Martians landed in Woking in the year 1897. At least, they did in the imagination of HG Wells; his extra-terrestrials flattened everything in sight here, in the novel The War of the Worlds. Nowhere felt less prone to alien invasion than quiet Surrey. It’s fair to suggest that the place is still pretty undisturbed by out-of-towners. Which is precisely why we stormed in to have a look around.
Because if the likes of Watford, Maidenhead, and hell, even Luton, have taught us anything, it’s that the Home Counties possess surprising treasure, largely unknown to Londoners. As corridors of inner London blandify into processions of Prets and luxury flats, it’s over to the commuter belt to state its individuality. So: how’s Woking doing, a century after being reduced to rubble by aliens?
"A park that happens to have dead people in it"
Our journey starts at the town’s top historic site, which holds something of a morbid fascination.
While you might assume that Woking owes its very existence to London, the reality is that London’s continued viability as a place to live is thanks to Woking — in particular its acceptance of London’s dead. Brookwood Cemetery opened here in 1854. It was the project of the London Necropolis Company, which realised in Victorian times that space for graves in the Big Smoke was running out.
The cemetery — at one point the world’s biggest — had its own Necropolis Railway, which ran to a terminal near Waterloo station. Fares were cheap (and exploited by golfers wanting to reach the Surrey countryside), and investment from the public was swift. Back then, a poor person stood the risk of being dumped in a mass grave in London upon death. In Woking, they were guaranteed their own plot.
“In Kensal Green Cemetery, you’ll struggle to find a tree. Here, you’ll struggle to find a grave,” says Kim Lowe, who runs tours here on Sundays (although you can show yourself round any day you like). She’s referring to Brookwood’s charming wild qualities. Crumbly headstones nestle among redwood trees, creepers overtake mausoleums, and all is still except for the rustling of distant wildlife.
While everybody here got their own plot, not everybody got their own gravestone. One field appears empty - but underneath it lie the remains of many 19th century London actors. The vast cemetery retains more mystery than the likes of Highgate and, as Kim puts it, is less of a tourist trap too.
“If you’re feeling stressed, this is a tranquil place to come,” she says. “I tell people that it’s nothing to be scared of: it’s just a park that happens to have dead people in it. It’s an antidote to city life and somewhere to be reflective. The effect it has on children in particular is amazing.”
Among the ‘secrets’ of this little Woking wilderness are sections reserved for churches in Holborn, Soho, and Southwark which had their graveyards cleared out to make way for development in London. Some 230,000 people are buried here and a visitor can look out for the graves of architect Zaha Hadid or Rupert Bear creator Alfred Bestall — even scope out the relics of Edward the Martyr.
Ironically, it’s this sombre but mesmerising resting place that proves there really is ‘life’ in Woking, at least as quiet and rather affirming place that you might choose to have a potter around one day.
"We don’t have those issues you see in the media"
Unused land from the cemetery was gradually sold off over time, and what had been little more than a stopoff on the railway became a proper place when buildings rapidly started arriving on fields.
Hello, modern Woking: at best, the even more boring brother of Guildford; at worst, a downright malicious town referenced in a song by The Jam. But one building close to the train tracks might just prove everything you think you know about Woking to be totally wrong.
The Shah Jahan Mosque is a hugely significant site in the formation of modern Britain. It deserves every adjective Surrey isn’t normally given: quirky, pluralistic, world-famous.
When finished in 1889 it became the country’s first purpose-built mosque. This rather odd building features beautiful church-style stained glass and Turkish detailing: an eclecticism owed to the fact it was commissioned by a Jew who became a Christian and designed by… erm… a Christian who had never built a mosque before. Many noted Muslim converts also spent time here.
“There’s an understanding that Islam spread because of economic migrants to the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Imam Shaykh Naveed tells us when we pop in for a visit.
“But it’s not true. This mosque proves that Islam actually spread at the hands of white converts back in Victorian times. It means Woking has the oldest and the most influential Muslim community in the country.”
It’s become a ridiculously neighbourly place as a result. “Everybody gets on,” Naveed says matter-of-factly. “We don’t have those issues — those tensions — that we see in the media, or you hear about happening in other places. And I think a lot of that is because we’ve all grown up together. We all went to the same school.” In other words: Woking has a long time to get integrated, so it has great vibes.
"People are real here"
But it’s not all sight-seeing this part of the world, and for some the attraction of Woking is a safe, sane, and unpolluted life lived just a 24-minute train ride away from the bright lights of London. Why else would the town centre look as it is: functional, pristine, and uneventful at almost every turn?
No shopper here is ever found wanting for a cheeky greeting card, or a slice of laboratory-made cheesecake. In amongst the din of clothing-store dance music, there are a few welcome sanctuaries — and no visitor should overlook the striking arts space The Lightbox, the pleasant green corridor offered by the Basingstoke Canal, or even the funny little museum dedicated to hockey.
But the impression is of a centre needing its share of naughty disruptors. Heck — we’d even settle for a council-sanctioned piece of ‘street art’ if that’s what it took to get the creative juices flowing.
And yet. Down an alley we hit upon Cellar Magneval: not actually a cellar, but still an ‘underground’ establishment that’s starting to do things differently, Woking-style. What does that mean? Good wine, good cheese, and an unpretentious vibe which says that being London isn’t everything.
Manager Christophe Vitalien is a real convert. The Frenchman ended up here after a period living in Woolwich. “I like it here because they are real people,” he says. “In London they are fake people. It’s about ‘look what I am, who I am, what shoes I wear’. It’s not very authentic.
“Here it’s just fun. I meet proper, decent English people. As a foreigner living in London, it was very difficult to understand and make friends with the English people. It’s different here.”
Moments later, the sommelier of fine wines is back to chatting about footy with his regulars. Because why worry about merlot when you can worry about Mourinho? This is Woking: you call it mundane; it calls itself healthy, grounded, and real.
"The Formula 1 will definitely come here"
There’s change afoot in the centre: cranes and half-built towers hovering around the station like invading spaceships in HG Wells’ fin de siècle fantasy.
“Woking is coming up big-time,” says a man who should know. Dom Minardi has been here for 30 years and can’t see himself ever returning to Italy. His faith in the town is so strong he even buys into the dream of bringing Formula 1 to the streets of Woking. “It will definitely come here,” he says.
With his wife Filipa, he runs Deli Class: a gorgeous eatery catering for all-comers, not least the Italian population which originally arrived in this part of Surrey to take up jobs in farms and factories.
Over a delectable meal of swordfish salad, Dom explains why it is that a small British town is the place to be. “In Italy they don’t give you so much freedom,” he says. “I couldn’t have set up a business like this there. But in this country, you can express yourself.
“Often, we don’t realise until it’s too late what it means to enjoy life," Dom muses. "London is best appreciated once a week, once a fortnight. In Woking, people are relaxed. They don’t rush. That’s a very Italian quality.” A Mediterranean lifestyle reachable from Waterloo station? Bellissimo.
Unfussy Woking is worth a chance. What the town lacks in pretension and sparkle, it makes up for in liveability. You may not find any aliens here, but you’ll find a great deal of warm humanity — and in one or two interesting settings, too. Put it this way: we’ve not seen anywhere we’d rather be buried.