While I was recently out on a road trip for another reason, I took the opportunity to visit the first three fictional landing sites for the Martian’s cylinders in H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” (serialised in 1897, first hardcover published in 1898).
Unlike many ‘classic’ science fiction stories, this tale has stood the test of time. Soundly based in a realistic setting, it is still a compelling, page-turning read. I’m not going to summarise the plot here — if you are unfamiliar with the book, it is easily available and I recommend reading it. If you don’t have time to read the book, the 1953 film version is a reasonable re-telling of the story and the infamous 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles is entertaining.
In the book, the Martians send seven cylinders from their dying planet to the Earth, intending to conquer our planet and make it their own. The cylinders land in a line extending from Horsell Common in Surrey to Primrose Hill in London:
#1 – on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw, and Woking… not far from the sand pits.
#2 – in the pine woods to the northwest of Chertsey road
#3 – Woods to the North of Pyrford – looking towards Addlestone
#4 – Bushey Park, Hampton – North of the Thames
#5 – Sheen / towards Mortlake
(where the narrator and curate are caught in a house when the cylinder crashes into it)
#6 – Wimbledon Common, London
#7 – Primrose Hill, London
All of these sites would have been known to Wells. He lived at Primrose Hill between 1888-1891, and in Woking (where his “The War of the Worlds” begins) between 1895-1896. The first three landing sites are within a few miles of each other. It is then a bit of a hike towards the fourth landing site at Bushey Park, with the remaining three being rather dispersed as you head into London.
The First Cylinder falls…
Wells describes how the first cylinder falls from the sky in darkness, followed by observations of it in the morning:
“Then came the night of the first falling star. It was seen early in the morning, rushing over Winchester eastward, a line of flame high in the atmosphere. Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling star…
… Ogilvy, who had seen the shooting star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw, and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.
… The Thing itself lay almost entirely buried in sand, amidst the scattered splinters of a fir tree it had shivered to fragments in its descent. The uncovered part had the appearance of a huge cylinder, caked over and its outline softened by a thick scaly dun-coloured incrustation. It had a diameter of about thirty yards…”
The Second Cylinder…
I could not get onto the golf links at Addlestone but this picture of the local countryside was taken nearby. Generally the land feels quite flat and open, with hills quite far away in the distance. The narrator tells us how his neighbour described the fall of the second cylinder here:
“… he told me of the burning of the pine woods about the Byfleet Golf Links… The woods… were still burning… They will be hot under foot for days, on account of the thick soil of pine needles and turf…”
The Third Cylinder…
The narrator sees the third cylinder falling in darkness at Pyrford: “As I ascended the little hill beyond Pyrford Church… the trees about me shivered with the first intimation of the storm that was upon me. Then I heard midnight pealing out from Pyrford Church behind me, and then came the silhouette of Maybury Hill, with its tree-tops and roofs black and sharp against the red.
Even as I beheld this a lurid green glare lit the road about me and showed the distant woods towards Addlestone. I felt a tug at the reins. I saw that the driving clouds had been pierced as it were by a thread of green fire, suddenly lighting their confusion and falling into the field to my left. It was the third falling star!”
In a storm he then sees Martian fighting machines for the first time:
“… my attention was arrested by something that was moving rapidly down the opposite slope of Maybury Hill… one flash following another showed it to be in swift rolling movement. It was an elusive vision–a moment of bewildering darkness, and then, in a flash like daylight… this problematical object came out clear and sharp and bright.
… How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer…
… Then suddenly the trees in the pine wood ahead of me were parted, as brittle reeds are parted by a man thrusting through them; they were snapped off and driven headlong, and a second huge tripod appeared, rushing, as it seemed, headlong towards me. And I was galloping hard to meet it!”
Martian tripods from the first two cylinders had moved to meet the third cylinder landing at Pyrford.
Pyrford golf course was again typical of this area of Surrey, open fields surrounded by woods, leading off towards low hills in the distance.
I’m sure that, at the time of writing, the journey by horse from Horsell Common to Addlestone and then Pyrford. Today you can cover than ground in less than thirty minutes by car, but it was still entertaining to imagine what it would have been like in the late 1880s-1890s…
… and there is of course that wonderful memory of standing at the sand pit on Horsell Common and imagining the first fallen cylinder, steaming in its pit…