EPSOM DOWNS

 

The Downs close to Epsom have always been one of the green lungs of the greater London area and even became something of a health pilgrimage spot with the discovery of Epsom Salts around the year of 1620. But despite the regular stream of weekend ramblers from the city, the Downs basically remained a nice place out in the middle of nowhere. The sole reason to build a railway line terminus there was horse racing (which had also started around 1620 and turned into a major event with crowds of spectators since the 1770s), and the sole point the Banstead & Epsom Downs Railway was aiming at was the Epsom racecourse and Grandstand.

 

Due to fierce opposition of both the Lord of the Manor of Epsom Downs and the Epsom Grandstand Association, however, the original plans to build the station as close as 220 yards to the Grandstand had to be changed.

In the end Epsom Downs station came to be built some 1100 yards away from its actual destination.

While this was of course much closer to the racecourse than any other railway station at the time, Epsom Downs station still remained slightly "in the middle of nowhere" - a fact which became all the more evident when the South Eastern Railway opened its station at Tattenham Corner in 1901 in the close vicinity of the racecourse and Grandstand.

 

Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey

 
However, the area bordering Epsom Downs station to the East and South began to see a steadily rising amount of housing development, providing new and unforeseen commuter traffic to London as of the 1920s for the branch.
 



"THE NEW RAILWAY STATION AT THE RACE-COURSE, EPSOM DOWNS"
(Illustrated London News Supplement, 3 June 1865) (personal collection)

  The first ever published image of Epsom Downs station comes from the Illustrated London News Supplement, which devoted half a page in its edition of 3rd June 1865 to feature an illustration of the terminus building only two weeks after the branch line had opened to traffic.

Photography was well established in England by that time, and it is therefore almost certain that numerous pictures must have been taken on and around the opening of this new branchline, not the least due to the prestigious clientèle which were amongst the 70,000 people who for the first time took a train to Epsom Downs to see the Derby in late May 1865.

 
The oldest photographic picture showing the railway at Epsom Downs which is publicly available, however, seems to be a view taken on 30 May 1877 - Derby day.
 
No less than fifteen locomotives can be spotted in this picture (which reputedly was also on display in the stationmaster's office for decades), already turned and thus ready for the return trips of their race specials, some of which were all 1st class.

Most period photographs depicting steam on the line on Derby day feature a glimpse of the Royal Train, but the 1877 view shows no such special locomotive.

Although the first Royal train journey took place as early as 1842, royalty only started to travel to the Derby by train on the Epsom Downs branch from the end of Queen Victoria's reign (1901) until 1924 (Kirby, 1983).

 



Epsom Downs on Derby day in 1877 - traffic and engines galore!
(Lens of Sutton)

 
By 1900, the track plan at Epsom Downs was characterized by the numerous facilities required for the servicing and turning of steam locomotives, the station approach laid out for the handling of the multitude of trains it only ever saw once a year.
 


[left] Epsom Downs Station, 1900
(Lens of Sutton)

 
This track layout was cut back substantially after electrification came into operation in July 1930, and the turntable was removed in February 1931 (Kirby, 1983). But even so, Epsom Downs station remained what it had been right from its construction: a paradoxical affair. Designed to handle great bustling masses of travellers, these only came here on a very limited number of days during the year. For all the rest of the year, the station complex was oversized beyond description.
 
Despite the 1931 modifications in the station throat area, the nine platform layout was kept right up until 1969, when all platforms other than no. 4 and 5 were put out of use and all other trackwork abandoned and eventually lifted.

But even then the station echoed a ghostly memory of its glorious past in the heyday of late 19th and early 20th century race traffic.

 



[above] Semaphore signals still guard the station throat at Epsom Downs,
but the view dates from the late 1960s

(Lens of Sutton)

left] Epsom Downs Station in 1959, already looking slightly gloomy
(D. Clayton, courtesy of Subterranea Britannica's Disused Stations website)

 
On 21 December 1969, the intermediate signal boxes on the branch were abolished and automatic colour-light signalling introduced between the terminus and Sutton. Epsom Downs itself retained most of its semaphore signals in spite of a by now considerably simplified track layout.
 

 

By the time the mid-1970s rolled around the whole station complex - with its lifted tracks, wide open and unused space and growing shrubbery - began to take on an even ghostlier atmosphere than it already had previously. What used to be platform 8/9 was now already overgrown with trees as maintenance and upkeep was concentrated on the single double-side platform still in use.



Three views of the station building and complex taken in November 1975 standing on former platform 6
(Nick Catford, used with kind permission, courtesy of
Subterranea Britannica's Disused Stations website)

 
Rather fittingly in tone, Epsom Downs saw predominant use of 4SUB multiple units - a class of suburban multiple units (designated Class 405 under British rail TOPS as of the early 1970s) which was itself on the way out at that time. Used on inner-suburban workings in the South London area since the early 1940s (and continuously built or converted until 1951), the 4SUBs were beginning to be withdrawn by British Rail as of 1972.
 
The large numbers built meant that this withdrawal process would not be completed until 1983, but the Epsom Downs branch proved a regular destination for these EMUs on the retreat.



4SUB 4721 in July 1979
(Dr Neil Clifton, under creative commons licence)

 



4SUB 4743 in mid-1977
(Alan Bricker, used with kind permission)

 
Epsom Downs Signalbox, erected in 1879 by the LBSCR's preferred contractor, Saxby & Farmer, was a substantially sized building, measuring about 42 ft in length. In its later days, the decaying timber was patched up with asbestos panels.
 
The box contained two lever frames, a Saxby & Farmer spindle frame of 50 levers together with - up until the layout was rationalised - a 25 lever Saxby & Farmer rocker locking frame, fitted in 1908 at the same time as the original frame was relocked (this would have allowed the two frames to have worked together even though they were so different).

When the layout was rationalised the 25 lever section was replaced with a two lever Stevens Knee frame just to control the detonator placers.

Strangely the interlocking in the old frame remained unchanged until the late 1970s, which gave rise to a great number of levers worked just to maintain the original locking moves (these are the Brown/Blue levers in the pictures below).

 



(John Hinson, used with kind permission, courtesy of the Signal Box Website)

 



Interior views from early 1975 show the reduced track diagram (above) and the levers (below)
(Graham Floyd, used with kind permission)

 
The signal box was scheduled to close in 1982 in connection with the resignalling of the area (controlled from a box named Victoria but actually located at Clapham Junction), but the end came earlier as the box was destroyed by a fire on November 16th 1981.
 
With immediate effect there were no more through trains on the branch from 26 November 1981 until 4 November 1982, due to pilotman working being implemented between Sutton and Epsom Downs as an emergency measure. This allowed BR to temporarily operate the line as a single dead-end branch under the "one engine in steam" rule.

This resulted in a shuttle service between Epsom Downs and Sutton, where all passengers were required to alight and change to connecting trains. On some occasions, this back and forth train service between Sutton and Epsom Downs was operated by preserved 4SUB unit 4732, restored to original green livery and bringing back some original Southern Electrics atmosphere to the line.

On 3 October 1982, the inevitable happened - the singling of the Epsom Downs branchline beyond a point some 40 yards on the Belmont side of Ventnor Road bridge, midway between Sutton and Belmont.

 



The semi-destroyed Epsom Downs signal box as seen from the platform end on 13 March 1982
(NN, personal collection)

 
The station layout at Epsom Downs, however, remained unchanged and thus retained its previous layout with an island platform serving two tracks as platforms 1 and 2.
 
  The rest of the branch, however, underwent a radical visual change as the former Up line was lifted throughout the summer and autumn of 1982.

 

Track and signalling diagram at Epsom Downs as of 3 October 1982
(BR Signal Instructions, personal collection)

 
With the notable exception of the 1982 shuttle services, there were no more 4SUBs calling at Epsom Downs, replaced by 4EPB (Class 415) and 2EPB (Class 417) multiple units.
 



Cl 415 (4EPB) 5351 awaiting departure from platform 1 (formerly platform 4) on 21 April 1984 - the wide platforms (originally meant to handle large groups of passengers on Derby day) by now resembled farm tracks more than anything else.
(Phil Richards)

 

A STATION VANISHES

 
All traces of the station's past and the reason for building the branch in the first place were completely eradicated on February 15th and 16th 1989 when the old station building was pulled down.
 
A new station which looked just like one of the newly built houses in its neighbourhood was built some 300 yards away from the original station concourse. With now just one platform and a single line of track, virtually nothing remained of what once was Epsom Downs station - indeed, only the pillars supporting the valanced canopy were rescued from the old building and put to decorative use.

 



The new station building shortly after its opening in 1989

 
All that remains today of the once complex station layout is the track originally running into platform 4. Because the single line on the branch is the original Down line, the track curves slightly to the right after clearing the new platform.
 



The track layout of the new Epsom Downs station, seen from the station throat on 24 May 2004
(Nick Catford, used with kind permission, courtesy of Subterranea Britannica's Disused Stations website)



General view of the platform area (left, May 2004), platform from the station end (centre, September 2001) and from the end of the platform (right, March 2002)
(left: Nick Catford, used with kind permission, courtesy of Subterranea Britannica's Disused Stations website / middle & right: Robert Oakes, used with kind permission)

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

KIRKBY J.R.W. Kirkby (1983) The Banstead and Epsom Downs Railway, Locomotion Papers Series, Oakwood Press

 

Back to main index
Back to Branch page

text is copyright (c) 1999-2015

Page last revised: 13 September 2015