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Riding on Epsom Downs

Introduction

Middle Hill Gallop

Riders ascend Middle Hill, a 500m-long grass slope with over 30m of height gained towards Walton Road. Behind is the back straight of the racecourse.


Epsom Downs (properly known as Epsom and Walton Downs) is an extensive area of chalk downland just south of Epsom in Surrey. At its core is the renowned Epsom Downs racecourse, best known for the annual Derby Stakes, open to three-year-old Thoroughbred colts and fillies. The downs are also important both for public recreation and the training of racehorses, and are managed by a board of conservators. But this webpage is primarily about the opportunities available for horse riding on the downs.

The downs have some of the best public facilities for exercising and hacking horses in Surrey, and perhaps in the home counties. The downs were formerly common land, and for many years, until the 1930s, the townspeople of Epsom and the racing trainers warily asserted their competing interests in the use of the downs for recreation — including horseriding — and training. Now, the downs are regulated by a local Act of Parliament, but there are still over 20km of hack rides and hack areas for horse riders' use, including extensive areas of grassland, sand tracks and even gallops, and if you visit in the afternoon, there are seldom many other horses around. Understanding where you can and can't ride, the presence of horses in training during the morning, and the popularity of the downs for kite flying, model aeroplane flying, dog walking and other potentially conflicting activities, are some of the challenges — but if you can cope with these, you'll want to come again!

Riders are required to observe the byelaws and asked to observe the code of conduct. For reports and comment about riding on the downs, please see the blog. If you'd just like a suggestion for a hack on the downs, and don't want to worry about the details, try the hack ride no.1, or if you're riding in the afternoon, hack ride no.2. Check the local council website first (scroll down to Events) for details of events on the downs which might affect the enjoyment of your visit: in theory, there are still places to ride even on Derby Day, but just try finding a place to park!

Horse riding on the downs

Walton Road

Walton Road descends Six Mile Hill

There is a right of access on horseback to hack areas and over 20km of rides on the downs. In addition, there is access along several public bridleways and Walton Road (an unsurfaced road). Some of the hack areas and rides are unavailable during the morning (until noon) to reduce conflict with the training of racehorses, but plenty of other areas and rides are available all day. Access along the public bridleways and Walton Road is also available at all times (even where these are adjacent to or cross the training areas).

Strictly speaking, the hack areas and rides are for the use of riders and walkers: cycling is not encouraged except on the public bridleways, Walton Road, and a few other routes designated for cycling. But don't be too surprised to meet cyclists anywhere on the downs.

Hack areas

the Hill

There are extensive hack areas on the downs, where riders are free to range over the designated area at any pace, often on firm, well-drained, turf. The best hack areas are:

but there are many smaller or less valuable areas elsewhere.

You can see the location of the hack areas on this copy of the signed map: they are marked by grey hatching (note that the areas coloured pink are reserved for racehorse training). Some hack areas south of the racecourse are closed to riders before noon each day: they are marked between consecutive pairs of letters on the map (e.g. between 'C' and 'D'). Not all the hack areas are in good condition: several areas have been allowed to degenerate into dense scrub. For example, parts of the triangle east of Downs House have long, rough grass and scrub, and use by horse riders is generally confined to one or two paths across the area (although clearance work here and elsewhere has improved the situation).

Hack rides

two marker posts

The downs are criss-crossed by designated hack rides. The hack rides extend also around the golf course to the north of the racecourse. Some hack rides south of the racecourse are closed to riders before noon each day: they are marked between consecutive letters on the signed map (e.g. between 'A' and 'B'). Hack rides are shared with walkers, but cyclists are not supposed to use them except where the hack ride follows a public bridleway. You can see the location of the hack rides on the signed map: they are marked by grey dashed lines, or on this more recent leaflet and map for horse riders (see the key for details of markings).

Both hack areas and hack rides are marked by posts — but there aren't many of them where you most need them. blue arrow A blue arrow means you can ride in the area facing the arrow; red arrow a red cross means you can't ride in the area facing the cross; a yellow arrow means you can ride in the area facing the arrow, but only after noon. In the photo on the right, taken on Old London Road, there are blue arrows on the sides of the posts facing into the track, to show you can ride along it, but red crosses on the outsides, to show you oughtn't to stray off the track. (There's another blue arrow on the side of the nearer post, to show you can ride on the track leading towards the camera.) At least, that's how it's supposed to work: unfortunately, some of the more recent markings have been mounted in the same way as waymarks, just pointing in the direction in which where you can ride, which leaves unclear the extent (as opposed to the direction) of the ride.

Public bridleways and roads

The downs are also crossed by several public bridleways, such as the Old London Road (see photo, below) and an unsurfaced public road (Walton Road). The bridleways and road can be used at any time. Walton Road runs south from the Rubbing House across the downs to the bottom of Ebbisham Lane: it is surfaced only as far as Downs House Road. The bridleways are not specifically identified on the signed map, but can be seen on the extract from the Ordnance Survey Explorer map opposite (marked by the longer green dashes). Walton Road is not labelled on either map, but can be seen on the Explorer map extract marked by orange dots where it crosses Walton Downs, then continuing north to the marked public telephone (which no longer exists).

Old London Road

             Old London Road

Extract from OS Explorer map

Image (right) produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey.

Horsebox parking

If you're coming to the downs in a horsebox, parking is generally easy. There are several car parks which you can choose from, and no height restriction barriers.

Other parking places can be found in the Tattenham Enclosure (off Tattenham Corner Road, when open, grass surface) or off Langley Vale Road by The Rubbing House (but the pub is now so popular that this is not now recommended — even if there's room when you arrive, there may be no room to load up when you want to leave). Epsom and Ewell council has published in Word format a map of car parks on the Downs.

One place to avoid is the car park at the foot of Ebbisham Lane: it's no longer maintained, and Ebbisham Lane itself is in poor repair.

Byelaws

The board of conservators have made byelaws (pdf) to regulate use of the downs. Breach of the byelaws is an offence, although prosecutions are very rare.

The byelaws provide that: "3. A person shall not without lawful authority ride a horse on the Downs otherwise than upon the rides and areas shown for that purpose on the signed map and on such other rides or areas as may from time to time be authorised by the Conservators."

The Rubbing House

The byelaws also prohibit riding on the tracks and areas marked on the signed map between pairs of letters (e.g. between 'C' and 'D') before noon each day (byelaw 4), riding in the vicinity of the racecourse or on the Hill on race days (byelaw 5 — see the Epsom Downs racecourse website for the racing calendar), and riding in contravention of any temporary restriction imposed by the conservators (byelaw 6).

It is not an offence to breach byelaws 3 and 4 unless: "...notice specifying the offence and the maximum penalty therefor is conspicuously displayed in such places on the Downs as the Conservators think fit, and the routes of the rides are clearly identified by signs or other means" (byelaw 21). The byelaws do not apply to the small part of Walton Downs which lies within the borough of Reigate and Banstead.

Just for the sake of completeness, it's also an offence to ride in a public place (that includes the downs) while drunk in charge of a horse (section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872). So you might want to visit the Derby Arms and the Tattenham Corner on separate occasions (the Rubbing House, in the background left of photo right, doesn't admit anyone wearing boots!).

Just going for a ride?

If all this sounds too complicated for a hack, don't worry: you're unlikely to be hauled before the magistrates if you unintentionally stray off the hack rides! But do arrange your first visit for after midday, when there won't be any horses in training. If you're looking for a guided route round, try hack ride no. 1, or if you're riding in the afternoon, hack ride no.2.

Governance

The Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984

The downs are privately owned, and much of the land is leased to United Racecourses (Holdings) Ltd. But the downs are regulated under a local Act of Parliament — the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984. Under the Act, the downs are managed by the Epsom and Walton Downs conservators. The board of conservators comprises six local councillors nominated by Epsom and Ewell borough council, three nominated by Epsom Downs Racecourse (part of Racecourse Holdings Trust and a subsidiary of the Jockey Club), and one by the owner of Walton Downs, now also Epsom Downs Racecourse. The board meets several times a year, and has been chaired for several years by Cllr Jean Smith (the chairmanship used to alternate, but no mention has been made of this practice since 2006). There is also a consultative committee, which brings together the conservators and representatives of recreational users and local residents. The minutes of meetings of both the board of conservators and the consultative committee can be seen via the website of Epsom and Ewell Borough Council.

Riders' representatives regularly attend meetings of the conservators and the consultative committee: reports can often be found in the blog.

The signed map

Statutory map

The signed map is identified in the 1984 Act as setting out the areas and paths which riders may use on the downs. You can see a reduced scale copy of the map by clicking on the image (right — file size approx. 600kB).

Note that the areas of the map coloured pink are reserved for racehorse training (whether or not they are in use for that purpose). It is not very easy to relate the signed map to landmarks on the downs. A new leaflet and map has recently been published, although the complexities are still such that it remains difficult to work out exactly where you can and cannot ride.


The Consultative Committee

A consultative committee meets twice a year to improve communication between the board of conservators, users of the downs, and local residents. The committee is chaired by the chairman of the board of conservators, Cllr Jean Smith, and includes two representatives of hack riders: one from the British Horse Society (Hugh Craddock) and one from the Epsom Downs Riders Protection Society (Alex Stewart).

Problems

Many years ago, the public had a right to walk and ride on the downs without restriction. Under legislation first passed in 1936, and updated in 1984, riders' rights have been progressively restricted, so that riding is now permitted only on designated paths and areas. This is still pretty good, and it would be better still if the facilities for hack riders were maintained to a reasonable standard. Over the last ten years or so, standards have improved, but there are still some problems. Some of the issues which we are campaigning about are outlined below: please see the blog for the latest position.

1. Hack rides — encroachment

Many of the hack areas, in common with much of the downs, tend to revert to scrub and woodland unless actively maintained. Some of the hack areas marked on the signed map have long since been lost to scrub, such as along the northern boundary of the golf course. Our outstanding concerns relate to:

There has been good progress in the last few years, and some areas, particularly the hack rides either side of Old London Road, the hack ride alongside Burgh Heath Road, the hack rides across Juniper Hill, and most recently, the hack ride through Warren Woods, are now restored to use and well worth using, thanks to the efforts of the team of downskeepers. But there's still more to be done.

2. Sand track at foot of Walton Downs

For some years, the sand track was in a pretty poor condition: see the "before" and "after" photos below. Maintenance has improved in recent years, but there are significant problems: the drainage is awful, causing waterlogging and the movement of material downhill; it lacks a base membrane, so that flints work their way into the fill (particularly near the west end); and the fill has been topped up with non-equestrian sand, which means the going in places is far too deep and soft. Changing this would mean spending big money: perhaps £140,000. The conservators have debated works to the sandtrack, but nothing has been decided so far.

sand track before sand track after

The sand track in 2004

The sand track in 2006

 

3. The hatched area

Hatched area above copse

The 1984 Act designated the lowest part of Walton Downs as an area on which hack riding is permitted after noon "if in the opinion of the Training Grounds Management Board conditions permit" (this area can be seen marked in hatching on the map). It seems that the Board has never concluded that "conditions permit". Much of the designated area is also covered by scrub.

The Board is currently saying that conditions are unsuitable because of rabbit holes, access and egress (because the MacTrack gets in the way), signage (there isn't any), and fears about abuse (riders moving north onto the training grounds). At a site visit in early August 2006, we looked at the possibility of a marked out track across the grounds, which could be put into good condition, and we put a case to the TGMB in March 2008. But there was no change. Ironically, the hatched area west of Walton Road is used as part of the training grounds, which makes absurd its claim that conditions are unsuitable.


Eastern end of the hatched area  


4. Closure of Walton Road

Walton Road 
	crossing

The crossing closed in July 2003

Walton Road is a public road. The crossing of the back of the racecourse has been unlawfully closed from time to time over several years (see photo, left) to improve the going on the racecourse, but Surrey County Council (the highways authority) has since put a stop to the closures. Meanwhile, the surface of the road across Walton Downs has been obliterated: local people remember driving along here!

Although the whole route remains a public road, you'd be hard pressed to identify it today. The road is subject to a traffic regulation order which prohibits use by motor vehicles, but the barriers also illegally prevent use by carriage drivers. If you're interested in driving (with horses) along here, please let me know.

 

5. Dogs, kite flying etc.

The downs are a favourite with dog walkers, and The Hill is understandably popular for kite flying, particularly at weekends. But dogs are supposed to be kept under control, and kites are supposed to be flown only in one designated area north of the Mile Post car park, and then only after midday. Loose dogs frequently upset riders' mounts, can lead to a rider being thrown, and can be a danger to themselves: a horse's kick can disable or kill a dog. Unregulated kite flying discourages equestrian use of The Hill and bridleway 127, and may lead to accidents. Advice and enforcement by the downskeepers are seldom sufficient, particularly at weekends. Far more resources are put into policing the training gallops each morning (and warning hack riders off the training gallops) than into enforcing the other byelaws.

6. Signposting

The signposting of the hack areas and rides is difficult to understand: it's two dimensional, and more complicated than it seems. Many new posts have been installed during 2007-08, and other posts have been repainted (see the photos above), but the marking scheme is not particularly intuitive (although it's doubtful there's a better way of doing things). Walton Road is not signposted.

7. Chalk Lane

Chalk Lane

Chalk Lane is a back lane which tunnels through overhanging trees out of Epsom uphill into the countryside at the top of the downs. It provides access to the downs for the people living in the hospital and Woodcote Green area, and crucially, for riders who keep their horses at Durdans and in the fields either side of Chalk Lane. Remarkably, it's been subject to a traffic regulation order excluding motor vehicles since September 1922, showing how this road was valued for use by people and horses long before motor traffic on country lanes was considered a widespread problem. Unfortunately, Chalk Lane can still be used for access to premises alongside, which means that enforcement is difficult. And particularly during the rush hour, the road is busy with traffic rat-running round Epsom. However, the installation of a barrier at Durdans seems to be having some effect: if you're going that way, remember to shut it behind you.

8. Tattenham Corner crossing

The Pegasus crossing on Tattenham Corner Road cost around £60,000, and is really only of value to the nearby racing stables. Further works to make the crossing of use to hack riders, cyclists and walkers could be pursued only if the works were put forward for funding in the Epsom and Ewell local committee, but the committee has decided there are higher priorities locally. Quite possibly true, but we wonder how £60,000 was spent on it in the first place, with no public benefit?

9. Publicity

The council has established a dedicated page on its website, barely acknowledging that the downs are managed by a legally separate board of conservators. By way of comparison, the conservators of Wimbledon and Putney Commons, Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons, Banstead Commons Conservators, Oxshott Heath and Ashdown Forest, all within the region and under similar management régimes, maintain useful information on their own dedicated websites. We think the conservators still subscribe to the view that the fewer people who know about the downs, the better.

Contacts

To contact the riders' representatives on the consultative committee:


Hugh's address

email: ewd@craddocks.co.uk

Walton Road 
	from the Warren

Walton Road, looking towards the racecourse crossing from the Warren Woodland




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