By rights, the Surrey district of Epsom and Ewell ought to be in London. It nearly was, indeed the Local Government Act of 1963 almost succeeded, but instead the border of Greater London was drawn around it, surrounding Epsom and Ewell on three sides. Its residents like things that way, in their Home Counties pocket of green that Kirsty and Phil once decreed the best place to live in the entire UK. Epsom and Ewell's relatively small, both in terms of area and population, but that was good because it meant I could walk around the whole place in a day. And it's very much a borough of two halves, all suburban avenues to the north, and rather more market town to the south. Let's head north first, to Ewell and thereabouts. [20 photos]
Somewhere to begin: Epsom & Ewell Museum
Ewell has a very villagey feel, so long as you don't stray very far from the narrow twisty High Street. Look out for plaques on several of the older buildings, which is generally a sign that they're included on The Ewell Trail (available here in leaflet form, or on glass panels as you wander around the town), for example the old brick lock-up/fire station combo. At present there's a Christmassy feel, the aftermath of Ewell Yule, which is the only thing you could possible call a festive celebration hereabouts. Mind the traffic, the pedestrian being very much an afterthought round here, and head up to the ostentatious Dog Gate (with, obviously, a great white dog on top). This was the main entrance to Garbrand Hall, an 18th century merchant's mansion which declined, decayed and finally burnt to the ground in 1962. Its municipal replacement is architecturallyastonishing, as if a flying saucer landed on the lawn above the lake. Twenty low-set concrete ribs meet at a central crown supporting a domed roof light, beneath which a vast central space houses shelves of books or, potentially, your wedding reception. Now called Bourne Hall the building opened in 1970 as a Library, Museum and Social Centre, and still plays that role in the community today.
A Christmas Extravaganza Craft Fair had just got underway when I turned up, not that the "extravaganza" part was immediately obvious to the handful of us present. Instead I headed up the spiral stairs to the mezzanine which, cunningly, is the location of the Epsom and Ewell Museum. This means the museum needs no additional staffing so can be open whenever the building is, which is forty hours a week. There's plenty up here too, grouped in a variety of glass cases, and without the usual endless parade of fossils and Roman earthenware. Horse racing takes up a fair chunk of space, as you'd expect when Epsom's part of your borough, including a model of the course and full details of the local Prime Minister's 1894 Derby winner. Lord Rosebery's hansom cab is nearby, along with a selection of 'old' children's games that seemed to have been donated by a family with exactly the same toy cupboard as me circa 1975. A lot of temporary WW1 displays fit in where they can, topping off a carefully curated exhibition that has yet to be yanked screaming into the 21st century. That honour falls to the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, an unconnected local history website created by volunteers, and whose in-depth background information I can only describe as phenomenal. Not a bad tally for barely thirteen square miles. by train: Ewell Westby bus: 293, 406, 467
Somewhere pretty: The River Hogsmill
The lake I mentioned outside Bourne Hall is also the source of the River Hogsmill. This tributary of the Thames runs six miles from here to its mouth at Kingston, joining up with several (longer) feeder streams along the way. A placidchannel runs behind The Spring bus stop, close to Spring Street and the Spring Tavern, which spring-iness might just help to explain the duck sitting on a plume of bubbles in the pool nextdoor. From here the Hogsmill sets off beneath the ring road and along a thread of greenspace, holding back the residential avenues to either side for at least a couple of miles. Already a wide shallow stream, the muddy path and meadows alongside will be familiar to anyone who's walked London Loop Section 8. The valley's history is hinted at in the first building along, the Upper Mill, although this is a 1984 residential rebuild of the original flour producer. Further along the channel Ewell's dogwalkers were out in force, if there was anyone at all, and I saw no sign of any other original waterside buildings.
I'd turned up on a frosty morning, indeed on the coldest day of the year, so the valley was encrusted in white and unexpectedly picturesque. And that beauty has made this stretch of river famous, although you'd never have realised. Two of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had connections with Ewell and used the Hogsmill as inspiration for their most famous paintings. John Everett Millais came down in 1851 and picked a stretch of riverbank as the backdrop for Ophelia, painting daisies and forget-me-nots in the water beside her floating body. A modern version would probably include lager cans and less vegetation, much of the river having been deepened and culverted to prevent expensive flooding. That same year William Holman Hunt was more interested in the old gunpowder mills, for which the upper Hogsmill valley was once renowned. He found an abandoned hut overgrown with ivy upstream and came back after dark to check its illumination by moonlight. You'll know that door as the one on which Jesus is knocking in the revelatory painting The Light Of The World - the original at Keble College Oxford, a full size re-paint at St Paul's Cathedral. The hut's long gone, obviously, but memories of the Hogsmill are reproduced the world over. by train: Ewell Westby bus: 406, 418, 467
Somewhere historic: Nonsuch Palace
There's only one candidate for Epsom and Ewell's most historic spot, which is Henry VIII's mega-mansion at Nonsuch Palace. But a) it was sold off to pay for gambling debts in the 1630s b) not a stone is still standing c) I blogged about it in-depth back in 2009. So I didn't go again, because you can read that already, and instead headed somewhere rather lower in the historic league... by train: Ewell East, Stoneleighby bus: 293, 470
Somewhere else historic: Horton Country Park The northwest border of Epsom and Ewell, rubbing up against Chessington, is covered by 80 acres of country park. It's very pretty, I can confirm, because I walked the full two miles from top to bottom. Up top a golf course holds sway, including a jungle-themed crazy golf course complete with waterfall and plane crash. Further south there's intermittent woodland, and rolling pasture leading down into the valley of the Bonesgate Stream. But why is there a tall house-like water tower rising high above the trees, and how come the main paths look wide enough to have once carried train tracks? The answer's the Epsom Hospital Cluster, 100 years ago the largest complex of psychiatric hospitals in Europe, built from scratch by the London County Council to house ten thousand of the capital's mentally ill. Construction was a massive job and took years, aided and abetted by a freight railway laid from Ewell West to link, in a finger-like manner, to each of the hospitals in turn. Officially no passengers were carried, though unofficially many of the workers hitched a ride to avoid a lengthy walk each day. St Ebba's cared for epileptics and children, Manor Hospital for those with learning difficulties and the other three for "all stages of nervous and mental disorder". And these massive asylums survived for most of the 20th century, one infamous inmate being Ronnie Kray, before closing one by one and awaiting a new fate.
And that fate was housing. Epsom and Ewell council jumped at the opportunity to approve fresh residential estates in a borough landlocked by the Green Belt. Each hospital site was almost entirely demolished and its footprint used as the basis for a new community, with developers retaining a few buildings only where they could be converted with character. All that's left of Long Grove is a school outbuilding, converted to country park use as a bat roost, while the connecting railway has long been built over or downgraded to bridleway. The latest hospital to undergo transformation is West Park, in its decaying state a target for urbanexplorers, but now almost complete in its new life as the Noble Park estate. I wandered its pristine streets, past townhouses with "Sold" signs outside and the occasional more valuable heritage block with telltale sash windows. On wooded steps opposite the former admin block I came face to face with a passing deer, which is more than I expect most residents have ever seen. And at the focus of the échelon-plan complex, now populated only by pigeons, I found the water tower I'd seen over the trees from a mile away. The Horton Estate Light Railway once terminated alongside, supplying a hidden society of those excluded and forgotten - today only the house prices are mental. by bus: 465, 467, E10