'The Wheels of Chance' was H G Wells' fourth novel. As a comic travelogue sandwiched between three of the greatest science fiction titles ever written, it never stood much chance of being remembered. Worse, it is only comic insofar as its hero, Mr Hoopdriver, finds new ways to fall off his bike. No one would claim that the story is one of his best. Wells included. He never tried anything similar. The interest here is that Hoopdriver's route went to real places. Some of the buildings and landmarks survive. This tour tries to track them down.
The route also passes near many interesting places places that do not feature in the story. We skip over famous visitor attractions like Winchester Cathedral, Chichester Cathedral, the RHS Gardens at Wisley, Porchester Castle and Cowdray Park. We do, however, mention a few incidental places that we visited while we scouted the route.
Our tour starts in the Richmond Road, London, where Hoopdriver lives and works as a draper's assistant. Upper or Lower? Wells does not say, but Hoopdriver turns into Putney Hill, so probably Upper.
Wells must have had an affiliation with the place. This is the same junction where the War of the Worlds! narrator stays for a night. There was only one hotel, The Railway Inn. It is now a Revolution. As far as we could tell, it snubs its role in War of the Worlds!, so there is not much chance of any Wheels of Chance memorabilia.
Hoopdriver heads south down Putney Hill. It is an area that MB knows better than we would like, because we had a relation that spent her latter years in the Royal Neurological Hospital nearby. Hoopdriver peeks through variegated shrubs at the red brick buildings that lined the road. We could not find a single one left, unless perhaps we count Putney High School.
At the top of Putney Hill, Hoopdriver takes what is now the A3 towards Kingston. He crosses Putney Heath, falling off on the way, rides through Kingston Vale, then takes the A308 towards Kingston. He passes a cemetery. It cannot be Kingston Cemetery and Crematorium, which is 500m from the A308 now. We guess there must have been a cemetery attached to St Peter's Church. He reaches the Thames and rides parallel to it heading south. This has to be the A307, Portsmouth Road.
A glamorous 'Young Lady in Grey' cycles towards him from a side road. No Highway Code in those days, so he is not sure who has right of way. Panicking, he falls off again. He describes the sideroad as 'converging slantingly', by which we presume he means a Y junction. It looks like she was riding northwest up the Surbiton Road. Hoopdriver takes a shine to her. She tells him she is meeting another man. Disappointed, he continues along the A307, taking lunch at the Marquis of Granby pub in Esher. It is still there, although we could not find a single reference inside to its role in the story.
Hoopdriver takes the A308 towards Cobham. He meets a disagreeable cyclist at a bridge over a stream. The only stream on this road is beside the entrance to 'The Homewood', a National Trust property. It is a fabulous place, but they were only allowing group visits on restricted days when we were last there, so you will probably need to book.
Hoopdriver rejoins the A3 and rides to Ripley. Exhausted, he stops at the Unicorn Inn for a meal. Through the window he spots the Young Lady in Grey again, accompanied by the disagreeable cyclist. They eat in The Green Dragon over the road. There is only one pub there today. It is named The Anchor. It is clear from the illustration in the book - and contrary to other reports on the Web - that The Anchor is The Green Dragon from the book. It seems that The Unicorn must have been the building now named Amberley Cottage. The Clock House nearby was a regular MB haunt in our youth, as the home to a string of Michelin star restaurants, most memorably Michel's.
On to Guildford. Hoopdriver stays in the Yellow Hammer Coffee Tavern. There are no clues about where it was, other than that it was in the High Street. He notes the glorious 'Town Hall', by which he means the Guildhall. The ground floor is Tudor and it has many important artifacts. When we were last there, tours were only on Wednesday. Not to worry. Its most impressive feature is visible from the outside: The wonderful 17th century clock that hangs perhaps 12 feet over the High Street.
Determined to avoid the Young Lady in Grey, Hoopdriver decides not to use the Portsmouth Road out of Guildford. Instead he leaves on the A281 to Shalford. His plan fails. Before reaching Bramley, he accidentally takes a 'specious byway' that dumps him back on the Portsmouth Road. In those days the Portsmouth Road followed the A3100. This specious byway has to be Broadford Road. If so, he rejoined the A3100 at Peasmarsh.
Hoopdriver notes the beauty of Godalming, where he stops for a cider at the Woolpack public house. These days the name Woolpack is associated with number 28 High Street, a Piazza Firenze when we were there. It is immediately adjacent to a coach entrance. We guess that Wells' Woolpack extended both sides of the coach entrance, thereby including what is now the Kings Arms Royal Hotel.
At Milford, Hoopdriver's bicycle 'makes an ass of itself', missing the sharp right turn to end up on the Haslemere road, now the A286. Hoopdriver encounters the Young lady in Grey and her companion at the railway bridge. The railway only crosses the A286 once on this stretch, just south of Haslemere Garden Centre. The bridge does not look much like the one depicted in the book. We guess it has been widened since.
Hoopdriver has lunch at the Good Hope beer-shop, off the High Street. We could find no remnant of it. He heads east on the A2131, vaguely thinking he will spend the night at Petworth. He gets within a couple of miles of Northchapel when he loses concentration in a bout of fantasies about the Young Lady in Grey. He finds himself at Easebourne, presumably having erroneously taken the Blind Lane turning.
Hoopdriver rides on to Midhurst. It was an important place in Wells' life. One of his first jobs was at Cowaps phamacy, in the building now occupied by Church Hill DentalCare. He was then a pupil at Midhurst Grammar School, now Capron House, just a stone's throw from the teashop in North Street where Hoopdriver has a late lunch.
Later it is explained that the teashop is next door to the Angel Hotel where Hoopdriver spends the night. It is still there. Is the teashop north or south? The building to the north looks more promising from the front, but exploring around the back of the building to the south shows that it was once a lovely half-timbered cottage. For some reason, the front has been bricked up. It looks exactly the sort of building that might once have had diamond panel windows. We think this was Hoopdriver's teashop.
As the narrator points out, there were only two well maintained roads from Midhurst to the south coast in those days: one went to Portsmouth, the other to Chichester. Hoopdriver, now fantasizing about being a private detective, follows the Young Lady in Grey and her companion on the Chichester Road (A286).
They pass the Cobden obelisk. Cobden sponsored the charity that paid for poor children to attend Midhurst Grammar School. Wells came from a poor family and attended Midhurst Grammar School. He worked as a tutor to pay some of his fees. It seems unlikely that his family contributed financially. Perhaps he got a scholarship. Or perhaps Cobden's charity topped up his fees and Wells incorporated the memorial into the route as part repayment.
Hoopdriver follows the bicycle tracks of the Lady in Grey to Chichester. The illustration above shows him tracking east in East Street, with Market Cross behind. He loses the trail and retires to the Royal George for sustenance and thought. He makes enquiries at the Black Swan, the Crown, and the Red Lion. Wells provides no clues where they were and we could not find evidence for any of these places.
Speculating that the Young Lady in Grey and her companion were heading for Bognor Regis, Hoopdriver goes there too. He spots her companion cross from the Vicuna Hotel to the Esplanade. He realises that the lady is alone in the Vicuna and goes to talk to her. Wells' Vicuna was the Victoria Hotel in Aldwick Street. It was demolished long ago.
Jesse, for he discovers her name at last, tells him that she thought her companion, Mr Bechamel, just wanted to rescue her from an unhappy life at her step mother's house. She now fears that he just wanted to seduce her. Hoopdriver rescues her instead. They ride west to Chichester Harbour. Late in the evening they arrive at the Red Lion Hotel where they stay the night. It is not there any more.
In the morning they head west towards Havant. They lunch in Cosham, pass Porchester Castle and have tea in Fareham. None of the places they visit is there today. All this while they had followed what is now the A27. At Fareham, they head north on the Wickham Road, west on the A334 towards Botley, then turn sharp right on the Botley Road.
Hoopdriver and Jesse realise they are being chased by her family. They pass through Bishop's Waltham and Winchester and decide to spend the night at a hotel in Wallenstock. This is where Hoopdriver defends Jesse's honour. We could not find anywhere named Wallenstock, which is odd because all the other places on the tour are fairly well known.
Next morning, Hoopdriver and Jesse have breakfast at the Golden Pheasant in Blandford Forum. Again, it is no longer there. They attend a church service in the gallery at the church of St Peter and St Paul in Blandford Forum. It is now classified as a 'major church'. It is therefore visitor friendly and open most days. It is well worth exploring. The centre of Blandford town burned down in the mid-18th century and got rebuilt in the Georgian style. Thus, St Peter and St Paul's is a very rare Georgian style church, like a religious version of Kenwood House.
MB at the Rufus Stone, end point of Wheels of Chance
Jesse is keen to get to Ringwood where she hopes to collect a message from a friend. They head southeast on the A350, pass through Wimbourne, then lunch in Ringwood. Jesse is disappointed to find that there is no letter for her at the post office. They are chased through Lyndhurst, ending up at the Rufus Stone Hotel somewhere in or near Stoney Cross. If it ever existed, it is gone now. We finished our tour by visiting the Rufus Stone (above).