Its that time of year again when Epsom goes a bit weird as the entire world descends on the town. I was born in Epsom and lived most of my life there, so The Derby has always been a big thing for me.
When I was young we used to get a half day off school on Derby Day, which was a Wednesday in those days. The excuse given was traffic, but the real reason was probably that only half the school would have turned up anyway – the rest would be up on the Downs watching the big race. In the sixties Epsom used to get a bit wild on Derby Day as drunken race goers swept through the town after the race and turned all of the pubs into riots. I think in the seventies all the pubs in town would close on Derby Day afternoon.
We didn’t always go up to see the big race. The other big Epsom thing to do was to go down to Hook Road and wait respectfully on the roadside for a glimpse of The Queen as she swept through on her way home. (She would always arrive by train at Tattenham Corner and depart by car.) Only once, in her Jubilee Year did she stop in Epsom High Street to meet various dignitaries. Yes, I was there.
The Derby is unique. It is the one horse race YOU must see before you die. To start with the course is unique, with its notorious tight left hand bend at Tattenham Corner and its steep ascent and then descent, it is still one of the fastest flat courses in the world. Significantly, the race is held on publicly accessible land – Epsom Downs. This means that the centre of the track (“The Hill”) has open access and is free. As a result the crowds at Epsom are huge, up to 300,000 in the past but now still well over 100,000 people. The striking thing is that everyone is there. The entire town of Epsom. The hoi polloi on The Hill. The gypsies, for who The Derby is a major annual meeting. The city folk in their corporate open top double decker buses which line the final straight. The tic tac men in the stands and the bookies from all over the country competing for your pound each way. And the toffs from her majesty downwards in the Grandstand. Also, of course, The Derby is one of the oldest races in the world.
The best way up to the Downs from Epsom is to walk. Its about a mile up hill from Epsom Station but you join a growing throng as you wend your way past the stationary traffic on Ashley Road. Bus operators draft in every sort of bus imaginable to take people on the trip up from the station. Bizarrely many of the buses are Red Arrows from London, especially now the race is on a Saturday.
Your next problem is to get on to The Hill. There is a foot tunnel under the track which you reach at the left hand end of the Grandstand (or at least you used to, it might have changed). The tunnel gets really crowded and you just have to follow the crowd.
Sitting on The Hill with a bottle of beer and a picnic on Derby Day is a memorable experience. The Hill has become a vast market with stalls selling tat and beer tents, plus the buses and the gypsies. When each race is about to start the Downs falls quiet until the off when there is an excited gasp from the 100,000 people present. This changes to a quiet roar as the horses quickly reach Tattenham Corner and then a huge cacophony of noise as they charge down the final straight. You will hear the hear the thunder of the hooves as they pass by, but probably all you will see of the race is the caps of the riders over the heads of the people in front of you. Then the place erupts as winners cheer and losers shout.
Add to all of this a busy heliport, buskers, pick pockets, drunkards, ladies in magnificent dresses, Roll Royces in the car park, burger stalls, live music in the evening, and stunning views of London and you can see why I try to go at least every second year.
But before I finish, there is some sad news this year. A huge part of Derby Week for Epsom people was the gigantic funfair on the Downs. This year it is not being held because the organisers decided that the site would be better used as a car park. Thats a travesty, and a break with tradition.