Summer drifts across these hills. And on warm June days, this is where you’ll find me, the lazy afternoon lagging heavily at my heels all along this steady climb to reach the Downs.
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.
So many places in the world to run, and this today is mine. High green hills, shimmering in the sunshine. To my left, London stretches far below.
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.
The folk of London have been coming here for ever, to escape the squalor of the city, to breathe clean air and to take the waters from Epsom’s mineral springs, discovered nearby around 1618.
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.
Every other ‘Derby’ in the world, from Kentucky’s famous showpiece to humbler events in 140 other countries, owes its name to that very first Epsom race. But none has the same tradition as the Derby.
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.
I trot further, beside the finishing post and the run-out, before turning right to find Chalk Lane.
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.
But I can’t complain. A day’s not wasted here, when an hour is run to the echoed hooves of history.
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
Some beautiful places you run past and through. And some great history!
Thank you, Silver Fox. This is a beautiful place to run, and I always feel lucky when I reach the top of Epsom Downs, especially as it means I’ve survived the climb to get there.
The warm tranquil days of an English summer add an extra dimension, as does the sense of history that runs across these hills.
No desert, either! The Chalk must be the famous chalk of William Smith?
Exactly, you got my drift there, Silver Fox. I should think there’s usually enough rain over the Wimbledon fortnight to match your Nevada precipitation across a whole year, but whilst we have a wetter climate, our grass is a little greener, on the whole.
Yes, this is the Chalk of William Smith, comprising the pelagic Upper Cretaceous section of NW Europe. The Chalk is around 500 m thick offshore in the North Sea, and around half that onshore. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Atonement’ then you’ll recognise this view of the Chalk cliffs along the south coast of England.
Epsom lies just to the west of the ‘N’ of ‘North Downs’ on this geological map of Southern England. To the north, London lies in a broad syncline which forms the London Basin. The city is built on Tertiary mudstones (brown) along the axis of the Thames Valley, with Chalk hills (pale green) to the north and south.
Much of London’s water is drawn from artesian wells drilled into the Chalk below the city.
The North and South Downs are mirror-image ranges of Chalk hills developed along the opposing rims of the Weald Basin, which forms an anticline of Lower Cretaceous sandstones and shales (dark green).
The deformation here records the distal effects of the Alpine orogeny, when Africa began to collide with Europe around 2,000 km to the south of here, from around 65 million years ago. That must explain why it often feels as though I’m running up the foothills of the Alps.
Thanks, C. I ran up on Epsom Downs again today. 28C and flawless clear skies.
If it hadn’t been for a surplus 5kg on board, it would have been a dream…
Great tale Roads. Run, run, run ….
Thanks for the geological discussion and links! I don’t know if I’ve seen Atonement – I’ll have to look it up to find out – my memory seems to be overly reliant on Google, sometimes.
I have a book about William Smith: The Map that Changed the World. A pretty good book, overall, with some quite interesting history.
Hi again, Silver Fox. Yes, I’ve read that book, and another cracker by Simon Winchester called Krakatoa. All about the great volcanic eruption which shook the world in 1883, in the same area which was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26th December 2004.
It’s full of amazing information, and highly recommended. The shock waves from the main explosion were recorded circling the Earth seven times – a fact I recalled in 2005 after hearing the Buncefield fuel depot blow up – the site is over 100 km north of where I live.
Hi Roads, I was just just wondering if I could use the shot of the Rifle Butts Alley for a photographic assignment I have? If so, please can I give a credit to your work.
Sure, Robyn, I’m happy for you to use the image for that purpose.
The credit is ‘copyright roadsofstone.com’, and I’ll send you a higher resolution version of the image when I get back to my desk.