Dial M for Mystery

justice, southampton, scales, street furniture

Suppose you were on trial for murder, in a country where the death penalty was still applied. With the trial more than two-thirds complete – just a few more defence witnesses and the summings-up to go – suppose a virus put a halt to court proceedings, as jurors fell ill and social distancing made further hearings impossible.

How would you want the thread to be picked up when the court system could begin functioning again?

Three possibilities come to mind:
The judge reaches a verdict based on the evidence heard so far
The trial is resumed from the point at which it was interrupted as soon as it is possible to do so
The trial is abandoned. A new jury is sworn in and the process begins all over again.

Surely the first option can be dismissed out of hand. Without all the evidence having been heard and, in cross-examination, tested, no final verdict is possible. Unfortunately, then, Liverpool cannot be awarded the Premier League title. Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich cannot be relegated with 27-30 points each yet to be contested.

The third option also presents problems of consistency and fairness. Starting again does not move all the pieces back to where they were. In the courtroom analogy, a new jury might have other sympathies; witnesses might no longer be available; new information might have come to light. The trial could be quite different.

Regardless of your view of the concept of natural justice, or of Liverpool FC, for Liverpool to be denied the title arbitrarily would be grotesquely unfair. As the table stands with the league programme suspended, Liverpool need just two wins from nine games to be sure of the title; they have 27 wins from 29 at this point.

Elland Road, Leeds United, Leeds, promotion, Championship
Elland Road: must surely have Premier League football again next season

And so on down the leagues. In the Championship, Leeds and West Bromwich have pulled away in the automatic promotion places, as have Coventry in League 1. They and their fans would justifiably feel hard-done to if their efforts to March were expunged. At the darker end of the tunnel, poor Bolton are almost certain to be relegated from League One and Stevenage from League Two. Reprieves for them might condemn two other clubs next year.

But there is a quarter of the season outstanding and few issues are clear-cut. The problem with the second option is time. Nobody knows when football might resume. As things stand the Premier League has proposed fixtures from 2 May, but that seems optimistic. Beyond that point, the 2020/21 season will become a factor in calculations.

One idea offered as a potential solution is quite ingenious. The Premier League is apparently looking at the possibility of an accelerated finish to the season in conditions resembling an international tournament: all the clubs gathered in a small number of neutral locations, playing out the remains of the season behind closed doors.

They would hope to be able to do this through June and July. The close season, officially defined in FA rules as June, would thus be sacrificed. But everybody would arrive at the 2020/21 season in the same state of exhaustion. And the investments of time, effort, money, emotion etc in the 2019/20 season would not have been wasted.

It may not happen. First, the infection curve may not be sufficiently flat for anyone to embark on such a project with confidence. Second, complications may arise not only from the fitness and health of players but also from their registrations and contracts. The expectations of broadcasters and sponsors will also be a factor.

Even so, a continuation of the present season must be the fairest course. Even if it runs well into 2020/21. Clubs should be allowed to complete this season’s competitions on the terms under which they entered them; if those terms need to be adjusted for next season, so be it. No League Cup, perhaps, to free up mid-week nights; only one league fixture between clubs, to halve the length of the season; no winter break. If the terms are understood and accepted before the 2020/21 season begins, there should be no problem.

But the example of the play-offs gives grounds for doubt that the current season will be allowed to finish. The play-offs suggest that the people who run football have little regard for the time, effort, money, emotion etc invested in a season by a club and its supporters. Ask anyone whose team has ever finished in third place, streets ahead of fourth but obliged nonetheless to play three more games at the end of the season to gain a promotion it has already earned.

In the Dark

The idea of football tourism as a leisure pursuit depends rather obviously on two things. With football no longer a possibility, is tourism alone a legitimate substitute?

Venice, FC Venezia, replica strip, football tourism
‘People flock to Venice in their millions without the city having had a decent football club for decades.’

Of course it is under normal circumstances, although even then it might seem perverse in some cases. At one end of the scale, people flock to Venice in their millions without the city having had a half-way decent football club for decades. But at the other, the questionable lure of the sights is now compounded by the closure of many attractions and facilities.

Towns of Two Halves has always maintained that any town can be regarded as a tourist attraction if you approach it with the right attitude. That becomes a difficult position to maintain when towns are shutting down. You’ll have seen a lot of newspaper columnists lately pretending to have read La Peste by Albert Camus; Nevil Shute’s On the Beach also comes to mind, with the old boys in the Melbourne club wondering whether they have time to drink their way through the port collection in the cellar before the fallout cloud arrives.

FC Halifax Town, Ebbsfleet United, The Shay, National League, free-kick, last match before the shutdown
Jack Redshaw’s free-kick grazes the Ebbsfleet bar; as close as Halifax came to an equaliser in English football’s last match until further notice.

It was possible on the 14 March to watch Halifax play Ebbsfleet in the National League and to visit the Calderdale Industrial Museum, Halifax Minster and the Square Chapel Arts Centre. A handful of days later, all were closed until further notice. Now public transport is beginning to wind down – by this time next week travel in general might be discouraged, which would finally knock any idea of tourism on the head.

When the crisis has passed – and China appears to have got on top of the coronavirus in about four months – both elements of football tourism will probably take much longer to recover. Many football clubs seem ill-equipped to cope with the routine demands of the season; a prolonged shutdown will sorely test their viability. The EFL has made a fund of £50m available for clubs in difficulties. It’s a tidy sum, but if all 72 clubs applied, it could pay their players’ wages… for a month. Some of the local museums, galleries, country houses and other establishments so beloved of Towns of Two Halves also exist only where tolerances are so fine that a feeler gauge is necessary.

They will need all the help they can get. It’s hard to imagine that lower league football clubs or local cultural enterprises will be high in the Government’s list of priorities. When football returns, revel in the chance to be a tourist again. Any day can be a festival, just as any town can be a tourist resort.

Momentito!

subutteo stopwatch headline pun

Football is having a moment. As in so many other regrettable cases, foreign imports are to blame.

‘Moment’ is the word on almost every manager’s lips, and of one or two players. When they are not using it incorrectly they’re using it too often, and the habit is spreading into journalism.

First it was the managers. Perhaps because time is such an elusive quality, their otherwise exceptional English lets them down when it comes to expressions of time. Even the best succumb. “Right now is maybe the best moment in their season,” said Pep Guardiola about Manchester United before the derby on 8 March. “We had a few good moments,” Ralph Hasenhuttl reflected after Southampton’s home defeat by Newcastle. Mikel Arteta produced a masterclass after Arsenal’s FA Cup win at Portsmouth on 2 March. Of his young players he said: “I knew that they were going to have difficult moments during the game, they have to learn from those moments, they have to manage their moments better than we did in the first half in some moments.” The first mention is justified and accurate, the rest are increasingly redundant flourishes and the effect is of an arpeggio. Magnifique, Mikel!

English managers are not immune. Frank Lampard, speaking after Chelsea’s 2-0 cup win over Liverpool, said: “We’ve got to celebrate these moments.” It’s not exactly wrong, but there are better words. ‘Wins’ springs to mind, or ‘days’, or even perhaps ‘anomalies’. It’s important that such alternatives don’t disappear altogether; it could happen, especially as the habit is spreading beyond the game into the media.

The commentator at the same Southampton match called the winning goal “a brilliant moment for Allan St-Maximin, a horrible moment for Yan Valery”. The BBC’s Laura Scott commented on 3 March that the coronavirus “was mentioned at several moments” during a FIFA meeting. We can expect rapid contagion. BBC personnel already show signs of trimming their vocabulary down to a single adjective, ‘iconic’, a single future time expression, ‘anytime soon’, and the general-purpose ‘epicentre’ when the location of almost anything is at issue.

What is a moment? In cosmology, there’s an adjunct to the Big Bang theory known as Cosmic Inflation. According to science, Cosmic Inflation lasted from 10-36 to 10-33 seconds after the ‘singularity’ that is regarded as the start of the universe. That’s a very short period of time. Even for a moment, it’s quite brief. But it makes the point. Moments do not last long. They turn into something else – seconds, periods, intervals etc – when they are extended.

All is not yet lost. “It’s been a difficult period for us,” said Deli Alli in early March. The young man’s choice of the word ‘period’ to cover the months since Harry Kane’s injury offers grounds for hope.

VAR: An exercise in Artificial Intelligence?

VAR, Video Assistant Referee, Robocop, montage

When The Guardian (26 Feb) announced Jonathan Liew’s silver award – congratulations, by the way – in the British Sports Journalist Awards, it published a column by him that opened: “I don’t really have a position on VAR.”

That’s an odd attitude to take when your stock-in-trade is to hold an opinion. Very few people, surely, “don’t really have a position on VAR”: those with negligible interest in football, mainly. Until the turn of the year it may have been legitimate to suspend judgement, arguing limply that it was ‘too early to tell’. But the season is now two-thirds over (nine-tenths, from a Liverpool point of view). It’s high time opinion-formers in football decided where they stood on VAR.

The difficulty they face is that VAR is not consistently atrocious. Yes, its decisions are occasionally baffling. But occasionally it comes up with what appears to be if not the right answer then at least a reasonable stab at it. And therein lies a plausible explanation.

Many times this season it has been almost impossible to imagine that the Video Assistant Referee is watching the same incident as the rest of us. Is it possible that in imagining this we’ve stumbled on the truth: that nobody in the famous Stockley Park Incident Room is watching it? But an experimental Artificial Intelligence (AI) system is?

VAR has all the hallmarks of AI:
Mystical faith in technology on the part of the authorities (see also NHS records, smart motorways and, looking nervously right, left and right again, autonomous cars)
Nit-picking Assuming its lines are accurate, as VAR has to, the width of an armpit or an instep is as good as a mile
No understanding of the soul of the game Some goals (eg Teemu Pukki for Norwich (2:10) against Spurs in December 2019) are works of art and should not be ruled out for anything less than the personal involvement of Vladimir Putin in the build-up
Incredibly slow.

In addition, three hitherto puzzling factors can now tentatively be explained:
The reluctance of referees to consult pitch-side monitors. The interface must still be in beta testing. The referee would have no control over the process and would be obliged to wait for VAR to shuffle its replays, lines and angles, pausing occasionally to flash up an eternally gyrating icon
The inability to distinguish between clear and marginal errors by the referee. Computers are much better at black and white than grey, even when the grey might be mistaken for Farrow & Ball strong white
The abandonment of any attempt to police penalty-area grappling at corners. VAR is clearly programmed to regard arms as a legitimate part of the game except when the ball strikes a Bournemouth defender’s shoulder.

If VAR is an AI application, should we expect it to improve? Typically, AI systems use vast quantities of incoming data to build on the original algorithms their creators supply and to fine-tune their own performance. Unfortunately, that can mean their mistakes become more ingrained and alarming, depending on the mentality of those creators. In this case we should assume teams of programmers and referees. It doesn’t augur well, does it?

Barrow

Barrow, Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness, windfarm, wind turbine, sunset, BarrowAFC, Bromley
“Along Central Drive, the Irish Sea soon fills the skyline. The horizon looks as if it is ring-fenced by turbines”

Barrow people must be heartily sick of seeing their town stereotyped. A couple of days before my visit Barrow happened to appear on the ITV News. The reporter was flogging a ‘Death of the High Street’ horse. Boarded-up premises and proprietors with stiff upper lips were prominent. If ITV found anything attractive to point their cameras at, the editors chose not to show it.

Barrow, Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Lake District, sea
“On the natural skyline, brooding promontories slope down to the sea”
Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Barrow Town Hall, sunrise
Barrow Town Hall: “Above the town’s streets, dramatic Victorian towers and spires soar”

Where might they have looked? The snowy uplands of the Lake District, perhaps. Or the Walney Island seashore, barely 20mins walk from the town centre. To get there you’d pass the Dock Museum and cross a bridge with views Constable might have painted, in either direction. On the natural skyline, brooding promontories slope down to the sea; above the town’s streets, dramatic Victorian towers and spires soar.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Devonshire Dock Hall, Abbey Road, boulevard, Baron Haussmann
“A number of the thoroughfares are so wide you’d wonder whether Baron Haussmann did some moonlighting here.” In the background, Devonshire Dock Hall: “the six-pack on steroids that butts into the town’s southern horizon like a theatre flat”

Barrow is a town of sweeping vistas and unexpected panoramas. In part this is a result of Victorian town-planning. The town centre’s grid system carries the eye down otherwise ordinary streets to horizons improbable distances away. A number of the principle thoroughfares are so wide you’d wonder whether Baron Haussmann did some moonlighting here. They tend to flow into each other at elaborately decorative roundabouts.

One such boulevard is Holker Street, which older readers will recognise as identifying Barrow AFC’s ground in days of yore. Holker Street runs from the railway station to the Progression Solicitors Stadium and has pavements that must be 10 or 12ft wide. If these are not the widest pavements expediting the movement of large numbers of people to or from an English football ground, I’d be very surprised. (As if to compensate, the Wilkie Road pavement running along the north side of the ground is so narrow you’re more or less obliged to jaywalk.)

Barrow is also a town of unexpected squares, many of them given over to car-parks. During the last war the German bomb-aimers were notoriously inaccurate, hitting the town as often as the docks; if these squares are the result at least some good came of it. Even where there are cars there are generally also encircling trees. In the absence of cars, you’ll find grass and an occasional memorial, often complemented by statuary, plaques or other features. Barrow is a town of oddly shaped benches: some commemorative, some sponsored, some just expressive of a bench-maker’s joie de vivre.

The statues also vary. In the middle of roundabouts and outside the magnificent town hall there are conventional frock-coated Victorians. Elsewhere monuments of different characters recall Barrow’s industrial, nautical and sporting past. Emlyn Hughes is one of the first you’ll encounter if you arrive by train.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Spirit of Barrow, public art, sculpture
The Spirit of Barrow: “From some angles the four shipyard workers have a Soviet-era look…”

In the centre of the shopping district a bronze grouping called The Spirit of Barrow is particularly wonderful. From some angles the four large shipyard workers have a Soviet-era look, and the words ‘Courage’, ‘Labour, ‘Skill’ and ‘Progress’ around the base reinforce that. But the quartet suggests Pride in and Affection for the town and it lifts the spirits.

There’s more Barrovian baroque at the Dock Museum. This occupies an old dry dock close to the Walney Island bridge. On the day I visited, the Significant Form exhibition of the South Lakes Art Collective opened in the atmospheric space at the lower level of the dock. Above, there are displays celebrating Barrow’s history – natural and industrial. Not surprisingly, the models of vessels built in Barrow are sensational (and in the case of one submarine in particular, quite chilling). Equally sensational and not at all chilling was the flapjack in the museum café.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Sir James Ramsden, facial hair, mutton-chops, benefactor
Sir James Ramsden: credited with bringing industry and prosperity to Barrow. “He also brought the most remarkable pair of mutton-chops.”

Notable buildings (aside from the Town Hall) include the one now occupied by the Citizens Advice Bureau. This was formerly the bath-house presented to the town in 1872 by Sir James Ramsden, the town’s first mayor and the man most regularly credited with bringing industry and prosperity to it. He also brought the most remarkable pair of mutton-chops.

Next door on Abbey Road is the Nan Tait Centre, now an arts centre but originally in 1900 Barrow’s Technical School. Redbrick, terracotta and vast panels representing Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Labor Omnia Vincit – what more could you want?

Devonshire Dock Hall sounds as if it could be another Victorian palais, perhaps where Music Hall breathed its last in 1914. It is, certainly, one of the most prominent buildings in the town: it’s the six-pack on steroids that butts into the town’s southern horizon like a theatre flat. Occupied by BAE Systems, it is an indoor shipbuilding complex.

The sea-front is well worth a detour. Apart from anything else it’s a pleasant walk (or a short bus ride). It takes you through Vickerstown, a UK example of a phenomenon more common – and notorious – in the USA: the company town. The provision of housing for employees sounds enlightened but it could equally represent self-interest as companies sought to discourage unionisation, offset wage rises by rent increases etc.

Along Central Drive, the Irish Sea soon fills the skyline. The horizon looks as if it is ring-fenced by turbines: what you’re looking at is the Walney Wind Farm, the largest offshore wind farm in the world according to the BBC. Opinion will vary about whether it’s unsightly: I’d say No, and I’d offer in support the decision of ITV not to show it. The turbines are far enough away to be matchstick figures on the horizon and you could make a case for them providing points of interest in the view.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Morecambe Bay, Lake District, Furness Line, railway
To the east is Morecambe Bay: go by train along the scenic Furness Line

The beach here is of pebbles. I’m told you’ll find sand further along the front in both directions; behind Walney there are mud-flats and to the east is Morecambe Bay. In other words, the variety of marine environments is wide. And in the background is the Lake District. It’s quite a place.

* While I was taking a photograph of The Spirit of Barrow, a couple of buskers offered a spirited version of Wish You Were Here. They were worth a contribution but I was less sure about the sentiment. Did I wish You were here? If I’d invited You to Barrow, in January, You might think the magic had gone. But I was guilty of the stereotyping decried at the top of this piece. I withdraw the remark and apologise. Don’t let anything discourage you from going to see Barrow, at any time of year – and go by train.

Barrow 2 Bromley 0
Progression Solicitors Stadium, 18 January 2020

Chinese New Year

Disappointingly, no football team is nicknamed The Rats. On the plus side, that means we can all celebrate Chinese New Year without compromising ourselves. Fans of the clubs below can watch top class football over the next two weekends and support The Rats.

Carlisle United, Walsall, Carlisle, Tullie House, Chinese New Year
Carlisle celebrations (image by Stuart Walker)
Bristol Rovers, Coventry City, Bristol, Chinese New Year
Bristol fashion (image by John Seaman)

On Saturday 25 January:
Fleetwood at Bristol Rovers (the Pirates)
Oxford at Newcastle
Sheffield United at Millwall
Tottenham at Southampton
Walsall at Carlisle

On 1 February:
Barnsley at Charlton
Chelsea at Leicester
Coventry at Bristol Rovers

Plans in Manchester are not entirely clear. Visit Manchester’s website refers to ‘four days’ of celebrations but, as recently as 22 Jan, did not specify which four.

The Emperor’s Green Clothes

floodlight, tokenism, BBC Sport, Sport Positive Summit

The BBC is making a big deal today of initiatives by Premier League clubs to do their bit for the environment. Research by BBC Sport and the ‘United Nations-backed’ Sport Positive Summit puts Arsenal and Manchester City at the top of its ‘sustainability rankings’.

Arsenal and Manchester City, you can’t help but notice, are both sponsored by airlines.

But long-haul pre-season tours did not feature in the research. Nor did the multiple strips the clubs change every season to sell anew to supporters. And yet the producer of the research claims it focuses “on categories that clubs control”.

If you accept the science of the climate crisis, as the BBC affects to, this all looks suspiciously like a form of tokenism known as ‘green-washing’.

* Towns of Two Halves concentrates mainly on Shank’s Pony and public transport in guiding you round the attractions of towns with football clubs, green or otherwise.

Oktoberfest

Leeds Oktoberfest, Leeds United, Birmingham City
Leeds Oktoberfest: coming up on 18 and 19 October

The international break seems to have consumed half of October, leaving very little time for the month’s two big (if confected) festivals: Oktoberfest and Halloween.
In fact much of the UK celebrates Oktoberfest in September, being in a different time zone to Munich. But a handful of big cities (and one smaller town) stick to the calendar. If you have an away game coming up in those places, take your lederhosen:

Saturday 19 October
Birmingham Oktoberfest Brunch
Visiting teams in the vicinity are Brighton at Villa and Cheltenham at Walsall.
Leeds
By a happy coincidence, Birmingham City fans missing their own Oktoberfest can enjoy Leeds’.
Wolverhampton
Southampton are at Wolves that day.

Manchester Oktoberfest, Manchester United, Liverpool, beer, steins, dirndl, lederhosen
Manchester Oktoberfest: at Mayfield, by Piccadilly, 16-20 October

Sunday 20
Manchester
Liverpool play at United.

Saturday 26
Colchester
It’s quite a trek for Newport County fans but a stein or two might help.
London has an Oktoberfest at Olympia on this Saturday. None of the West London clubs is at home, but London Overground means Olympia isn’t the backwoods destination it used to be from the rest of the capital.

Weekend Break

Lost Weekend, Ray Milland, International break, Support the Lower Leagues

England’s game being on Friday night leaves Saturday afternoon free for you to watch live football.
Have you looked at League One or League Two recently? True, there’s some very poor football played at that level, but you’ll see an occasional flash of promise and a good young player in the making. It can also be strangely calming to watch a match in which you don’t have anything invested in the outcome.
And if the worst comes to the worst, you can leave 10 minutes before the end with an easy conscience, and beat the traffic.
If the football itself isn’t enough, here are some of the other attractions to be found in places with league football this Saturday:

Blackpool Illuminations, Ghost Walk and Rotherham United.
Bristol At the theatre, a dramatisation of One Hundred Years of Solitude; at galleries, an Aardman exhibition, the Royal West of England Academy Open and films by Yoko Ono; at Rovers, MK Dons.
Ipswich v Wycombe: Schumann, a craft fair, quirky automata and an Ed Sheeran exhibition.
Oxford United v Doncaster: Bill Bryson has sold out and the Lieder Festival (Tales of Beyond) may be tricky to dip in an out of, but there’s something intriguing round every corner in Oxford.
Peterborough v Lincoln: a craft market, a Glow event, and exhibitions on hoards and fabrics.

Portsmouth, Naval Dockyards, HMS Warrior, Gillingham, Medway towns

Portsmouth v Gillingham: take the kids to Horrible Histories: The Exhibition. Or call in at the Oktoberfest; for gentler pleasures follow the Open Studios trail.
Rochdale v Accrington: Music before the match in the town and after it with an Amy Winehouse tribute act at Spotland. Also a chance to see the Protest & Peterloo exhibition.
Southend v Wimbledon: Foreworks on the front; and a last chance to see Day Tripper, a show featuring the work of Liz Arnold and contemporary artists.
Sunderland v Fleetwood: Vaguely seasonal diversions – a Christmas craft fair and, for the kids, a Halloween Trail and Elmer.

Carlisle v Crewe: Tech Fest, singing in the Cathedral, and a Cumbrian perspective on Japanese art.
Cheltenham v Newport: literature in Cheltenham, plus John Ruskin and Tatty Devine.
Crawley v Colchester: a bomber special at the Wings Museum: hear an RR Merlin engine from a 1943 Halifax.
Exeter v Forest Green: music in the Two Moors Festival and The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage, plus song and storytelling in Gothic Dartmoor.

Leyton Orient, Walsall, Olympic Park

Leyton Orient v Walsall: take a stroll through the many environments of the Olympic Park.
Macclesfield v Port Vale: Nature Walk in West Park.
Mansfield v Oldham: Mind, Body & Spirit Show, and a charity soul & Motown night at the football club – for guide dogs.
Morecambe v Bradford: Lancaster Music Festival, a Gin event, jazz for children and the Morecambe Camera Club exhibition.
Salford v Cambridge: Ordsall Hall Ghost Hunt, plus all the resources of Manchester and Salford.
Scunthorpe v Northampton: Northern Soul, plus Lego.
Stevenage v Grimsby: British Inclusive Dance Festival and Design Icons.
Swindon v Plymouth: Anniversary events at Lydiard Park, plus a vintage sale at the Steam Museum. Argyle’s second visit to Swindon in four days.

Woking

Woking Lightbox sculpture Kitty Canal Cruises art Basingstoke Canal
Lightbox moment: a weathered bull watches the canal cruise boat preparing to disembark

Visiting supporters who approach Woking from the M25 are directed by road signs towards the carpark at Heathside. Why? Who knows. Heathside is not close to the ground. Nor is it particularly convenient for the town centre. Perhaps for these reasons (and if my experience of Heathside on a matchday Saturday is anything to go by) you’ll have a wide choice of parking bays.

Price may be another factor that puts parkers off Heathside. If you arrive early enough for a cursory tour of Woking before the game, you may be in the carpark six or seven hours. That would be £10. And the Pay & Display machines don’t take cards or notes. Another dubious point in Heathside’s favour, then – if you arrive with pockets full of cash you’ll leave a great deal lighter.

I hedged my bets with £4.20 for up to three hours. False economy, I know, but that left options open: at around 2.15pm I could top-up and walk to the ground, or I could take the car and look for somewhere closer to Kingfield Stadium, home of the Cards (short for Cardinals).

Basingstoke Canal, River Wey Navigation, Kitty Canal Cruises
The Basingstoke Canal: reopened in 1991 after a 25-year restoration project

Woking was being rebuilt that day. The many cranes stood idle, peering into the town like paralysed insects. Hoardings lined walkways, and low-level plastic barriers helped pedestrians to avoid blundering into roadworks. If, discouraged and disorientated, you headed north reckoning to find the Basingstoke Canal crossing your path, you wouldn’t go far wrong.

It’s a green and shady corridor and it will lead you to Woking’s better side. The canal was formally reopened in 1991 after a 25-year restoration project. For a restful 1¼hrs, a cruise from the town wharf is an attractive prospect.

Sir Alec Bedser, Woking, Bedser Bridge, Basingstoke Canal
Sir Alec Bedser: opening the bowling from the Town End

The canal is crossed at the wharf by a footbridge dedicated to the legendary Bedser twins. They grew up in Woking and their statues stand at either end of the bridge: Alec bowling, at the Town End, and Eric batting a little over 22yds away. The borough council offices are fielding at long-on and halfway up the wall is a sculpted cricket ball, as though hit for six.

Eric Bedser, Woking, Bedser Bridge, Basingstoke Canal
Eric Bedser: looks to me as if he’s clipped it over midwicket…

Statuary and street art is a Woking speciality. The town’s association with HG Wells provides several instances. Wells lived here while he was producing The War of the Worlds. A dramatic Martian tripod dominates a small crossroads that glories in the name Crown Square, and nearby a space-travelling cylinder is embedded in the pavement. The canal cruises go past Horsell Common, featured in the book as the site of the first Martian landing. A statue of Wells himself, holding (and surrounded by) references to his work though not notably melancholic, sits outside the town’s Victoria Gate, on the Woking Heritage Trail.

Woking Borough Council, Woking, Bedser Bridge
… but the ball is picked up over long-on by the Woking Borough Council offices

Not all the town’s public art is as straightforward. ‘The Space Between’, celebrating The Jam, is mystifyingly modern – three tall chunks of timber. In the Wolsey Place shopping mall three willow-bound cyclists ride across metal waves that may represent hills or the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Painted bronze statues by Sean Henry, born in Woking, lurk around the town standing, seated and reclining.

Formal art provision is in a building called the Lightbox, close to Bedser Bridge. The architects, Marks Barfield, were also responsible for Brighton’s i360 tower – well, we all have our off days. The Lightbox grants free entry to a museum called ‘Woking’s Story’, to a gallery named for the Art Fund Prize, sculpture, second-hand books, a good shop and a very good café. Upstairs, galleries and special exhibitions cost £7.50. The main attraction on my visit was ‘Burning Bright: the Scottish Colourists’. If £7.50 sounds steep for a provincial art gallery, consider: a few hours in a carpark, or the opportunity to spend as long as you like in front of JD Fergusson’s Villa Gotte Garden?

War of the Worlds, HG Wells, Martian, Woking, Ebbsfleet United
‘A dramatic Martian tripod dominates a small crossroads’

Woking’s Story, it transpires, involves a surprising amount of spirituality. The town has the 1889 Shah Jehan Mosque, the first mosque to be built in northern Europe.

To the west of Woking is Brookwood Cemetery, the largest cemetery in western Europe and, indeed, in the world when it opened in 1854. Until 1941 it was served by a rail service known as the Coffin Express, running on the Necropolis Line from Waterloo. According to one story, golfers used the service to get to Brookwood Golf Club but had to wear mourning; since golfers are notorious for their lack of fashion sense, that can only have been an improvement. The 220 hectares are used by Woking people as an extended and presumably rather poignant park on their doorstep. Brookwood Military Cemetery, the last resting place of Commonwealth and allied victims of two world wars, lies adjacent.

A little way east of town, on the other side of the M25, is Brooklands Museum. If you were to take this in as well you might need to set aside a weekend. Motorsport, aviation and latterly Concorde are all associated with Brooklands. In 2018 it was one of the five nominees for Art Fund Museum of the Year, beaten eventually by Tate St Ives.

Woking 2 Ebbsfleet United 2
Kingfield Stadium, 14 Sep 2019