Taken from south of Butcher's Grove, Horton Country Park is ideal for walking and cycling
Horton Country Park is situated 1½ miles west of Epsom and covers 400 acres, of which half is public open space. The Country Park is a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) with the public open space being designated as a Local Nature Reserve in 2004; this means that there is a strong emphasis on nature conservation.
The land was once part of the 1000 acre Trotter Estate, John Trotter being the High Sheriff of Surrey. This was sold to the London County Council in 1896 to enable five Mental Hospitals, known as the Epsom Hospital Cluster, to be constructed. This was intended to be self-sufficient as far as possible, so the four existing farms were used to supply food and to provide occupational therapy. A Power Station was built to provide heating and electricity. The Cluster was large enough to warrant the construction of its own extensive rail system and at its peak during the 1930s housed over 8000 patients. It was the largest concentration of mental hospitals in the world.
There was then a slow decline as new technologies and therapeutic drugs were introduced. By 1948 the National Health Service had been formed and General Hospitals were now providing psychiatric wards. These factors significantly reduced the amount of time some patients needed to stay and the hospital population fell.
Looking west across the fields opposite the Equestrian Centre
In 1973, Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, with the aid of a grant from the Countryside Commission and Surrey County Council, purchased some of the agricultural land and woodland from two of the farms (West Farm and Long Grove Farm) which by that time had fallen out of use. It is this area, to the west of the Hospital Cluster, that is now known as Horton Country Park.
Horton Country Park is Formed
The farm buildings of the former West Park Farm have survived, part of which is now used for office accommodation to help manage the Country Park. This includes a small Information Centre in the former dairy. The farm house is thought to be the oldest free standing building in the Borough of Epsom, with some parts dating back to the 15th century. Long Grove Farm became Horton Park Children's Farm, currently known as Hobbledown.
Hobbledown Childrens' Farm
A Golf Course and an Equestrian Centre were established during the 1980s, whilst the former Power Station is now a Fitness Centre.
The former Power Station, now a Fitness Centre; note the use of indigenous yellow Horton Bricks
Footpaths were cleared utilising existing rights of way and the trackbed of the former railway lines. These are mostly suitable in all but the worst weather for pedestrians, horses and bikes.
The Country Park originally contained five woods - Great Wood, Pond Wood, Four Acre Wood, Butcher's Grove and Stone's Copse. They are all designated as 'Ancient Woodlands' meaning they have been in existence since before 1600. During the 1980's new woodland was planted and later named; these are Lambert's Wood, Hendon Grove, Hollymoor Grove, Godbold's Copse, Sherwood Grove, Primrose Copse, Laundry Copse and Porter's Grove. More recently, with the redevelopment of Long Grove Hospital for housing ('Clarendon Park') Long Grove Wood (another Ancient Woodland) and Sandy's Copse subsequently came within the Country Park.
Pre-storm sky illuminates Hollymoor Grove Photo by Pat Fitz-Gerald
There are also two former hospital orchards, namely Lambert's and Long Grove, which contain a pear variety known as "Bellesime D'Hiver", a 17th Century French Cooking Pear. Do not be tempted to take a bite, not only is it against the Countryside Code you would need to have a very strange and robust sense of taste.
There are a number of Ponds, all artificial in origin. These include Field Pond which is one of the oldest and probably originally used for cattle; nowadays it attracts newts and a pond-dipping platform has been provided to allow closer inspection. Pond Wood has been restored following bomb damge during World War 2. A recent addition is Meadow Pond, which was created by damming a stream; this attracts swallows and swifts in the summer looking for food, as well as water fowl such as moorhen, coot, little grebe, herons and kingfisher. Latterly swans have use the reeds as nests. Dragonflies are also common visitors. Remember, however, that ponds can be dangerous places.
The fields near the Golf Course are managed by cutting for hay (as this encourages wild flowers which then attract butterflies and other insects) or grazing with horses, cattle and sheep.
Around 350 plant species have been recorded; the many hedgerows, formed typically of hawthorn, blackthorn and elm are a vital but nationally threatened habitat; these are maintained with modern and traditional methods, including hedge laying by volunteers.
In Spring, bluebells are plentiful in Butchers Grove and around Pond Wood.
Approximately 40 invertebrates (mainly butterflies and moths), over 100 birds and 13 mammals have been recorded; the Park's emblem is a green woodpecker.
The Park's Emblem by the Car Park
Herons have started to nest in Great Wood, using the nearby Meadow and Golf Course Ponds as a food source. Other common visitors are the willow warbler, great tit and chiff chaff; these usually appear during summer. Less common are kestrels, sparrowhawks and tawny and little owls.
A deer in Butcher's Grove
Photo by Pat Fitz-Gerald
Foxes and deer can be found, but the animal you are most likely to see are horses, either munching away in the fields opposite the equestrian centre or giving their humans a ride round the park.
Sometimes the best possible course of action is to have a roll around whilst a friend watches.
The Farmstead School buildings were originally part of the Long Grove Hospital complex. During demolition in 2005, a small section was retained and converted into a bat roost for European Brown Long Eared Bats.
The Bat Roost
In 2010 a 10 year programme of woodland restoration works was agreed with both Natural England and The Forestry Commission commenced. This includes the conservation and protection of veteran trees as these provide a scarce habitat for rare insects which live in the dead wood. The trees have become over-shaded and compete for light and nutrients causing them to suffer. Clearing an area around these trees increases their chances of survival whilst 'Crown Reduction', removing the top canopy of an overgrown tree, helps promote new growth.
View looking east across the south end of the Park
Thinning work is also taking place on the trees planted during the 1980s allowing the trees to thrive and to encourage a diverse flora on the surrounding areas which will attract a variety of wildlife including butterflies, birds and small mammals.
Working with the London Orchard Project has seen extensive pruning and an increase in the number of fruit trees with the aim of conserving as many fruit trees as possible. However this work has been disrupted due to protective covering being vandalised and roe deer stripping bark when removing velvet from their antlers.
To assist the staff, Volunteers help out with a variety of tasks every Thursday and new recruits are always welcome. Amongst the work carried out are the restoration of ponds, planting hedgerows and managing woodland. For more information, either see the Countryside Team Page on the Epsom & Ewell Borough Council site or ask to speak to a member of the Team on 01372 732000.
The Rest of The Estate
During the early stages of the Park, the Hospital Cluster remained in use, albeit on a much reduced scale. By 1993 only 310 long-term patients remained.
The former Long Grove Hospital, now residential accommodation.
Subsequently Long Grove and The Manor Hospitals completely shut by 1997, whilst small parts of St. Ebba's, Horton and West Park remain for a variety of medical and administrative uses today; otherwise the hospital sites have been redeveloped as residential areas and renamed, although certain features have been retained in the name of conservation.
The new names are as follows:
Manor Hospital became Manor Park;
Horton Hospital became Livingstone Park;
Long Grove Hospital became Clarendon Park;
St. Ebba's became Parkview;
West Park became Noble Park.
Walking and Cycling
My recommended walking/cycling route follows much of the boundary of the park and is nearly 4 miles in length, although this can be reduced by using the cut-off between the site of the former Long Grove Piggeries to Butcher's Grove; this shorter route is also recommended in wet weather to avoid the section past Great Wood where the pathway is less substantial. This section is also uphill when heading south so cyclists are advised to do the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, and is unsuitable for wheelchair users - as is the section of former railway line along the north edge of the Park. Much of the rest is described as wheel-chair negotiable, although I think you would need to be pretty strong to negotiate the area around West Park. There are plenty of benches should you need to rest.
Site of the former Long Grove Junction on the trackbed of the former railway
Photo by Pat Fitz-Gerald
Further cut-offs are available by using the course of the former railway line to the Power Station and the Thames Down Link, whilst an interesting add-on can be had by including a walk around the Pond Wood area.
Below is an Interactive Map, click on the thumbnail image to open.
The Main Route is shown by a thick red line, with thin red lines as possible cut-off routes. Access and Alternative Routes are shown in blue. The Blue Bus/Rail Markers indicate the nearest bus stops/railway stations. The main Car Park and Toilet area is indicated by the green marker, as are the Fitness Centre and Hobbledown. The yellow markers indicate parts of the route built on former railway lines.
On the left is a list of all routes, bus stops and railway stations; click on one of these and the relevant route/stop will be pointed out accompanied by a description box.
To manoeuvre around the map, hold down the left mouse button, drag the screen into position and let go. To zoom in and out, either use the + and - buttons or click & drag the vertical slide bar top left; better still, if your mouse has a scroll wheel, use that. If you prefer a map version, click the 'Map' box in the top right corner, then 'Satellite' to return.
Clicking and dragging the little orange man onto roads (which will subsequently be highlighted in blue where the function is available) will give you the opportunity to use 'Streetview'; you may need to use the rotating navigational ring in the top left corner to point yourself in the right direction. Unfortunately this doesn't cover the Park.
Starting from the main car park in an anti-clockwise direction, Access Points are as follows, with connecting bus/rail services added in brackets:
Car Park by the main entrance off Horton Lane; (E9 to 'Ripley Way' then ¼ mile walk)
From a path alongside the Children's Farm; (E9 to 'McKenzie Way')
From a path off John Watkin Close; (E9 to 'Oakwood Avenue')
From a path off Horton Lane;
From the Golf Course; (418 or 467 to 'Hook Road')
From a path off Chessington Road opposite Chessington Close; (418 or 467 to 'Chessington Close')
From a path off Chessington Road opposite Ruxley Lane; (418 or 467 to 'Nightingale Drive')
From a path off Collier's Close;
From a path off Rollesby Road; (71 or 467 to 'Copt Gilders')
From the Thames Down Link at Castle Hill Nature Reserve; (71 or 467 to 'Copt Gilders')
From the footpath between Green Lane, Chessington and Horton Lane; (71 or 467 to 'Church Lane' then ½ mile walk, or rail to Chessington South and ¾ mile walk)
From a path on the former railway line leading to West Park Hospital;
From the Chessington Countryside Walk opposite Epsom Common;
From the Picnic Area footpath from Horton Lane.
The Park can be found on Ordnance Survey maps 176 and 187 of the 1:50,000 series, and map 161 of the 1:25,000.
On the other paw you may be interested in a little video - a High Speed Version of the Circuit with music by local musician Nick Nation; just click on the box below and the film will start. In the bottom right corner of this is a button to allow you to view in full wide screen mode. Be warned - it is high speed on a bumpy surface so you will need a strong stomach!
Links to Other Walks Through Horton Country Park
Epsom And Ewell Borough Council's Walking Map of the Park, although some information is now out of date;
Heading along the former railway line to West Park, with the water tower in the background
Photo by Pat Fitz-Gerald
Organised Walks And Events
The Countryside Team organise themed walks across the park throughout the year; their annual walks and events leaflet can be found on the Epsom And Ewell Borough Council's website.
There's also The Friends of Horton Country Park who were formed in 1999 and hold regular meetings as well as producing a newsletter. In addition, they help with the management of the site through their own volunteer group and also participate in bird recording.
Finally EDICS (Epsom Downs Integrated Care Services) sponsor a mixture of 30 minute and 1 hour walks of varying difficulty within the borough which often feature Horton Country Park. Alternatively phone 020 8393 4638 for details.
The British Driving Society often hold a Carriage Day in the Park; here's a picture from the July 14th 2013 event:
Access by Public Transport
The E9 (not Sundays) from Epsom will take you near to the Main Entrance (ask for 'Ripley Way', then a ¼ mile walk) or to 'McKenzie Way' which is near the path alongside the Children's Farm, or 'Oakwood Avenue' (site of the former Long Grove Hospital, look out for former buildings) from which a path off John Watkin Close connects with the Park as indicated on the map.
The 418 (Epsom, West Ewell and Kingston), 467 (Epsom, West Ewell and Hook) and E5 (Langley Vale, Epsom and Watersedge) will take you to the Golf Course Entrance (ask for 'Hook Road'), the Northern Entrance west of the Golf Course (ask for 'Chessington Close') and the Chessington Road/Ruxley Lane Entrance (ask for 'Nightingale Drive').
The 467 and the 71 (Kingston, Hook and Chessington) also serve the Rollesby Road/Castle Hill Access Points (ask for 'Copt Gilders') or the ½ mile path from Green Lane (ask for 'Church Lane').
Oyster and Travelcards are not valid on the E5 or E9, but they are valid on all the rest.
Times for these buses can be found on the Surrey County Council Bus Timetable site for the area.
Not ideal unless you are prepared to add to your walk or use a connecting bus in addition. The nearest station is Chessington South, which is ¾ mile from the Park and connects with the Chessington Countryside Walk and Ashtead Station walks (see links above), whilst Ewell West connects with the 467 (stops outside, but infrequent) and the 418 (¼ mile away in Longmead).
Both these stations are within the Oyster and Travelcard Zones, unlike Epsom where you are then advised to take any of the bus services listed above.
The main car park is off Horton Lane near the Picnic Area and Information Centre, where a variety of leaflets and photos can be found, and toilets. There are disabled toilet facilities and access to the Info Centre.
The former dairy is now the Information Centre
Photo by Pat Fitz-Gerald
There are no refreshment facilities, although tea and munchies can be found at The Old Moat Garden Centre, open every day between 0900 and 1645 on the opposite side of Horton Lane five minute's walk away.
In short, you must visit Horton Country Park. If I was the sort of person who insisted, I would. Whether your interest is wildlife, nature, exercise or just getting away from the outside world, you will not be disappointed. I insist!
The Winter Sun sets on West Park Tower
Stewart Cocker, Countryside Manager, for help above and beyond;
Pat Fitz-Gerald, photographs where credited;
Wendy Wright, Office Manager at Horton Park Golf Club