This oft-flooded piece of grazing land, named in the Domesday Book of 1086, now carries the name of Old Woking, dwarfed by the newer town to the north.
A Saxon monastery once stood here, but when the railway arrived in 1838, nine astonishing years after Stephenson’s Rocket had changed travel for ever, this was a blasted and empty heath. Woking Common was just a deserted staging post as the tracks grew to Southampton in the west and Portsmouth to the south. The sand, gorse and forest made this poor country for agriculture, and there was little potential in the place then.
But the town owed its lifeblood not to the railway, nor the Basingstoke Canal which had come this way a hundred years before. Rather it was the dream of Victorian developers, who saw riches to be made in a City of the Dead. London’s rapid growth had led to overcrowding not just in the streets and slums, but also in the cemeteries, where space was fast running out. And so arose the unlikely vision of a vast Necropolis beyond the southwestern suburbs, where funereal space and the potential for wealth creation were seemingly unlimited.
The opening of the first cemetery in 1854 saw the land soar in value, and everything changed. A small town sprang up around the station and its marshalling yards – a few humble terraces and shops beside the tracks at first, then elegant Edwardian villas beyond. The rough, sandy, but well-drained soils found admirers, too, replicating as they did the dry and springy turf of the seaside. A swathe of fine golf courses was built in a single decade around the turn of the century, offering the nearest thing to a links within reach of London. Trees made new and unfamiliar hazards to those more used to chasing the white ball around sand dunes on the coast, and parkland golf was born right here.
As for the Necropolis, well, maybe it was a developer’s dream which never worked out. Or maybe it worked out just as planned, since there was money to be made either way. Only 450 acres at Brookwood were devoted to burials, rather than the 2 000 originally planned. The first legal cremations in the country were performed here in 1885, helping ultimately to alleviate the burial space problem. The cemetery is a sleepy place now, nestling in pine trees beside the railway. Dodi Fayed was buried there the day after the Paris crash which killed Princess Diana in 1997.
In America, a town dating back to the 1830’s and with even older roots might be a historic monument, preserved for the educational enrichment of a nation, but this is England. And if Woking was unsure in the early days of its role as railway yard or garden suburb, in truth the town has been restlessly re-inventing itself ever since.
Today’s visit proves just the same. A few unexpected hours of family licence are perfect for next week’s planned 18 miles, and so I happily rip up my schedule and run Wokingwards. The first time I came here, they’d recently completed Western Europe’s largest housing estate, and pulled down the swimming pool to build a shopping precinct. After this came a second mall and theatre, and since then there’s been the unrealistically named Holiday Inn Woking, and a series of huge, demented office blocks for soaring and sometimes doomed technology companies.
The change continues, and it’s relentless. This morning, I see that a light engineering factory has gone, replaced by tiny bright yellow new homes. The pub opposite is a triangle of brown soil behind steel fencing, presumably awaiting the arrival of luxury flats or Another Surrey Living Opportunity. In between Blockbuster and the Police Station, I find a Mediterranean-hotel-style block of new apartments, enjoying an unmatched view of a multi-storey car park.
Nearby, under depressingly darker brown eighties bricks, lies the stationside flat where once I lived for a few months. It boasted a perfect location for the commuter, or at least one resigned to hearing Coronation Street at full volume through paper thin walls from next door. I turn for a quick look around, but just like then I get out again, as soon as I can.
Through the station underpass and past the fast food outlets, there’s another new apartment block, this one overlooking a roundabout. It’s 26 minutes from London, but there’s no other reason to stay here. The Victorian terraces nearby are more attractive, next to the canal and a playground, where I helplessly saw a seven-year old boy run from the swings straight under a car as I left the office on my first day at work. He survived, although his leg was in poor shape, and there’s a fence around the park now.
Across the canal, there are glimpses through the trees of Horsell Common, the place H. G. Wells chose for the Martians’ landing in ‘War of the Worlds‘. Some impressively tall and shiny chrome sculptures in the town centre model the monstrous machines he imagined then, but there is no sign of them now amidst a landscape of heather, birch, sand and scrub, probably unchanged since Wells’ day a hundred years ago.
All the more pity, then, that the far corner of the heath has been obliterated by the McLaren Formula One complex. Based in the town for many years, the company threatened to leave if not granted this new site. It was protected green belt land, but proved a grey shade of green. The farm had a children’s zoo and model railway, argued to be a pre-existing development. How a few goat sheds and a playground ride for toddlers equate to a massive factory, offices and a 600-space car park is beyond me, but then I’m not in planning.
Nine miles are behind me now, with a stiff hill into Ottershaw ahead. The deserted cycle track in the trees is the meagre planning gain from this development, but at least I’m sheltered from the road as I munch some fig rolls filched from home a few hours earlier. As an experiment in onboard nutrition they work well, so I scoff three in one go, and re-boot the legs for a steeper stretch beside the church.
The Otter’s Haugh (Heath) is mentioned in King Alfred’s charter to Chertsey Monastery in 890, and formed part of Windsor Forest, the royal hunting grounds, for centuries. But the parish evolved from a group of hamlets only a thousand years later, and the church is a red brick Victorian delight from 1865, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, famous for St Pancras Station in London (opened the same year), the Albert Memorial (1863) and the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford (1841).
I turn left, through ancient chestnut woods I know so well, over Chobham Road and onto Ether Hill, scene of my first middle-aged run seven years ago. That breathless and frantic episode in the forest lasted just 14 minutes, but it nearly killed me. The hill is small but steep from this side, and I lapse disappointingly into a walk. But it doesn’t bother me, since the miles are going by. Sadly the rhododendron wood, where we used to roam at will, now lies within a designer golf course, targeted at expatriate corporate members for £ 90k a debenture. There are railings all around, and large Keep Out notices. I am a golfer, yet this and the destruction of a scrubby marsh pond to make a manufactured and ‘perfect’ lake infuriate me.
Out of the woods, a short detour brings me to my old house. The new trees I planted in the garden are now as tall as the roof, and there’s a new knocker on the door, but otherwise I could almost get my key out and walk in, for it looks unchanged. Ten years of my life, here.
My legs are feeling sluggish now, or is it nostalgic, as they lag through the next mile past St Peter’s Hospital. Memories emerging from the maternity and cancer wards threaten to detain me, the moments of joy and desperation from so many a life. But time moves on, and after a reflective glance, so do I. Back in the village, I buy two drinks to refill my bottle. Some familiar tracks and roads now, another hill which I fail to conquer, and down to the canal at West Byfleet. A flat mile to stretch the legs, not quickly, but more rhythmically, and bring me to my goal at last.
Here, the Basingstoke Canal (1788) meets the even older Wey Navigation (1753). Two ancient waterways, trading routes from London to the farmlands and markets of Surrey and Hampshire, briefly even linked with the Sussex coast in Napoleon’s time. High beyond the foot crossing, I can see the railway bridge, built as the line advanced westwards. Upwards again, whispering at this height and somehow almost unnoticed in the backwater below, lies the massive concrete viaduct of the M25 motorway. Unseen above, this vast leviathan of a mega-ringroad carries today’s stressed commuters around London, as well as modern trade from the Channel ports to superstores and business parks across the country. The white hot technologies of three successive centuries meet at this one point like no other I know.
Beside the three bridge pillars, each perhaps 120′ high, stand teenagers in hooded baseball tops of different colours, each with a spray gun in his hand. Openly, and unconcernedly, they are painting graffiti onto the bridge. In broad daylight, at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Not the colourful, three dimensional script which is almost tasteful, but dull, grey squiggly letters. ‘Shaz‘. If it’s meaningless to me, maybe there’s a cult significance to them.
It puzzles me as I jog the last mile to New Haw Lock and back along the road to Byfleet station. Boarding the fittingly ancient, 1950’s slam-door grime-wagon of a train back to Guildford, I ponder the eighteen miles which have brought me here. Three hours, six fig rolls, two orange smoothies and some silver spray paint. Appallingly cynical urban development and technological progress, testament to a landscape of change. One man’s memories and perspectives along the way.
History, of a kind, all hidden in a lifetime’s journey.