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Horsing and Coursing on Epsom Downs

A walk across Epsom Downs racecourse that everyone will enjoy.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 394ft (120m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Mainly broad, easy-to-follow bridleways

Landscape Open skies of Downs and wooded landscape

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 146 Dorking, Box Hill & Reigate

Start/finish TQ 223584

Dog friendliness On lead before midday, when racehorses train on Downs

Parking Car park by mini-roundabout on Tattenham Corner Rd (charges apply on race days)

Public toilets 200yds (183m) west of car park, towards grandstand

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1 From the mini-roundabout near the Downs Lunch Box, take the signposted bridleway to Walton Road. Cross the race course and continue along the broad, waymarked lane, keeping an eye out for the occasional car. The bridleway remains open on race days, though naturally there are some restrictions during the races.

2 At length the lane swings hard right, and you follow the waymarked bridleway as it forks off down a narrow path to the left. Bear right at the gallops, continuing beside a rustic wooden fence before rejoining the broader lane 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.

3 At the bottom of the hill, near the 'Racehorses Only' sign, 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 between wooden posts onto a broader bridleway. Turn left and then, in a few paces, fork left. 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 long climb out of the valley.

4 The bridleway ends at the Cotton Mills, at the junction of Hurst Road and Ebbisham Lane. Keep on down Ebbisham Lane, and turn left at the bottom into Walton Street. Pass the Fox and Hounds 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.

5 Keep straight on, along the path signposted to Motts Hill Lane. Continue past the coal post and White Cottage; then, as the lane bears right, turn left onto the bridleway. From here you simply follow the waymarked route all the way back to Epsom Lane North. Journey's end is now in sight; cross the road, and continue along the pavement towards the car park. It finishes 100yds (91m) before you reach the car park, so do take care.

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 course, whilst 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 horse races 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 His Majesty 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.

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; 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. Twice a month throughout the summer, you can even go behind the scenes with the Derby Experience Tour for a glimpse of life and history at the world's most famous racecourse. Recreation on the Downs has come of age.

What to look for

Just north of the Bell at Withybed Corner, you'll pass a white-painted cast iron post with the City of London coat of arms near the top. There are over 200 of these 'coal posts' around London, with a history going back to the Great Fire of 1666. The cost of rebuilding after the fire was so enormous that a levy was imposed on coal brought into the City. It took until 1834 to repay the debt, after which the revenue helped to fund drainage improvements in the capital. Originally the tax was collected in the Port of London but, with the growth of road and rail transport, cast iron posts were erected in 1861 to mark the taxation boundary. The levy was discontinued in 1890.

Where to eat and drink

Just across the road from the car park, you'll see the Lunch Box kiosk and the large Tattenham Corner pub/restaurant overlooking the course. Tucked away behind the grandstand, the Derby Arms is quieter and more intimate, though still with the emphasis on food. At the other end of your walk, the lively Fox and Hounds in Walton on the Hill is your best bet for a bite to eat. You'll also pass The Bell, a small, drinkers pub tucked away from the road at Withybed Corner.

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