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Critic's Choice - Hidden Utopias

A new book unearths hidden utopias in the strangest of places, finds Andrew Mead

I was looking at an Ordnance Survey map for Surrey when I saw something intriguing on the outskirts of Esher, close to one of the UK’s most celebrated landscape gardens, Claremont. It’s a settlement with a plan consisting of an outer octagon around two concentric circles, all linked by radial roads at regular intervals in a way that recalls in miniature those Renaissance schemes for ‘ideal cities’. So
what’s this geometric purity doing in suburban Surrey? The answer comes in Gillian Darley’s Villages of Vision: A Study of Strange Utopias, published in 1975 and now available in a new edition (Five Leaves, £14.99). It’s a village dating from c. 1917, founded on the bequest of department store magnate William Whiteley as a haven for deserving pensioners – almshouses for the 20th century.

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