The market town of Epsom is world-famous for two things. Let's do them both. [20 photos]
Somewhere famous: Epsom Well First the bad news - Epsom Salts aren't made in Epsom. But they owe their name to the town, and were first found here almost 400 years ago, completely accidentally. The chance discovery was made on Epsom Common during the dry summer of 1618 by a man out herding cows. Villager Henry Wicker spotted that a hoofprint in the earth had filled slightly with water, so dug around it in an attempt to bring more to the surface. The following day his hole was running over, but the cattle refused to drink, so he took a sip himself and noticed a bitter metallic tang. It took twelve years before the clear spring water was found to have medicinal properties, but news of this discovery then spread with haste across the country. A small well house was built in the middle of the common, and Epsom became the first spa town in England, to which gentlemen and ladies would flock to take the waters.
"Some drink ten, twelve, even fifteen or sixteen pints in one journey, but everyone as much as he can take. And one must then go for a walk, works extraordinarily excellent, with various funny results. Gentlemen and ladies have their separate meeting places, putting down sentinels in the shrub in every direction. It has happened that the well is drunk empty three times in a morning, in hot and dry summers when the water has more strength. And the people who observe this come then in such crowds that the village which is fairly large and can spread at least 300 beds, is still too small and the people are forced to look for lodgings in the neighbourhood. Some stay there on doctor's orders for several weeks continuously in the middle of the summer, drinking daily from this water, and many people take after the drinking some hot meat broth or ale." (William Schellinks, 1662)
Two discoveries at the end of the 17th century changed things somewhat. A second well was detected much nearer to the town centre, off South Street, which rapidly took the lion's share of the spa trade. Many businesses grew up around the New Wells, including a bowling green, a new-fangled coffeehouse, and a gaming and dancing hub at the Assembly Rooms, so the old well fell quickly into decline and was closed down. Meanwhile a scientist called Nehemiah Grew had been experimenting with the well water to try to discover the formulation of the mysterious salts dissolved within. His evaporation techniques may have been cutting-edge at the time, these being the early days of proper chemistry, but he was able to identify the principal component as sulphate of magnesia. Some lucrative business deals followed, leading to the production of Epsom Salts on an industrial scale, eventually from seawater.
By the mid-18th century Epsom's must-see status had been lost, upstaged by spa towns like Tunbridge or Bath with a more plentiful supply of therapeutic waters. But its tourist-based kickstart had made the town a desirable place in the country for many a wealthy gent, and several generations of provincial respectability followed. Epsom's town centre still has a smattering of contemporary buildings, especially at the western endof the High Street, these shielding a more modern playhouse and a fairly standard shopping mall. The market place outside survives, not too down-at-heel, crammed into a thin strip in the shadow of the famous Victorianclocktower. And the restored Assembly Rooms are now a Wetherspoons, continuing a long tradition of refreshment, but of the spa waters themselves there's no trace.
To find the original Epsom Well you have to walk a mile out of town to the middle of Epsom Common, as the first visitors did, where today sits a most peculiar interwar housing estate. This is almost perfectly circular in shape, with a radius of precisely one furlong, as this was the extent of the commonland given over to farmland when the old well closed down. The Wells Estate therefore consists of two concentric rings of 1930s semis surrounded on almost all sides by heath and woodland, connected to reality by a single access road. In the very centre of this residential labyrinth, enclosed by a ring of bungalows at the top of Well Way, is the original Epsom Well. The decorative iron cover was added in 1989, and the exterior bricks far look too modern, indeed there's an element of garden ornament about the whole thing. But step up from the parking bay and peer through the grille, and you're at the very spot where the contents of a million bathroom cabinets once originated. by train: Epsom, Ashsteadby bus: 166, 293
Somewhere sporting: Epsom Downs And then there's the racecourse. Again this has its origins in the 17th century, with England's first recorded horse race meeting taking place on the Epsom Downs in the presence of King Charles II. The open grassland to the south of the town was perfect for riding and racing, and the rolling landscape provided an excellent vantage point from which to spectate. Race meetings organised by the local nobility were soon taking place twice a year, and it was at the May Meetings in 1778 and 1779 that the two most famous races were inaugurated. First off were The Oaks, named after after Lord Derby's house near Carshalton, joined the following year by The Derby, named on the toss of a coin and so nearly called The Bunbury instead. As Epsom's fame grew so the race meetings became larger and more frequent, necessitating the building of a small royal grandstand and much larger stands for the commoners. The whole thing today is run as a huge commercial enterprise, complete with hospitality concessions and a Holiday Inn Express alongside. But the most amazing thing, if you ever visit outside racetime, is the free public access to almost the entire site.
You can't get into the grandstand area, of course. But the downs are open for roaming so long as you avoid the cinder tracks during the morning gallops. I walked down the side of the Duchess's Stand, opened in 2009 by our next Queen, following a sign intriguingly labelled Public Footpath. It led to an underpass beneath the home straight, through which racegoers are funnelled on days when hooves are thundering overhead. And that's nothing, a little further up another public path crosses the very turf itself, as I discovered when I was out this way back in June the day after the Derby. They've long since tidied up the mounds of rubbish, leaving the slopes within the white-railed horseshoe pristine, and ideal for a wander. It was simplicity itself to walk right up to the rails by the finishing line and look up and down the course, and across at the three grandstands - giant, medium and tiny. The dinky one painted pure white is the Prince's Stand, built in 1879 for the Prince of Wales, now used by Owners and Trainers as and when the need arises.
The Downs are a marvellous recreational resource for Epsom's residents, their dogs and their horses. And there's also a fantastic view from the northern side, across the golf course, looking down across most of West London. I timed my visit so that the low winter sun cast its light across the entire panorama, first spotting Wembley's arch, then the City cluster and Shard through the trees. Epsom and Ewell may never quite be absorbed into London, but the capital is never very far away. by train: Epsom Downs, Tattenham Cornerby bus: 166