I’m a lifelong fan of alien invasion movies, so it’s odd I’ve never actually read War of the Worlds (though I’m probably one of the few people who count Speilberg’s 2005 take on the story as a guilty pleasure). However, when I found out Wells had his aliens land in a sandpit on Horsell Common, I’d wanted to visit it ever since. Aside from forming part of a possible examination of commons in literature, it’s exactly the kind of interesting tangent and obscure cultural reference that one might expect from an essay film. I’m sure Agnes Varda or Patrick Keiller would have made a trip had they happened to be filmmaking in Surrey.
I read Wells’ novel during my five night stay in Staines. The first third of the novel is set in and around this area, and the reader quickly becomes acquainted with Chertsey, Woking, Weybridge, Cobham and so on, both as quaint little towns in rural settings, then as smoking, blasted ruins. To some extent, this had an impact on my visit, especially given the gloom of much of the weather, and it was a little uncanny to read about the destruction of Weybridge at breakfast, then to visit its neglected common in the afternoon.
However, the morning I visited Horsell Common was the most beautiful stretch of weather of my entire visit and after my initial trip to the Peace Garden, of which more later, I found a quiet roadside bit of parking without the vociferous 2-hour restrictions of the official car parks and headed up to the Sand Pit.
Horsell’s Sand Pit is famous enough to have a special pathway leading up to it and a Blue Plaque – somewhere or other – bestowed by Mark Kermode. Originally a sand quarry, and in spite of patches of heather, birch and ponds, it is still indeed very sandy and in this, it’s quite unlike literature’s other famous common-land sand pit, Roo’s Sandy Pit up on the Ashdown Forest. It’s even sandy enough to encourage some rudimentary attempts at building sandcastles.
Sand being highly unstable, the pines at its rim don’t have an enviable future. Presumably once a considerable distance from the ever-eroding perimeter, these trees have their roots exposed which presumably will one day be insufficient to stay upright. These exposed roots look strangely tentacular, not just in the shapes grasping at the ground, but also in the curious sucker-like textures of their upward surfaces.
I can’t help but wonder, as Wells’ Martians were similarly octopoid, whether or not this spot inspired that portion of the story too. Wells lived nearby and was very familiar with the area, cycling around it to gather material. As open spaces with long histories and a smack of wildness, many commons certainly encourage the kind of reverie that a pioneer science fiction writer would need. They certainly have that effect on me, which is precisely what my Hidden Corners project at the Pebblebed Heaths National Nature Reserve was about.
The Sand Pit is certainly an interesting spot, whether one knows of the literary connection or not and perhaps it does look as if something might have crashed there, but in Wells’ novel the Sand Pit is there before the Martians’ arrival. So why is it so important, from a literary point of view, that they crash here? Horsell Common today is, like so many other former grazing areas, now largely woodland and even though Wells describes stands of pine trees, useful for fleeing the Heat Ray, most of the common would then have been open heath. Today, areas of the common are conserved as heathland, but these are essentially now woodland clearings. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that Wells seemed ignorant of just how flammable gorse is (he refers to it by the older name of furze); the fires started by the Martians would have spread considerably, rather than died down to a smouldering.
There’s two ways in which it matters that the Martians landed on common land. First, sand pits are a frequent feature, not least because so much common land, being ill-suited to agriculture, is on sandy soil favoured for heathland grazing. Second, the much more open Horsell Common of the late c.19th allows for the crowds of hundreds which gather, the description of which, with vendors selling food, recalls the fairs often typical of common land, while the lack of enclosing walls and hedgerows allow the crowds to arrive from across the area walking in from all directions, as described. Not just fairs, but political meetings and sports events are still features of these places; common land, in other words, lends itself to assembly in a way that a field or a park would not. There’s also a sense that a common is neutral ground, providing a kind of social equalising entirely necessary to the novel. Here, more than would be possible in an urban area or on private land, society is able more readily to amass, becoming the singular mankind about to be persecuted.
Away from the Sand Pit, I struggled to get a sense of the Horsell Common being writing about, as it is so densely wooded. However, I did manage that in one heathland clearing, which has the kinds of sandy tracks familiar to me from the Pebblebed Heaths and the Ashdown Forest.
It also includes remnants of a small blaze dating back some years. Enjoying the sense of the weird of this spot – burned gorse leaves the most impish, twisted shapes – I pocketed a small pebble still scorched by the blaze. I always find scorched stones slightly unsettling; stone presents to me a sense of imperviousness through its hardness – though of course a friction-smoothened pebble demonstrates it is anything but. English is, of course, rich with metaphors telling me of the solidity of stone, and so seeing this thin layer of carbon clinging to the surface suggests to me the mutability not just of stone but of everything. This is one of Wells’ major themes in War of the Worlds, which exposes the falsity of British – and indeed white – imperial arrogance, and indeed this is the note on which the novel ends.
Because of the leftist politics and his important role in creating the preconditions for both the EU and the UN, Wells’ racism is often overlooked. There are several examples of his racist thinking in his writing, some of it as strident as Lovecraft’s, and an early passage in War of the Worlds makes an analogy between the Martian invasion and the colonial invasion of the ‘inferior’ – his word – peoples of the world. In Wells’ defence, his views evolved over time, but they are nevertheless a slur on his thinking. It’s entirely fitting, therefore, that Horsell Common is home to a cemetery for the Muslim fallen of WWI from India and Pakistan, not least because Wells’ vision of total destruction through advanced technology is somewhat prescient of that war.
But I don’t want Wells’ shadow to linger over this place because it’s an absolute delight. Completed in 1917, it responded to German propaganda that Indians were not being buried according to their faith. 19 soldiers were interred here, joined by another 8 during WWII. Originally, the gravestones, adorned with pink and white heather, faced Mecca, but in 1969, the soldiers were disinterred to be reburied at the major war grave site at nearby Brookwood (itself former common land) and the site, despite becoming a listed building, fell into disrepair. In 2013, with National Lottery and Historic England financing, the site was restored and a new Peace Garden, using traditional Islamic garden forms, was created.
It is an exquisite spot, guarded over by several CCTV cameras and kept in pristine condition, although during my visit there was no water flowing or in the pool. The 27 Himalayan birches represent the 27 soldiers and it is, indeed, a place for calm reflection.
I really welcomed finding this spot. Commons reflect the changes in society in the ways they are used, and who uses them. In an area with a considerable Islamic population such as Woking, it is therefore important to encounter a historic influence, when we are too often led to think of multiculturalism as somehow being something of very recent times. Commons are dynamic places, as evidenced by ongoing debates about rewilding or rewetting areas currently farmed in light of the climate crisis, and the cautious welcoming of an explosion in visitor numbers during the 2020 and 2021 national lockdowns, along with their attendant problems of ‘fly camping’ and wildfires. For all these reasons, and not least the beauty of its location and its careful design, The Peace Garden is somewhere worth going out of your way to visit.