I leave the grey town streets along the old familiar path and follow its narrow cut between the houses. Up ahead, across the road, the first field opens up beside me, but there’s still some work to do.
Rifle Butts Alley rises steadily, a green tunnel of hedging and cowparsley and crunching flint. I labour half a mile towards the sky, the chalklands rushing down to greet me. A copse, a thicket, and the path angles across a slope beside the links, the white clouds hunkering low towards the ridge.
Then all as one they lift back into blue, and the natural order of the elements is restored. Hill, grass, clouds and sky, in ascending order. There’s nothing more I need, not now, just a quiet, grateful minute for great gasps of air to refill my legs as mind and soul are healed.
I slip up a gear, and stride. The turf is soft and springy, the firmament now yawning wide open into empty space above me.
There’s the Gherkin, and St Paul’s Cathedral, and away to the right lies Canary Wharf tower, too.
I stand alone on the far edge of this great city, just twenty miles from the busy financial centre of our modern world. And the warm grass is rushing long and soft beneath my feet.
I’m up high, on Epsom Downs.
To the south of town, the well-drained chalky soil was perfect for riding, and a racecourse was already laid out across these hills by 1661.
It was over a hundred years later, in 1779, when the first Epsom Oaks was run for three year old fillies. The winning horse, Bridget, was owned by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, and amidst the celebrations that followed to mark that victory, Derby tossed a coin with Sir Charles Bunbury.
The winner would name a second race for colts and fillies, to be inaugurated the following year. Bunbury lost the toss, and so the most famous horserace in all the world was born. To match the spirit of fair play, the first Derby (pronounced ‘Dar-bee’) was duly won by Bunbury’s horse Diomed on 4th May 1780.
Originally run over a mile, the distance was lengthened to a mile and a half in 1784, including the tight bend at Tattenham Corner for the first time, and remarkably the race is run over the same uniquely testing and undulating course today.
Just across the road, £23.5 million of new concrete and steel are busy building a new grandstand for the racecourse. It’s been slowly taking shape since last winter, and it won’t be finished for a winter still to come.
By Derby day next year, it’ll greet thousands of partying race-goers in their summery finery and festive hats. But this afternoon, there’s only me. On cooler, fitter days, I’ll loop on out to Langley Vale and all around the racecourse.
Time and breath are short today, so I make do with a short lope atop the Downs. Past the Derby Arms pub and then the Derby stables, where on the first Saturday in June each year, the horses await their raceday destiny.
Smooth blacktop, descending evenly and effortlessly through the trees. The easiest glide you’ll ever run, all the way back down to town. Ten minutes of blissful, restful thinking brings me to the outskirts of old Epsom.
Grand Regency houses were built here in the early days of racing, and the pubs here still reflect the names of racing folklore. The Amato – in honour of the 1838 winner, which won the Derby as its only race. And then The Ladas, named after the 1894 Derby champion, belonging to Prime Minister Lord Rosebery and the most heavily backed favourite of all time.
Rosebery won the race again the following year with Sir Visto, and once more with Cicero in 1905. All three horses are buried in the grounds of The Durdans, a massive mansion lurking behind great iron gates beside the lane. Samuel Pepys came here when he visited Epsom to take the waters in 1663.
I leave Chalk Lane at last, turning between the houses and into Epsom Park. Office workers scoff sandwiches here as summer youth lies all around the lawns, flirting in the sunshine and trying not to study. It’s another life now that calls me back inside the office. Just existence, paperwork and dreaming.
Up high, on the gallops of Epsom’s chalky downs.
58. Running in the North Downs
134. Before the mast: Pewley Down, Guildford
151. Our secret space – Epsom and Ashtead Common
181. The Ophelia of Suburbia – Hogsmill River, Ewell
138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs
176. Ashtead Common 2 – a winter’s trail to spring