According to the latest remake of The War of the Worlds, the epicentre of global armageddon will be New Jersey. It's all part of the great Hollywood conspiracy whereby every alien landing and every potential meteorite strike on earth is drawn inexorably towards the USA, usually heading for some centre of population on the eastern or western seaboard. The 1953 film targeted California, while Orson Welles selected the tiny farming town of Grover'sMill (also in New Jersey) for his notorious 1938 radiobroadcast. I suspect that most people around the world, brought up on a spoon-fed US-centric diet, think that War of the Worlds is an American story. But it isn't.
HG Wells located his 1898 sci-fi masterpiece on this side of the Atlantic, in Surrey, deep in the Home Counties 25 miles southwest of central London. He was living in Woking at the time, on the Maybury Road, and set his story in and around the cosy suburban Surrey town he knew so well. I remember reading (in the days before the internet, so it was probably true) that Wells chose Woking because he wanted to wipe his neighbours off the face of the planet. In this he was spectacularly successful - barely a greenhouse was left standing by the end of chapter 11. And it all began when the Martians crashlanded their first spaceship onto Horsell Common.
"Very early in the morning poor Ogilvy, who had seen the shooting star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw, and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn."
I visited Woking for the first time last weekend, just to see if I could find the original Martian landing site that Stephen Spielberg and Orson Welles had so carefully ignored. And find it I did, about a mile to the north of the town centre, out where the fine detached houses melt away into a long strip of ancient woodland. HorsellCommon is still an unspoilt expanse of heath dominated by thick forest, home to diverse wildlife and the odd Bronze Agebarrow. Tall oak, beech and pine trees dominate, and spiky heather thrives in the dry sandy soil in the scattered clearings. A few well worn paths lead across the common from the trunk roads on the southern perimeter, but few venture out of their cars to explore further. Even on a sunny weekend at the height of summer I bumped into only a couple of families out for a picnic and a few tired dogs being exercised in the shadows. The 830 acres are seemingly just as peaceful as when Wells walked here just over a century ago.
"The Thing itself lay almost entirely buried in sand, amidst the scattered splinters of a fir tree it had shivered to fragments in its descent. The uncovered part had the appearance of a huge cylinder, caked over and its outline softened by a thick scaly dun-coloured incrustation. It had a diameter of about thirty yards... The early morning was wonderfully still, and the sun, just clearing the pine trees towards Weybridge, was already warm. He did not remember hearing any birds that morning, there was certainly no breeze stirring, and the only sounds were the faint movements from within the cindery cylinder."
In the centre of the common, in a clearing well screened from the world outside, are the sand-pits that Wells chose as the landing site for the first Martian cylinder. It's a beautiful and solitary spot. Around the perimeter gnarled tree roots have been exposed where the sandy soil has fallen away, and in the very centre lie the remains of a dried up pond. Once sold for a shilling a bag, the sand is now piled up along one edge as a 'beach' for local picnickers to enjoy. I watched one toddler busy trying to bury his dad in a shallow spade-dug hole, just like this was the seaside instead of Woking. It took a considerable leap of imagination to picture an alien cylinder buried in the sand instead, its heat-ray rising up to eradicate to the inquisitive crowds perched around the rim of this sleepy hollow... but then imagination was one thing that HG Wells was justly famous for.
"As the unseen shaft of heat passed over them, pine trees burst into fire, and every dry furze bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames. It was sweeping round swiftly and steadily, this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat. I heard the crackle of fire in the sand pits and the sudden squeal of a horse that was as suddenly stilled. Then it was as if an invisible yet intensely heated finger were drawn through the heather between me and the Martians, and all along a curving line beyond the sand pits the dark ground smoked and crackled."