diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This year the town of Woking is celebrating 150 years since the birth of author HG Wells. He spent less than 18 months living in the town (circa 1895) but wrote some of his most famous works here, including the most famous of all - The War of the Worlds. Originally serialised in 1897, it later became a novel, several movies, a concept double album and the inspiration for a considerable body of science fiction. The laying waste of humanity by a superior intelligence, and the invaders' fortuitous demise, make for a compelling tale. But the story is also thick with geographical detail, as Wells delights in destroying his home town, most of the surrounding countryside and much of north Surrey.
"I'm doing the dearest little serial for Pearson's new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking -- killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways -- then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity."
Despite its fictional obliteration, a series of commemorative events are planned in Woking this year, culminating with the unveiling of a statue on the 150th anniversary in September. The Wells in Woking Festival has a busy website, with a Twitter feed here, a full event diary here, and a particularly impressive souvenir programme can be downloaded here. I chose to walk the Heritage Trail, a well-documented four mile circuit round the town and adjacent Horsell Common, passing many points of WotW-ian interest. And it made for a very pleasant half-day out. [16 photos]

The Wells in Woking Heritage Trail (leaflet and map)

Maybury Road: Woking station is dead easy to get to from central London, about half an hour out, with very regular trains. Maybury Road runs east from the station immediately alongside the tracks, residential on one side only, and HG Wells lived up the far end at number 141. You can see his semi from the train, four buildings along from the hockey shop, identified by a small blue plaque between the uPVC windows. It's a shame he didn't live nextdoor, because that's still got the original brickwork and a porch draped with evergreen foliage, whereas 141 has been plastered and paved so looks considerably less inspirational. But it was from here that Herbert rode out on his bike to reconnoitre the local area, and to here that he returned to write another fact-packed chapter of his alien saga. [photo]

Maybury Hill: The Trail doesn't actually go this way, but I diverted under the railway to see the shallow incline where HG's unnamed narrator must have lived. Wells' house in Maybury Road was too low down to have been under threat from a heat ray based on Horsell Common, whereas houses on the hill had sufficient elevation to be in direct sight, once Woking's Oriental College had been blasted away. This splendid building was originally the Royal Dramatic College, a retirement home for ex-actors, before being taken over in 1884 by a Hungarian Muslim scholar. He built Britain's first mosque nextdoor, the striking Shah Jahan, whose jade green minarets are also easily seen from the train. It still thrives, as I discovered when I turned up at prayer time, so only managed to snatch an appreciative side view from the car park. As for the Oriental College, this alas has been demolished far more comprehensively than the Martians managed, and is now the warehouselike Lion Retail Estate (Asda, Argos, Halfords, etc). [photo]

Horsell Common: The Trail crosses the Basingstoke Canal, the same route the narrator would have taken when news of the first cylinder's landing first broke, to enter Horsell Common. This extensive area of acid heathland abuts the town and neighbouring villages, or rather is all that's left of the original landscape after suburbia took several nibbles. It's also a marvellous place to walk, as Woking's residents (and their dogs) seemingly know well. I enjoyed taking backwoods paths I'd never have found without the map, passing through a thick landscape of silver birch, holly and pine, plus (in certain more open quarters) gorse bushes bursting with spring yellow. There's also a pub halfway round, if this kind of thing is important to you when going for a ramble. [2 photos]

Muslim Burial Ground: Located in the southeast corner of the common, nearest to the mosque, this square walled enclosure was laid out after WW1 as the final resting place for 19 Muslim soldiers who died in Britain from their wartime injuries. A handful more were buried here after WW2, but vandalism in the 1960s led to their bodies being moved to a cemetery elsewhere. The monument was later restored thanks to a donation from a local resident, a certain Mr Paul Weller, and within the last six months has been remodelled as a Peace Memorial Garden. Each soldier is now remembered by a freshly-planted tree, in two lines either side of a perfectly symmetrical water feature, creating an impressively serene place for reflection (if you can ignore the small pylon alongside). [photo]

The Sandpits: This is what the trail has been aiming for, this is science fiction nirvana, ever since HG Wells selected the sandpits in the centre of the common as the landing place of the first Martian cylinder. A long sandy beach wraps around a pond in the bottom of a shallow depression, evidence of several centuries of manmade extraction, with twisted roots revealed where the surrounding land has fallen away. The existence of water draws all the dog owners on the common to this point, taking the opportunity for a fetch and a splash, and to play boisterously with all the other four-legged friends present. Enticed by Wells' prose I hung around for fifteen minutes on the bench overlooking the scene, reading the very chapters based on the landscape in front of me, and at no time was the pool or its golden beach ever canine-free. [3 photos]

"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."
The Lightbox: It's an enjoyable mile and a half back to town, carefully following the route on the trail map via some of the common's lesser-used tracks. Recrossing the canal the first building is The Lightbox, one of those early 21st century lottery-funded art-sheds, housing a broad collection of cultural artefacts. One gallery contains the town's museum (free), two others host temporary exhibitions (paid for), plus there's a decent-looking cafe to help entice shoppers inside. This month there's also a small exhibition of War Of the Worlds-inspired prints and artworks, some of them particularly appealing, other perhaps a little obtuse... but worth a look. [photo]

The Martian: The Trail ends by threading through the town centre, specifically to pass one of the most unusual public sculptures in the South East. A seven-metre-high three-legged silver Martian strides across the top of Crown Square, tentacles gleaming... and the people of Woking generally ignore it. This lofty creation been here since 1998, when it was unveiled by Carol Vorderman, so the incongruity of death stalking a shopping precinct is a bit passé these days. A little further down the Chobham Road is a partner piece, a metal cylinder embedded obliquely in the pavement, and look out for mosaics depicting Earth's all-conquering bacteria alongside. If you've enjoyed the circuit you might end your walk in one of two themed pubs - the local Wetherspoons is called The Herbert George Wells, while a freehouse up the road has been named The Ogilvy after the astronomer who first identified the craft. And raise a glass to the town's total destruction, a fictional triumph which has placed Woking firmly on the map. [5 photos]

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