Skip navigation

There were more tangible signs of the green shoots of the regeneration of Sheerwater on Saturday, as Wokingmatters paid a visit to the local football club at the new Eastwood sports centre inside the grounds of Bishop David Brown school.

Well, not green shoots, exactly, as Sheerwater’s new facility includes an artificial 3G pitch, which was all to the good, considering all the rain we had had that morning. The match was the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round against Erith Town, of the Southern Counties East league (premier division).

Suffice it to say, Sheerwater can put their dreams of Wembley on hold for another year. They were beaten 2-0 by Erith, with a goal in each half. The teams looked fairly evenly matched, apart from in front of goal, where the Sheers just didn’t take the few chances they created.

Although access to the ground was impeded by work on the main car park not being completed until next month, Wokingmatters was impressed by the covered seating along one side of the ground – and by the comfortable bar facilties in the clubhouse. The 100-plus crowd was well-behaved, if rather quiet, although they did become a bit more vociferous after half-time. The only bad language seemed to be coming from the coaching area.

So, even if Woking FC are still waiting for their ground redevelopment, thanks to local opposition and mishandling by Woking council, at least one football club in the borough has had a ground spruce-up. Come on, you Sheers!    

 

This looks like a cause that is well worth supporting. Byfleet is a village that is stuck out on a limb at one end of Woking borough, and separated from West Byfleet by the M25. Nevertheless it is a community with a long history and character and identity. Now a group of residents have banded together to raise funds to save its tiny Victorian fire station, and to turn it into a community hub. They need £300,000 to buy the building, and are hoping Surrey county council will help with most of that – £250,000 to be exact – via their Your Fund initiative. But to show willing and commitment they need to raise £50,000 themselves.

The fire station has stood in Byfleet for over 135 years and is one of the village’s few remaining historic buildings. It was built in 1885, is Grade II listed, and served the Byfleet area as a fire station until the early 1960s.

The Byfleet Fire Station Trust is fundraising to acquire and restore the building.  Once the building is restored, safe and fit for use, the aim is to provide a community hub for all ages and abilities. The trust’s vision includes a coffee shop, educational and hobby-based workshops such as pop-up art galleries, IT repair hubs, community health and advice bureaux, bicycle repair hubs, craft workshops and pop-up craft/vintage markets, just to name a few. Also envisaged are events such as cinema nights, comedy nights and history exhibitions.

The building itself may look like something out of Toytown in its size – but it represents an initiative with a big heart. Do support it!

The changing face of West Byfleet is reflected in a mural placed in the centre of the village’s redevelopment site. The mural, fixed to the hoardings along Station Approach, has been produced by art students at Woking College, and is an attempt to portray West Byfleet’s heritage, even though to be honest it does not have much of one.

The Basingstoke canal, built more than two centuries ago, runs along its boundary, while most of the village only grew as a result of the arrival of the railway station from the turn of the 20th century onwards. But before then, in the 19th century there was an essential oil and rosewater distillery in the area, reflected today in the road names Lavender Park Road and Rosemount Avenue.  

So the West Byfleet mural includes a picture of lavender fields, as well as bucolic canal scenes, an ‘artist’s impression’ of the new residential blocks coming to the village – in the mural they seem a little lower than anticipated –  and even a view of Woking’s ‘Big Brother’ tower blocks on the horizon.  

It all helps to add to the positive atmosphere around the development by Retirement Villages Group, which is demolishing West Byfleet’s unloved Sheer House office tower block, and replacing it with three residential ones, plus some shops of a local character, and a public square.

The new blocks will dramatically change the village’s eyeline, but most locals seem to accept that in return for a long-awaited revamp of the centre of West Byfleet.

This redevelopment may have come at just the right time for West Byfleet, which is already displaying a growing sense of identity and community confidence. That identity was forged when strong community opposition saw off a Woking council plan to plant a pub on the village recreation ground, next to a school, in fact. The very idea! (The successful campaign against it, largely fought on social media, was an indicator that the days of the ancien regime on Woking council were numbered). Since then the efforts of West Byfleet community gardeners in reviving the flower beds on the station platform and surrounds have shown that locals care about their environment. An influx of older people in retirement flats in the centre of the village may well be a force for good; older people still have a lot to give to their community.  

For years at intermittent intervals, Wokingmatters has looked in at Heather Farm wetlands, run by Horsell Common Preservation Society, in the hope of spotting some interesting birds. For years, we have been disappointed to see only the odd coot or two, and/or maybe a couple of mallards. On Easter Sunday just gone, we were enthused to see a number of Canada geese on the island, some apparently in nesting mode. Returning today with a better camera, the Canada geese were still there, and a pair of Egyptian geese at the far end of the island as well, pictured above. During Wokingmatters’ tour of the lakeside on Tuesday, we were politely accosted by someone official who steered us back within acceptable boundaries. We got into a discussion about the birdlife, and were surprised to discover that the Canada geese were not looked on with favour. They bully other birds, apparently, and pollute the water, too. Nevertheless we were heartened to see the geese occupying the island, undeterred by the nearby café users who had even sought refuge in the bird hide to drink their coffee and keep out of the wind. The café is a nice little earner for the preservation society, and there will always be tension between the hordes using it, and the encouragement of wildlife. In the hide – when you can get in there – there is an impressive list of birds that have been spotted at Heather Farm. And at least a natural colonisation of the lake seems to be taking place at last.

Sleeping Man 1

There’s another marvellous Sean Henry sculpture in Woking!  ‘Sleeping Man’, wrapped up in an all-white duvet, can be found snoozing at the entrance to the reopened Lightbox museum and art gallery. It is on loan to the Lightbox for a year. One admiring visitor to the Lightbox said: “If you look at it long enough it seems to breathe! I was convinced his hand was moving.”

The Woking-born sculptor told Wokingmatters that he was “happy with the way the work looks in the courtyard. It’s a good location.”

Although ‘Sleeping Man’ will be getting up and leaving Woking in a year’s time, four more Sean Henry works will soon be gracing the town. ‘Catafalque’ – the horizontal figure that was displayed for a while in Jubilee Square in 2017) – will be returning, to be installed in the new Victoria Square development. There will also be three other standing figures, all 2.2 metres high. It is hoped that they will all be in place by the end of 2021 or the start of 2022.

Wokingmatters understands that by the time all eight Sean Henry works are installed in the town, the council may produce a map to help people find them, as well as some more information about the works and how they came about. A very good idea. It could – and should – tempt some tourists and fans of modern art to make a pilgrimage to Woking. A town called malice, maybe – but also a town full of Sean Henrys!

Sleeping Man 3

Woking FC devt 2

ILLUSTRATION: WOKING COMMUNITY STADIUM

The deadline is Friday 10 January to register support or objections to dramatic plans to redevelop Woking football club’s ground, with the aim of increasing its capacity and putting the National League club’s finances on a long-term, stable footing. It’s a plan that has enraged many living nearby, and looks like becoming Woking’s biggest planning row in many years.

In the red corner (Woking play in red and white) are the football club, developers GolDev, and, arguably, Woking borough council. In the other – let’s call it the blue corner – is South Woking Action Group, a vociferous band of local residents who deplore the number of tower blocks of flats included in the plans, and argue that the Cardinal Court development is completely out of keeping with the area.

Back in the red corner, the Woking Community Stadium website is urging supporters to sign up to back the project: “Please help ensure the council make the right decision about the future of Woking FC, its role in our community and the need for more high-quality homes in the borough.” It claims that “residents of Woking want regeneration and want to put our town and football club on the map”. [Well, not all residents, m’lud].

The website goes on to say: “The planning application for Woking Community Stadium was formally submitted on 2 December 2019 and we expect a decision from the council in early 2020. It is time to stand up for our town, community and club, and demand the progress most of us seem to agree is wanted and needed.”

Fighting talk, you might say. Interestingly, there is little or no mention of the more than 1,000 new homes in the blocks of flats planned around the stadium – the blocks that are at the heart of the residents’ objections.

ILLUSTRATION: WOKING COMMUNITY STADIUM

The financial justification for the scheme centres on the club’s current plight. The club says that the existing stadium is no longer fit for purpose and it can’t afford to carry out repairs that are needed. It survives on a “threadbare budget” – Woking is the only part-time club in the fifth-tier National League – “ultimately relying on volunteers and goodwill. The club can no longer rely on handouts to survive. The football club has been losing money for years and this plan will put us in a sound financial footing.”

The plan to increase capacity to around 9,000 – Woking currently averages crowds of just below 2,000 – is aimed at eventually securing the club’s promotion to the Football League. It is argued that more success will increase gates. The redevelopment will include shops aimed at serving the flats, and it is intended that the regular income from these retail outlets will secure the club’s finances.

The South Action Group (Swag) was formed soon after the plans were announced. It has an active social media presence and a smart logo. It argues that it is not against the football club improving the ground, but would like to see it done on a piecemeal approach, and fears that this big redevelopment is over-ambitious, and could actually lead to the club folding.

South Woking Action GroupIn a series of social media postings, it has listed its fears and objections. These include allegations that the developer is indulging in “false advertising”, that the development does not include the right kind of housing, the sewerage system could not cope, and that Woking council is loaning £250m to the developers when it is already one of the most indebted local authorities in the country.

A few months ago members of the action group picketed Woking fans as they were entering the ground for a home game, handing out leaflets that explained their objections. Wokingmatters encountered one objector as he went in, who on inquiry turned out to be a former season-ticket holder at the club. In recent days the action group said that three of its protest placards had disappeared from residential properties. The developers have already reduced the stadium’s projected capacity from 10,000 to 9,000, and added a health centre, after councillors asked them to revise the plans following residents’ objections.

The developer GolDev headed by Wayne Gold has a mixed track record, according to the Surrey Advertiser, with a previous proposed development at Braintee Town FC running into trouble, for instance. The Non-League Football Paper reported: “Interestingly, and perhaps something that will make Woking fans cautious, is that Gold attempted a similar project with now National League South side Braintree Town in 2008 to move the club into a new stadium and build 500 homes nearby. The following year, Gold sought a second developer to help fund the stadium. Subsequently, the plans were dropped before another attempt to build housing was made in 2015 – without the football club – but every councillor on the planning committee voted against the proposal.”

If the plans are approved, construction of the new stadium might begin next year. The team would have to play its fixtures somewhere else for two years while building takes place. A decision on the planning application is expected in March or April 2020.

This feels like both an exciting and dangerous time for Woking FC and the residents, and maybe the council as well. Local pride in the football club and ambition, and a longing for things to stay as they are, are all involved. Can the circle be squared?

 

Pride 2

Recalling Woking’s hosting of Pride in Surrey earlier this month. It was a heartwarming moment, a moment to be proud of our town for winning the privilege and honour of hosting Surrey’s first Pride parade. The mood was wonderful, both at the parade and at the celebrations in the park afterwards.  And it was a real family occasion.

It was good to see the police bringing their own contingent to take part in the parade, and the manager of Woking FC and some of his backroom staff there too, lining up to join the parade before their important home match in the afternoon. The turnout seems to have surprised the organisers, with long queues to get into the park after the parade, and not enough food outlets when you eventually got in. Woking matters was reduced to getting its lunch – sausage and chips, since you ask  – at Woking FC, just across the road.

But it was shame that the sponsor of the event was BAS Systems, long-time arms sellers to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal. And it was wrong of the Pride in Surrey organisers to try and belittle the legitimate concerns of those who attempted to point this out.  Let’s find another, more acceptable sponsor next year, please. This is important.

And it’s easy – and wrong – to think that on such a happy occasion in Woking that everyone gets the message, that everyone is signed up to all-embracing tolerance and inclusivity these days. We need more Pride days, in Woking and elsewhere, for many years to come, to get the message across to those who seem to think that the Brexit vote has given the green light to old forms of intolerance that we thought had gone for ever.

Pride 1

 

west byfleet play area

Here’s a picture of children enjoying the new, improved play area at West Byfleet recreation ground. Two very significant events in West Byfleet have taken place in the last couple of weeks – the reopening of the refurbished play area, still next to the school; and confirmation in a terse, two-paragraph press release from Woking borough council that the pub group Marston’s will not be proceeding with their plan to build a pub/restaurant on the rec.

The WBC press release , headed “Statement regarding West Byfleet recreation ground”,  said: “Woking Borough Council has today (Tuesday 16 April 2019) confirmed that Marstons will no longer be pursuing proposals for a pub/restaurant and new sports changing facilities in West Byfleet.

“The Council will now consider how it could secure the necessary resources and investment to improve sports changing facilities at West Byfleet Recreation Ground for the benefit of current and future users.”

Was that the distant sound of gnashing and gritted teeth in the council HQ? There was no reference in this statement to the fact that the council, without consulting residents, and as trustee of the rec, had entered into a deal with Marston’s, and had refused to backtrack on it despite the vociferous opposition of residents. In the end it was Marston’s that did the sensible thing, and backed away from the deal.

The plea area was linked to all this. At one time residents were promised a vastly enhanced play area, if they agreed that it should be moved away from the school, close to the main road – to allow Marston’s to build their pub there instead. They voted against such a scheme in huge numbers, preferring a more modest refurbishment that would keep the play area in its existing spot.

It may be that Woking council officers and councillors thought they were doing the folk of West Byfleet a favour by entering into a deal with Marston’s. Certainly they were taken by surprise by the – let’s not mince words – the odium they encountered as a result. At a council meeting last autumn they professed to be shocked, hurt, and misunderstood.

Maybe they will have learned a lesson from all this. Woking borough council is not at all used to not getting its own way. But a fresh, younger generation of families in West Byfleet, supported to the hilt by local residents’ groups, made full use of social media to win their campaign.  It may be no coincidence that the area has been represented by three Independent councillors for the last couple of years. And just a week or two ago a  Conservative councillor in nearby Pyrford defected to the Lib Dems, saying, among other things, that residents had not been properly consulted on key decisions such as plans for a pub/restaurant on West Byfleet recreation ground, “a site held by the borough only as a trustee for local residents”. And there are council elections again on Thursday!

Woking skyline 3

The towers of Woking’s Victoria Square development are beginning to dominate the local skyline, just as the council’s chief executive Ray Morgan envisioned they would. Rightly or wrongly, it has long been the perception among many residents that it is only the views of Morgan that really count when it comes to anything that is allowed to happen in this town.

The towers that now loom high on the local skyline merely foreshadow more to come, with another development planned close to Woking station, and three more towers due next to the new fire station in Goldsworth Road as well. They are seen as part of Morgan’s vision for Woking, which is, according to various accounts, a “mini-Singapore”, a “mini-city” in Surrey, and a landmark that can be spotted from the top of the viewing area of the Shard in London.

Many long-standing residents of Woking have been dismayed at seeing the initial three towers go up, although Wokingmatters does confess to liking the changes to the skyline that are taking place, and believes that they help to put the town on the map.

Councillors have argued that the only way is up, because Woking is surrounded by green belt, and does not have that much spare land to build houses on. But for many, it all adds to the feeling of Year Zero in Woking borough – that there is always work somewhere going on – and with the wholesale demolition and regeneration of Sheerwater, plus the dramatic redevelopment earmarked for the centre of West Byfleet still to come, there is no end in sight.

Questions have been asked for some time about the level of debt that Woking council has taken on over the years to invest in developing the town. This week a Conservative councillor switched to the Liberal Democrats, and accused his former colleagues of “failing on openness, proper consultation, and financial disclosure”.

According to the Woking News & Mail, Graham Chrystie, who has represented Pyrford for eight years, expressed disquiet about the fact that Woking has borrowed more money than almost any other local authority in England. There are new council elections on May 2, but meanwhile councillor Chrystie’s switch has left no party in overall control of the council.

Woking Gateway tower blocks

Artist’s impression of the proposed Woking Gateway towers

Woking’s 2,000-seat stand full to the brim before the FA Cup game against Watford

Woking’s footballers got back to winning ways on Saturday, beating lowly East Thurrock United 3-0 after a couple of recent home defeats that had dented their hopes of winning automatic promotion back to the Vanarama National League from the South division at the first attempt.

That much-needed win came a couple of days after more news was announced of far-reaching plans to redevelop the ground at Kingfield, and increase its capacity from the present 5,700 that squeezed in to see Woking take on Premiership Watford in the FA Cup third round at the beginning of January this year.

Woking never looked like beating Watford in that 2-0 defeat, but they were not humiliated and gave a good account of themselves. It added to the present feelgood factor around the club at the moment, boosted by a manager who clearly knows what he’s about, and a loyal following.

Two days earlier Woking’s splendid local paper, the News and Mail  –  whose coverage of local football, including Westfield, Sheerwater and Knaphill, as well as Woking is unsurpassed – reported more details of a plan to build a new stadium at Woking’s Kingfield home, involving Woking council and developers and the construction of flats plus retail space on land surrounding the ground.

That’s how new football grounds generally get funded these days. And it’s clear that much of Woking’s existing stadium – apart from its marvellous, 2,000-seater Leslie Gosden stand, built with council help in the 1990s – does certainly need an upgrade.

At first there was talk of making Kingfield an all-seater stadium, which would have destroyed the existing atmosphere generated by the covered terracing behind one of the goals, and another terrace area with the proud name of Moaners’ Corner.  But the club will take the views of supporters on board, and almost certainly there will be still some standing areas in the new plans, Woking’s chairman Rosemary Johnson, who is also a former mayoress of Woking, has indicated.

Wokingmatters stood on Moaners’ Corner for this year’s big FA Cup tie, and secured our place for the all-ticket affair by buying a season ticket for the remainder of the season. Money well spent, and not begrudged at all. It meant that we were there for the last three home games, the 0-2 defeat against Wealdstone, the hugely controversial 0-1 game against Dartford, which saw two Woking players sent off in the second half, and Saturday’s much-better performance against “The Rocks” (East Thurrock).  The crowd topped 2,000 against Wealdstone, dipped to around 1,100 on a wet and windy night v Dartford, and was back to 1,600-odd on Saturday. The variation can partly be explained by the fact that many young families attend Woking games, and tend to avoid the school-night, past-bedtime evening matches.

There is always a downside to huge new redevelopment plans – and that is the disruption faced by local residents, and fans, too.  Woking may well be forced to play their football away from Kingfield – somewhere like Sutton or Farnborough – while the ground is rebuilt. That will inevitably mean lower gates in the interim, and maybe a loss of momentum for the team.

Be that as it may, Wokingmatters has meanwhile rediscovered the joys of what we would call authentic football – turning up on the day to pay at the turnstiles, without having to fork out a fortune for a ticket online in advance, journeying a short distance from your home to the ground, walking through the park to get there – that sort of thing.  An away trip to Slough – admittedly not far away – earlier in the season proved to be great fun. We can only advocate that more residents of Woking come on down to Kingfield, and help to push a successful bandwagon further along the road. Come on you Cards!

Fans on Woking’s Moaners’ Corner before the FA Cup match against Watford. It is hoped that the spirit of this idiosyncratic bit of terracing can be retained with the ground’s redevelopment