‘Fancy coming down to Woking for War of the Worlds with me and Floyd?’ said a strange voice on the end of the phone, that I recognized as my friend Tym.
‘The musical? I think I’m busy that day,’ I said. ‘When is it?’
‘Not the musical, you wazzock,’ he went on. ‘I mean where he set the book. H.G. Wells. The Martian landing at Horsell Common, the destruction of Weybridge, The Spotted Dog, the Maybury Inn.’
‘That sounds better.’
‘Good. Tuesday. Two-dayer. I’ll text where and when.’
‘Great, see you then.’
‘Yes, see you next Tuesday,’ he said, pointedly.
Good old Tym. Tym, who I had joined on a trek across Scotland on the trail of Kidnapped!, who had taken Floyd and me from London to Cambridge in the footsteps of Syd Barrett and for whom Dirty South and I had joined for, yes, even odder things. The man is an inexhaustible fount of madcap notions which, for the large part, I put down to his having been brought up in somewhere called Norfolk.
And this really was excellent timing. For had I not been considering venturing outside the M25 to see if there was a discernible post-Brexit-vote difference between town and country, between Remain and Leave, good and evil, or whatever?
Now, by dipping a toe into Surrey, I could combine some sort of literary travelogue with a topical thinkpiece making increasingly tenuous links between the arrival of aliens in the Home Counties and concerns about immigration. And what’s more, I could call it TheWar of the Worlds.
Oh, come on. I was pissing gold, here. This post was writing itself.
The Battle of Dorking
‘This post is writing itself,’ I said to Tym and Floyd on the 08.25 from Tulse Hill the following Tuesday, as I explained this most excellent conceit.
‘Yes,’ said Tym, amused about something. ‘Only one problem with that.’
‘Surrey voted Remain.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ I cried. ‘What is wrong with this country?’
And sure enough some rudimentary Internet rummaging – research, I think they call it – showed that six of Surrey’s 11 districts voted to remain in the EU, including the district of Woking. Balls.
At Carshalton, we changed onto the Horsham train – exulting in travelling against the commuter tide – and alighted at the tiny station of Ockley where we applied sunscreen to our exposed bits and pieces on the deserted platform. It was to be 34 degrees today and unbroken sunshine.
‘I can’t help noticing this isn’t Woking,’ I said.
‘Oh, didn’t you get the memo?’ said Tym. ‘Today is The Battle of Dorking. The War of the Worlds is tomorrow.’
‘The Battle of Dorking? What does that involve?’ I said and Floyd shot me a worried look.
‘A two hour yomp up Leith Hill, then digging in and awaiting the enemy’s advance before retreating five miles to Dorking, then train to Woking,’ said Tym, amused again. ‘Jelly baby?’
The Battle of Dorking is an 1871 novella by George Tomkyns Chesney, which concerns the invasion of Britain by an un-named German-speaking people (let’s call them Germans) and which single-handedly kick-started the genre of ‘invasion literature’. We were to follow in the footsteps of the narrator. Footsteps that seemed to go mainly uphill.
And so it was that on the day of a Level 2 Heatwave warning, during which the elderly and the infirm had been advised to stay indoors, pets were not to be left without water and cool spaces were to be sought and cherished, we set out for Dorking via the second highest point in southern England. I was wearing sandals and a straw trilby and I hadn’t even had breakfast.
The hashtag ‘Dorkwalk’ was born.
Halfway up the final near-vertical ascent, made on the course of a winter rivulet, I had to pause on a tree root and allow my heartbeat to ease up on the drum ’n’ bass.
‘Go on without me,’ I called, ‘I know I’m a burden.’ But they had gone.
First to the top was Floyd, despite carrying a cold from three days at Latitude.
‘If I wasn’t infirm before, I am now,’ he said, necking a couple of Day Nurses, which sadly isn’t as much fun as it sounds.
‘Cab to Woking?’ I tried before Tym cajoled us into pressing on with the promise of a pub a little way down the other side in the village of Coldharbour. The promise of ale, as is so often the case, lifted our spirits and strengthened our weary limbs.
At the Plough Inn, Tym had a Leith Hill Crooked Furrow (brewed in the back garden) while Floyd and I had the Hogs Back Golden Summer which seemed to us the most deliciously refreshing fluid known to humankind. It was halfway down the second pint of this sweet ambrosia – the point where you feel both invulnerable and munificent, like you could fight a lion (and win) but wouldn’t want to hurt its feelings – that I agreed to do the next five miles.
‘Where are you guys going?’ asked the barmaid.
‘We’re walking to Dorking,’ said Tym, ‘Because we’ve absolutely nothing else to do.’
‘Oh,’ she sighed, ‘I’m jealous. I’d love to come with you.’
‘Well, why don’t you lock up and join us?’ said Tym.
‘Or,’ I said, ‘I could stay here and look after the place for you.’
The north side of Leith Hill is covered in pines so we did at least have some shade. And our path was blessedly downhill.
We came to a treeless edge and looked down at the gap between Leith and Box Hills in which Dorking lies and from which you could see the Wembley Stadium arch, some 30 miles away. This is where, in the story, the Germans sweep aside the British resistance and push on to London.
‘You can see why the Germans would come through here,’ said Tym. ‘It’s a natural pass.’
‘Far too sensible to climb the fucking hills,’ agreed Floyd.
‘Plus, they were probably keen to get to Wembley,’ I said. ‘Where they knew they would win on pens.’
‘We’re now on the exact path of the British retreat in the book,’ said Tym, and read aloud: ‘We must fall back and take up a position at Dorking. The line of the great chalk-range was to be defended. A large force was concentrating at Guildford, another at Reigate, and we should find supports at Dorking. The enemy would be awaited –’.
‘Hold on!’ interrupted Floyd. ‘There’s a Pollywaggle right in front of you.’
‘A Pollywaggle. Don’t worry, got it.’
‘Are you playing Pokémon GO?’
‘Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.’
‘For God’s sake grow up.’
Finally we made Dorking where, before we went to the station, Tym insisted on getting up close to the large Dorking chicken sculpture on Deepdene Roundabout, an homage to a local breed of chicken which had earned the roundabout in question a much-coveted month in the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society‘s Calendar, 2012. He gave us an excited wave as we leaned on the traffic barrier to wait for him.
‘Two big cocks on a roundabout,’ said Floyd, as we waved back.
The train afforded a lovely sit down and a right good go on the Jelly Babies and at Woking station we felt strong enough to seek out the impressive TheWar of the Worlds sculptures in the town centre. Tym went Richard Burton on us:
‘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…’
In its own way, of course, The War of the Worlds plays on mankind’s fear of invasion and I’d enjoyed HG Wells’ description of Mrs Elphinstone, who had never been out of England and ‘seemed to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar’.
One of the key differences between the immigrants then and now, though, is that the former burn you alive with a killer heat ray and live on human blood, while the latter staff our hospitals and are net contributors to the economy.
What were the arguments for banishing them, again? I needed to speak to some Brexiters. If only the locals hadn’t voted Remain, the selfish Woking wankers.
Along the Basingstoke canal, the final stretch before our digs for the night at the Rowbarge pub, our thoughts turned to other Woking-ites: Delia Smith, George Bernard Shaw, The Jam…
‘Isn’t Peter Gabriel from round here?’ I said.
‘Chobham, up the road,’ said Tym.
‘Do you know how Phil Collins got the gig with Genesis?’ said Floyd. ‘The audition was at Peter Gabriel’s Dad’s house and Phil turned up three hours early.’
‘Man after my own heart,’ said Tym.
‘So they told him to go for a swim in the pool. He was in there for three hours during which time he heard everyone else’s audition, so when it came to his turn he knew exactly what to do, smashed it and that was it – he was in.’
‘Nice,’ I said. ‘Three hour swim, though.’
‘I know,’ said Floyd. ‘No wonder he’s so small.’
At the Rowbarge, after a shower and a change of clothes I joinedthe boys at the bar, where I was sorry to have missed an anecdote from Tym that finished: ‘And that’s how I ended up in Sean Connery’s greenhouse.’
We took our pints out into the garden where I pressed the fellers into action.
‘Listen guys, give me some Surrey Martian invasion quotes for this so-called Brexit articleor I’m fucked. I’m already behind the kettle in the Deserter employee of the month competition.’
‘No problem,’ said Tym. ‘How about: I find Martians make very good babysitters.’
‘They’re fine mechanics although there is a whiff of vodka about them,’ said Floyd.
‘The heat ray puts too heavy a burden on the NHS,’ said Tym.
‘Can the panel recommend a natural, non-invasive solution to Martian Red Weed?’ said Floyd.
‘Oh, boys,’ I said. ‘What would I do without you?’
Horsell Common and Weybridge
In the morning, we set out for Horsell Common. We walked through the pine trees, the tops of which were set aflame by the Martian heat ray and where ‘poor Ogilvy’, the astronomer who first spotted the Martian launches, was burned to death.
Eventually we came to the vast sand pit, the site of the first Martian landing, a clearing 300 metres across with a pond in the middle. Not far from H.G. Wells’ house, it was easy to imagine the author sitting here with his pipe and concocting the start of his fabulous tale.
Tym fired up Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds on his iPhone and I fired up a doobie I’d fashioned for the occasion.
‘The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger. We feast on flesh and drink on blood.’ said Floyd.
‘Do you think they knew about the War of the Worlds connection?’ I said.
‘No,’ said Tym.
Back in Woking via H.G. Wells’ house and the old mosque mentioned in the book, we had 30 minutes before our train to Weybridge. Looking about for a suitable pub in which to kill half an hour, we chanced upon the local Wetherspoon, splendidly named The Ogilvy and featuring a telescope on its sign.
Ordering cold and welcome pints of Adnams Mosaic, I remarked to the barman how wonderful it was that the pub was named The Ogilvy.
‘This is what I was told,’ he replied, in a hushed tone. ‘Ogilvy was real, a local man, who was an astronomer in the World War and involved with what you might call -’ here he looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, ‘- Spyware.’
‘That’s all I know.’ he said. ‘That’s all anyone knows.’
In Weybridge we walked past the big houses along the Wey until it met the Thames, where the Martian tripods wrought terrible destruction. After another day’s exertions we were pretty destroyed ourselves and Floyd suggested a taxi to the station and one for the road back in Tulse Hill.
‘I think my cold’s getting worse,’ he said.
‘Ah, yes, well.’ said Tym. ‘That reminds me of the time I interviewed Brian Blessed: The reason we get colds, he said, is that we’re not from this planet. We haven’t adapted to the bugs and the viruses. There is only one animal indigenous to Earth and that is the shark. You never see a shark with a fucking cold.’
Image credits: Main image is a composite of an illustration for the 1906 edition of War of the Worlds by Henrique Alvim Corrêa (detail) and Union Jack by THOR, used under this licence; Dorking cockerel by diamond geezer, used under this licence