A Tour through England and Wales divided into circuits or journeys.
By Daniel Defoe
published between 1724 and 1727 Letter 2, Part 3: Hampshire and Surrey
....but I must take a trip here cross the Downs to Epsome.
Banstead Downs need no description other than this, that their being so near London, and surrounded as they are with pleasant villages, and being in themselves perfectly agreeable, the ground smooth, soft, level and dry; (even in but a few hours after rain) they conspire to make the most delightful spot of ground, of that kind in all this part of Britain.
When on the publick race days they are cover'd with coaches and ladies, and an innumerable company of horsemen, as well gentlemen as citizens, attending the sport; and then adding to the beauty of the sight, the racers flying over the course, as if they either touched not, or felt not the ground they run upon; I think no sight, except that of a victorious army, under the command of a Protestant King of Great Britain could exceed it.
About four miles, over those delicious Downs, brings us to Epsome , and if you will suppose me to come there in the month of July, or thereabouts, you may think me to come in the middle of the season, when the town is full of company, and all disposed to mirth and pleasantry; for abating one unhappy stock jobbing year, when England took leave to act the frantick, for a little while; and when every body's heads were turn'd with projects and stocks, I say, except this year, we see nothing of business in the whole conversation of Epsome ; even the men of business, who are really so when in London; whether it be at the Exchange, the Alley, or the Treasury-Offices, and the Court; yet here they look as if they had left all their London thoughts behind them, and had separated themselves to mirth and good company; as if they came hither to unbend the bow of the mind, and to give themselves a loose to their innocent pleasures; I say, innocent, for such they may enjoy here, and such any man may make his being here, if he pleases.
As, I say, this place seems adapted wholly to pleasure, so the town is suited to it; 'tis all rural, the houses are built at large, not many together, with gardens and ground about them; that the people who come out of their confined dwellings in London, may have air and liberty, suited to the design of country lodgings.
You have no sooner taken lodgings, and enter'd the apartments, but if you are any thing known, you walk out, to see who and who's together; for 'tis the general language of the place, Come let's go see the town, folks don't come to Epsome to stay within doors.
The next morning you are welcom'd with the musick under your chamber window; but for a shilling or two you get rid of them, and prepare for going to the Wells.
Here you have the compliment of the place, are enter'd into the list of the pleasant company, so you become a citizen of Epsome for that summer; and this costs you another shilling, or if you please, half a crown: Then you drink the waters, or walk about as if you did; dance with the ladies, tho' it be in your gown and slippers; have musick and company of what kind you like, for every man may sort himself as he pleases; The grave with the grave, and the gay with the gay, the bright, and the wicked; all may be match'd if they seek for it, and perhaps some of the last may be over-match'd, if they are not upon their guard.
After the morning diversions are over, and every one are walk'd home to their lodgings, the town is perfectly quiet again; nothing is to be seen, the Green, the Great Room, the raffling-shops all are (as if it was a trading town on a holiday) shut up; there's little stirring, except footmen, and maid servants, going to and fro of errands, and higglers and butchers, carrying provisions to people's lodgings.
This takes up the town till dinner is over, and the company have repos'd for two or three hours in the heat of the day; then the first thing you observe is, that the ladies come to the shady seats, at their doors, and to the benches in the groves, and cover'd walks; (of which, every house that can have them, is generally supply'd with several). Here they refresh with cooling liquors, agreeable conversation, and innocent mirth.
Those that have coaches, or horses (as soon as the sun declines) take the air on the Downs, and those that have not, content themselves with staying a little later, and when the air grows cool, and the sun low, they walk out under the shade of the hedges and trees, as they find it for their diversion: In the mean time, towards evening the Bowling-green begins to fill, the musick strikes up in the Great Room, and company draws together a-pace: And here they never fail of abundance of mirth, every night being a kind of ball; the gentlemen bowl, the ladies dance, others raffle, and some rattle; conversation is the general pleasure of the place, till it grows late, and then the company draws off; and, generally speaking, they are pretty well as to keeping good hours; so that by eleven a clock the dancing generally ends, and the day closes with good wishes, and appointments to meet the next morning at the Wells, or somewhere else.
The retir'd part of the world, of which also there are very many here, have the waters brought home to their apartments in the morning, where they drink and walk about a little, for assisting the physical operation, till near noon, then dress dinner, and repose for the heat as others do; after which they visit, drink tea, walk abroad, come to their lodgings to supper, then walk again till it grows dark, and then to bed: The greatest part of the men, I mean of this grave sort, may be supposed to be men of business, who are at London upon business all the day, and thronging to their lodgings at night, make the families, generally speaking, rather provide suppers than dinners; for 'tis very frequent for the trading part of the company to place their families here, and take their horses every morning to London, to the Exchange, to the Alley, or to the warehouse, and be at Epsome again at night; and I know one citizen that practised it for several years together, and scarce ever lay a night in London during the whole season.
This, I say, makes the good wives satisfy themselves with providing for the family, rather at night than at noon, that their husbands may eat with them; after which they walk abroad as above, and these they call the sober citizens, and those are not much at the Wells, or at the Green; except sometimes, when they give themselves a holiday, or when they get sooner home than usual.
Nor are these which I call the more retir'd part the company, the least part of those that fill up the town of Epsome , nor is their way of living so retir'd, but that there is a great deal of society, mirth, and good manners, and good company among these too.
The fine park of the late Earl of Berkeley, near Epsome , was formerly a great addition to the pleasure of the place, by the fine walks and cool retreats there; but the earl finding it absolutely necessary, for a known reason, to shut it up, and not permit any walking there, that relief to the company was abated for some years; but the pleasures of nature are so many round the town, the shady trees so every where planted, and now generally well grown, that it makes Epsome like a great park fill'd with little groves, lodges and retreats for coolness of air, and shade from the sun; and I believe, I may say, it is not to be matched in the world, on that account; at least, not in so little a space of ground.
It is to be observ'd too, that for shady walks, and innumerable numbers of trees planted before the houses, Epsome differs much from it self, that is to say, as it was twenty or thirty years ago; for then those trees that were planted, were generally young, and not grown; and now not only all the trees then young, are grown large and fair, but thousands are planted since; so that the town, at a distance, looks like a great wood full of houses, scatter'd every where, all over it.
In the winter this is no place for pleasure indeed; as it is full of mirth and gayety in the summer, so the prospect in the winter presents you with little, but good houses shut up, and windows fasten'd; the furniture taken down, the families remov'd, the walks out of repair, the leaves off of the trees, and the people out of the town; and which is still worse, the ordinary roads both to it, and near it, except only on the side of the Downs, are deep, stiff, full of sloughs, and, in a word, impassable; for all the country, the side of the Downs, as I have said, only excepted, is a deep stiff clay; so that there's no riding in the winter without the utmost fatiegue, and some hazard, and this is the reason that Epsome is not (like Hampstead or Richmond) full of company in winter as well as summer.