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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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