Woking celebrates HG Wells’ alien invasion for the sci-fi author’s 150th birthday
- Credit: Archant
As a programme of events gets under way in Woking to mark 150 years since the birth of HG Wells, Steve Roberts and his trusty sidekick, ‘Marvin the Martian’, take to their bicycle to follow in the tyre-tracks of the celebrated sci-fi writer, who got much of his inspiration on his daily rides around the town...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2016
In his autobiography, the author HG Wells described cheerfully how he would wheel about the district of Woking on his bicycle “marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians”. Today, his former hometown is still standing, but there’s a certain irony in the fact that its fictional demise in Wells’ seminal science-fiction serial The War of the Worlds is essentially what put it on the map. No matter; it takes more than an apocalyptic alien invasion to faze the people of Woking and they have embraced the 150th anniversary of Wells’ birth with gusto, organising a whole programme of events to mark the occasion – from exhibitions and talks to walks – culminating in the unveiling of a bronze statue to the author, on what would have been his 150th birthday.
But what of all those memorable places that Wells wrote about so vividly in his tale of interplanetary war when he brought his alien invaders to Victorian suburbia? How many of those familiar landmarks in the book (railway station, pub, suburban house, common and golf course) still remain – and what reminders of the author himself can we find across the town?
I’m here today to investigate – and what better way to do so than on a bicycle – to follow in the very tyre-tracks of Wells who famously cycled around Woking in the mid-1890s formulating his plot lines. A late-Victorian may well have spotted Wells pedalling across the town each day before retreating to his home to get on with the business of writing.
To get in the zone, I have also brought along ‘Marvin the Martian’ with me, an inflatable alien I’ve procured from my local party-store. Setting off from the station, with Marvin in the basket at the front, he looks for all the world like ‘ET’. One bystander even enquires whether a remake is in the offing. Had the gentleman in question realised that we were researching Wells, he may have appreciated that Marvin’s forefathers were nothing like this, being globular, leathery, tentacled beings; not exactly an oil painting. Thankfully, the species has evolved and Marvin is a rather more handsome chap. Mind you, the book’s shocking premise, of course, was that the Martians were superior. “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.” As I wobble for the first time, almost putting us in the gutter, I can only humbly defer.
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The right track
Leaving the station behind, we emerge in the High Street and a scene much changed since Wells’ day. There is now a canopy over the street, which wouldn’t have been there when the book was set. The station itself, of course, was obliterated. This must have given commuters a better excuse for being late to work than a points-failure at West Byfleet. The Martians did a good job here, the station and adjacent houses “a heap of fiery ruins”. It was also here that Henderson (the journalist) headed, to send telegraphs to London, warning of the events in Surrey. Telegraphs; those were the days. Taking some photographs of Marvin outside the station, the locals look on askance and we decide that we had better move on.
Back on our bicycle, we continue on our way by turning right out of the station. A detour up Chertsey Road to the Herbert George Wells pub (what else?) is tempting, but we head instead along Broadway, leading into Maybury Road. I begin taking pictures of No. 143, which I’d understood to be Wells’ abode, before a resident emerges (more ET talk no doubt). “HG Wells mate?” he asks. I am about to reply, “No, not me,” when he helpfully interjects, “You want 141 mate. There’s a plaque.” You couldn’t make it up.
Having proffered our thanks, we turn our attention to No. 141, ‘Lynton’. So, this is where he wrote. It’s an unpretentious ‘semi’, but now with a car in the drive – at least one key change from the author’s days. The plaque itself is brevity personified: ‘HG Wells. Author. Lived here 1895-1896’. So, ‘HG’ wasn’t here long, but long enough to concoct the story, cycling around the locations as his imagination blossomed, his neighbours destined for unfortunate endings. Wells clearly identified with the Maybury neighbourhood, as his ‘narrator’ lived here. When Wells lived here, however, with partner Amy Catherine Robbins (later known as ‘Jane’), it would have appeared rather more isolated than today, when there were just two houses in Maybury Road.
As we prepare to leave the author’s former home, I’m reminded of one of the most famous passages in my well-thumbed paperback. “Across the gulf of space … intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” Chilling; and this is where it all started, in this unassuming Surrey semi.
Men from Mars
Next up, we need to see a Martian, but one from a century or so ago. We pedal back a little way, then up Stanley Road, immortalised by a more modern wordsmith in the third solo album of Paul Weller, and along Church Street East to arrive at the famous Martian in Crown Square. Created by artist Michael Condron, this giant ‘tripod’ was installed to mark the centenary of the novel. Being such awkward individuals, Marvin’s ancestors couldn’t get around easily, so they built these hi-tech structures complete with heat-rays that vaporised anything in their path. Woking’s tripod is seven metres high; Marvin’s predecessors built them even bigger than that.
But, actually, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here and next on our extra-terrestrial tour we continue to Horsell Common, the very spot where the fictional invaders first land in their ‘cylinder’. We pedal straight ahead up Chobham Road, crossing the Basingstoke Canal, and turn into Brewery Road. Within moments of arriving, we have spotted the trees of the common on our right, so we cycle over to reunite Marvin with the land of his forefathers.
At this point, I should make it clear that this part of the common is not exactly where the aliens descended. For that, we would have to cycle further to the site of the Old Sandpits, and I don’t feel capable, if I’m honest. Instead, we settle for an outlying part of the common, sometimes referred to as Broomhall Common. It’s close enough and still emotional, with the pine and furze that Wells dictated would be incinerated. As you may recall, it was Ogilvy (the astronomer) who ran ‘wildly’ into a public house by Horsell Bridge, to warn people to down pints, as things were afoot. The pub, The Wheatsheaf, is still there.
Having completed our mission, it’s time for lunch. Back along Brewery Road, we cross a footbridge over the canal and find The Lightbox, where we spot folk partaking of food in a pleasant canal-side setting. Marvin has canals back on Mars, but not much water. Although there’s plenty on the menu, Marvin is disappointed by the lack of Martian-fare so just sits glaring at people. A couple come over to ask about him. They aren’t interested in me, only Marvin. He has that effect.
Martians stopped play
Suitably refreshed, we head on back to the station, an easy signposted ride. As I look about, I ponder on Woking’s regeneration; considering that the town was knocked about quite a bit by the Martians, it has recovered pretty well. Other parts of Surrey also copped it. The pine trees on the golf course at Byfleet were ablaze; Martians stopped play. People abandoned homes and piled on trains at Byfleet Station, presumably heading for the hills. The same scene was played out at Weybridge, where special trains conveyed panic-stricken folk to safety. The second and third ‘cylinders’ landed at Addlestone Golf Links and Pyrford. It seems they had something against golf. At Sheen, another cylinder crashed into a house. It was a full-scale invasion.
Of course, it all ended in failure though. The Martians were finished off, not by human reprisal but by human germs. For me, the reconnaissance is over, as it’s time to tackle that train again. I hope you’ve enjoyed my report for Surrey Life. Don’t sleep too easily in your beds though. Marvin says he’ll be back, with plenty of his friends sometime soon. Having said that, he says he thinks he can feel a cold coming on…
HG Wells a timeline
1866 Born September 21 in Bromley, Kent
1874 Suffers broken leg
1879 Pupil/teacher in Somerset
1880 Apprenticeship with draper
1891 Marries cousin Isabel Wells
1894 Divorces Isabel after falling for Amy Catherine Robbins
1895 The Time Machine is published, marries Amy Catherine and moves to Maybury Road, Woking
1896 Island of Dr Moreau published and moves to Worcester Park
1897 The Invisible Man is published
1898 The War of the Worlds is published and moves to Sandgate, Kent
1901 The First Men in the Moon is published
1906 Meets President Theodore Roosevelt
1910 The History of Mr Polly is published
1914 The War that will end War is published
1920 The Outline of History is published and meets Lenin
1927 Death of Amy Catherine
1933 The Shape of Things to Come is published
1934 Co-founds Diabetes UK (Wells was a diabetic)
1935 Meets President Franklin D Roosevelt
1946 Dies August 13, aged 79, in Regent’s Park
1953 First film adaptation of The War of the Worlds
1978 Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds musical
• July 1, 1pm: Talk by Prof Michael Sherborne, HG Wells and the War that Would End War, at The Living Planet Centre
• July 8-10: Two-day international conference at the HG Wells Conference Centre
• July 9: Party in the Park will have an HG Wells theme with a sci-fi film showing, Woking Park
• July 24, 7pm: Guided walk, In the storm at Pyrford, around the area
• July/August: Book display in the local library with readings
• August 28, 2pm: Guided walk, Woking in Wells’ Time, around the town
• September 1 to October 1: Special exhibition, Woking in Wells’ Time, Surrey History Centre
• September 17, 2pm: Talk by Prof Peter Beck, HG Wells and Woking: the Literary Heritage, Surrey History Centre
• September 21: New sculpture of HG Wells to be unveiled in Woking
• For more about these events and others, see the free souvenir guide or visit celebratewoking.info
on the trail
If you fancy following in Steve and Marvin’s tyre-tracks around the town, there is a ‘Wells in Woking Heritage Trail’ that can be downloaded from the ‘Wells in Woking’ website, here
Alternatively, for a map of cycle trails around the town inspired by HG Wells, the Planet Trails, which sees each route named after a planet or a moon, visit the ‘Cycle Woking’ website at cyclewoking.org.uk