I was first encouraged to visit Woking by train in order to echo Prince Andrew’s famous visit to the Pizza Express on 10th March 2001. I made a reservation for 1400 to avoid the lunchtime rush, as I imagined, and travelled from London Waterloo on a non-stop train taking 24 minutes to Woking, some 23 miles south west of Central London.
I took a walk along the Basingstoke Canal first, with a continuous footpath on the north side, out to Brookwood. Once the biggest cemetery in the world, it is still the UK’s largest. Established in the 1850s by the London Necropolis Company, coffins were brought from the capital by train. It has had a chequered history, and much of the land originally zoned for burials has been built over, but it still is worthy of a visit and in the hour I had I could only scratch the surface. Today, many nationalities and religions have plots there. There’s the biggest Commonwealth War Grave, and the UK’s first crematorium. Trains used to run on to the site to two stations in the grounds, and main line Brookwood Station still serves the cemetery.
Returning by train to Woking, I explored the town centre, with its connections to science fiction writer H.G. Wells (with whom I share a birthday) whose book “War of the Worlds” was set in Woking and London. Martians arrived on Horsell Common just north of the town in 1898 and I somehow managed to miss the striking martian tripod which rises above one of the intersections of the pedestrianised town. Perhaps it had gone off to wreak havoc somewhere else.
And so to Pizza Express, where there was only one other diner in the restaurant, and I had a sneaking suspicion that she was a member of staff. I enjoyed my meal in solitude overlooking the main road, and any plans to erect a blue plaque to record the Duke of York’s visit have obviously been shelved. If Pizza Express were hoping to trade on the restaurant’s notoriety, then they have failed and following the recent out-of-court settlement interest will surely wane.
Duly fortified, I headed underneath the railway bridge to the south side of the town which is primarily residential, and walked east to find another first for Woking, that is the first Mosque in the UK which was built in 1889. The Shah Jahan Mosque was quiet when I visited, and I took off my shoes to go inside the small building which has now been supplemented by additional provision nearby. It was good to feel the deep pile carpet beneath my feet: prayers while kneeling would not be a problem here.
Never being one to retrace my steps unless essential, I passed by the retail park and under the bridge where I found a bus shelter with a bus due, saving a 15-minute walk into town. That gave more time before closing at the Lightbox, the local art gallery with a range of interesting displays and an informative local history section. Virtually next door, and also straddling the Basingstoke Canal where I started my day, is the home of the World Wildlife Fund UK, but their “Living Planet Centre” is still closed to the public, owing to COVID. Instead, I headed for the Cellar Magnifique for charcuterie and cheese and some pleasant chat with a few other diners and some fine wine before my train back to London.
So, thanks, Prince Andrew. I probably would not have visited Woking except for you, but it provided an enjoyable day out.