mere 86 miles away. The arse and the elbow are differently named for the same reason. When Piggy in Golding’s Lord of the Flies starts explaining the origins of the town’s name, he is fortunate that the innate restraint of his peers does not lead to an immediate and premature demise that would have completely disrupted Golding’s scrupulously worked out narrative structure.
At an early stage of its development, Daniel Defoe poo-pooed the area as, ‘horrid and frightful to look on; not only good for little but good for nothing.’ But things have changed since then. They’ve built a mall.
The most interesting locations in Camberley are bizarrely not actually in Camberley but they are close. The Royal Military Academy is in Sandhurst, and the officers, generally in tweed jackets like unnecessarily aggressive geography teachers, often spend their down time in and around Camberley’s excruciating night life exhibiting the same good grace and manners as have been celebrated across the world from Fallujah to the Falls Road. Usually by returning gunfire.
And Camberley has an illustrious and rich musical culture with past residents including such trend-setters as Five Star, 5ive, Richard Stilgoe and the creepy Midwich-twins from Bros all the way down to Rick Wakeman. And if Arthur Sullivan’s former residence has been converted into a McDonalds (which thus bears the nation’s most incongruous blue plaque) at least a similar fate has not yet befallen the home of The Members’ Nicky Tesco.
If the thought of a Five Star-5ive-Richard Stilgoe super-group hasn’t already got your toes a-tapping, how about humming along to the tender melody of the Broadmoor siren which is unleashed at 10 a.m. every Monday? Commencing in the 1960s and originally intended to alert the town’s residents to the escape of an inmate (or vice versa), it now serves primarily as a means of waking up local school children half way through double physics.
Another notable (albeit non-musical) Camberley alumni is the not coincidentally named Camberley Kate (Kate Ward) who spent most of the seventies prowling round the town centre scaring children with a pack of thirty-or-so formerly stray dogs tied to a green cart with bits of string. The locals, who tend to distrust ‘characters’ and dislike dog crap, often complained, but the police were apparently grateful that she kept so many dogs off the streets. She tied them up outside Sainsburys’ instead. Kate told the press she ‘preferred dogs to humans,’ and who in Camberley could disagree when it also successfully wrote itself into the annals of doggy-history with (until recently) the last case of rabies on the British mainland? Hurrah!
In the 19th century, Camberley gained a reputation for clean air on account of the many pines in the locality. Victorian environmental friendliness indeed but fear not, the trees have now largely been chopped down and a report published in 2009 revealed that Camberley had the biggest CO2 footprint of any town in the UK with an impressive 28.05 tonnes per household. And if that’s not something to shout about, I don’t know what is. Take that, South Shields! To date, no monument to this staggering achievement has been unveiled but – putting the Mikado composer’s burger-related blue plaque greasily to one side – perhaps the most notable landmark that Camberley has to offer is the irony-free white elephant, constructed wholly from drain and sewerage pipes, which can be glimpsed from the A30 as you drive swiftly out of town heading south-west towards the bright lights of Basingstoke.
Or there’s the mall.