There's always a holiday atmosphere on Epsom Downs. With the ice cream vans, the wind in your face and the huge, wide skies, the Downs have everything but sea and sand. Families come to picnic on the grassy areas inside the racecourse, while Biggles wannabees loop the loop with their model aircraft, indifferent to the children's kites in their airspace.
There's a long tradition of recreation on Epsom Downs. In 1660, Samuel Pepys' diary records daily horseraces at midday, with wrestling, cudgel playing, hawking and foot racing in the afternoons. Hare coursing was also popular at about this time, based on an enclosed warren established by Lord Baltimore in 1720. You'll see two of the old gateposts to the Warren on your right, as you walk down beside the gallops a mile or so into your walk.
You'll start by crossing the racecourse itself. The first formal race meeting took place in 1661 in the presence of King Charles II, but it was a young man of 21 who was destined to establish the most famous names in Epsom's sporting calendar. In 1773 the 12th Earl of Derby bought The Oaks, a country house at nearby Woodmansterne. He and his friends were keen followers of racing, and in 1779 they inaugurated 'The Oaks' – a new race for three-year-old fillies. Spurred on by the success of the new race, the Earl and his friend Sir Charles Bunbury promoted another short distance event the following year. The Earl won the toss for the honour of naming the contest, though Sir Charles consoled himself when his horse Diomed actually won the race. The Epsom Derby had been born.
The Bluck of the Devil
But what of the spectators? To begin with there were minimal facilities, and the 18th-century crowds simply gathered on the hill. Enter the property speculator Charles Bluck, described as a 'rogue and a rascal, an unscrupulous knave, the biggest villain to go unhanged'. Bluck charmed the Lord of the Manor with his plans for a new £5,000 grandstand, and quickly obtained the lease to a prime 1-acre (0.4ha) site. This upstaged the newly formed Epsom Grandstand Association, and there was a good deal of wheeling and dealing before the Association completed its stand in 1830. The building lasted for almost a century, until the site was redeveloped in 1927. The new Queen's Stand, added in 1992, includes facilities for conferences, dances and corporate hospitality and in 2009 the Duchess of Cornwall opened the Duchess Stand.
Undoubtedly the focus is firmly on horseracing at Epsom, but there's a range of events to suit all ages – such as the Family Racing Festival – throughout the year; visit www.epsom.the jockeyclub.co.uk for dates and times.
From the roundabout near The Downs Lunch Box, take the signposted bridleway to Walton Road. Cross the racecourse and continue along the broad, waymarked lane, keeping an eye out for any cars. The bridleway remains open on race days, though naturally there are some restrictions during the races.
Walk alongside and then within a wood and when the lane swings hard right follow the bridleway that forks off down a narrow path to the left. Bear right at the gallops, before rejoining the broader lane, at a fingerpost, down past the Warren. There's a lovely view across the valley from here, and you can spot the spire of Headley Church on the horizon.
At the bottom of the hill on the edge of the woodland, lies a six-way junction. Think of it as a mini-roundabout, and take the third exit, straight ahead. It's a narrow track through scrubby trees, but it soon leads you out onto a broader bridleway. Turn left and then, in a few paces ignore the track on the right signed to Walton Road and keep straight on at the bridleway signpost, towards Walton on the Hill, and follow the waymarked track as it swings right at Nohome Farm and begins the climb out of the valley on a narrow path.
The bridleway ends at the junction of Hurst Road and Ebbisham Lane. Keep ahead on Ebbisham Lane and turn left at the bottom into Walton Street. Pass The Fox and Hounds pub and Mere Pond, then turn left at The Bell pub sign, up the side of the pond. After 30yds (27m) fork right at Withybed Corner and follow the lane to The Bell.
Keep straight ahead, signed to Motts Hill Lane, to pass a white metal coal post and barrier. Turn right down path alongside Mott Hill Cottage, to rejoin the lane at White Cottage (right-hand side). As the lane bears right, turn left onto the bridleway along the backs of gardens. At junction of paths bear left and then right up the slope at the information board. At the top of the slope follow fingerpost heading towards Epsom Lane North. Cross the road, and continue along the along the broad, grassy verge, bearing right to cross Tattenham Crescent, and return to the car park.
Mainly broad, easy-to-follow bridleways
Open skies of Downs and wooded landscape
Lead required before midday, when racehorses train on the Downs
OS Explorer 146 Dorking, Box Hill & Reigate
Car park by mini-roundabout on Tattenham Corner Road (charges apply on race days)
200yds (183m) west of car park, towards grandstand
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Surrey may be better known for its suburbia than its scenery, but the image is unjust. Over a quarter of the county’s landscapes are official Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and along the downs and the greensand ridge you can gaze to distant horizons with hardly a building in sight. This is one of England’s most wooded counties, and has more village greens than any other shire. You’ll find sandy tracks and cottage gardens, folded hillsides and welcoming village inns. There’s variety, too, as the fields and meadows of the east give way to the wooded downs and valleys west of the River Mole.
Of course there are also large built-up areas, mainly within and around the M25; but even here you can still find appealing visits and days out. On the fringe of Greater London you can picnic in Chaldon’s hay meadows, explore the wide open downs at Epsom, or drift idly beside the broad reaches of the stately River Thames. Deep in the Surrey countryside you’ll discover the Romans at Farley Heath, and mingle with the monks at England’s first Cistercian monastery. You’ll see buildings by great architects like Edwin Lutyens and Sir George Gilbert Scott, and meet authors too, from John Donne to Agatha Christie.