Welcome to Woking, population 68000, a dormitory town just outside the M25 roughly halfway between Staines and Guildford. Woking has three claims to fame dating back to the Victorian era. Brookwood Cemetery opened here in 1854 - then the largest cemetery in the world and the destination of London's NecropolisRailway. The Shah Jehan Mosque dates from 1889 and is the oldest purpose built mosque in Britain. And in 1898 HG Wells obliterated Woking in the opening chapters of his classic novel, The War of the Worlds. Not even the mosque was safe.
"I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it."
I walked in the footsteps of the invading aliens from Horsell Common along the Chobham Road into the town centre. There's some seriously expensive real estate in this part of town. I passed several imposing commuter enclaves tucked away behind high leafy hedges, all seemingly so serene and secure in the scorching noonday sun. But I took some pleasure, as had HG Wells before me, in imagining the destruction of this residential stronghold beneath the crushing feet of the Martian advance force.
At the foot of Chobham Road I found the giant stainless steel sculpture erected by the local council to commemorate the centenary of HG Wells' most famous literary association with Woking. An imposing alientripod stands seven metres tall above the pavement, right next to British Home Stores, seemingly ignored by all the passing shoppers. It's extremely photogenic, although sadly the same can't be said for the surrounding shops and office blocks. A few metres to the south some decorative brickwork represents the crashed alien cylinder, and scattered across the precinct are several arty slabs depicting the bacteria that would finally put a stop to Martian plans of conquest. All credit to the council, and to artist Michael Condron, for this impressive splash of urban art, although there is a certain irony in spending taxpayers' money on commemorating the wholesale destruction of one's home town.
"In one night the valley had become a valley of ashes. The fires had dwindled now. Where flames had been there were now streamers of smoke; but the countless ruins of shattered and gutted houses and blasted and blackened trees that the night had hidden stood out now gaunt and terrible in the pitiless light of dawn... Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal. And shining with the growing light of the east, three of the metallic giants stood about the pit, their cowls rotating as though they were surveying the desolation they had made."
Before I left Woking I ventured into a local bookshop to purchase my own copy of The War of the Worlds. I'm sure I read it as a child, and I know it's available to read online, but this felt the appropriate place to acquire the genuine article. I started reading this Victorian 'scientific romance' on the train back to London. I'd forgotten what a cracking story it was, literally decades ahead of its time, and still wholly believable even today. Wells writes in a snappy tabloid style, expertly placing the abhorrent amongst the mundane, and drives the narrative forward through graphic eye witness accounts. You can also follow nigh every step of the narrator's epic adventure on a map, and it's this attention to fine geographic detail that, for me, makes the book so utterly compelling.
My train headed back over the Maybury arch (steam train combusted, chapter 11), through Weybridge (obliterated, chapter 12), past St George's Hill (scene of great battle, chapter 15) and on through Wimbledon (sixth cylinder fell, Chapter 17). Once at Waterloo I was back in the capital city whose destruction Wells also so carefully chronicled, and where the novel reaches its deadly climax. From here millions fled for their lives in the face of advancing terror and toxic smoke until, high up on Primrose Hill, a few streptococci brought the invasion to an end. We take our well-ordered lives for granted these days, as did the citizens of late Victorian society before us. But, as Wells reminds us, the cosy trappings of civilisation are held together by fragile threads which can be stripped away all too easily, and with terrible consequences. May it never happen here.
"I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill... to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day."