ARTICLES What’s Pointless about Epsom? Reclaiming heritage for a contemporary sense of place

Image: Derby Square audience by Kobbi @djkobbie

What’s Pointless about Epsom? Reclaiming heritage for a contemporary sense of place

If you’ve seen the TV game show Pointless, you’ll know that contestants have to anticipate the valid but least cited responses to a question. The least-known answer is Pointless answer and wins the game. Obscure knowledge can reap surprising rewards – and so it is in civil society. Common assumptions are often a veneer. The most illuminating way to understand a community is to seek out the Pointless answers.

If you can put aside any discomfort about the legacy of class system, it’s a great day out. But it is a clear insight to the vast inequalities that exist in the area and it doesn’t define the real essence of contemporary Epsom.

A healing heritage

Epsom – or Ebbisham as it was first known – has a rich heritage that is so little celebrated, it has become most mythical. In 1618 when a farmer discovered the health-giving properties of magnesium sulphate-infused water bubbling up in his field, it took a few years for word to spread about ‘Epsom Salts’, but the spread it did and Epsom became England’s first spa town.  

Celebrities of the day, including Samuel Pepys and Nell Gwynn, came to drink and bathe in the famous mineral water.  It became a veritable cure-all that attracted quacks and genuine physicians, as well as entrepreneurs and entertainers. Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) wrote in 1725 ‘this town is wholly adapted to pleasure…folks don’t come to Epsom to stay within doors.’

Seeking identity

So back on the Pointless gameshow, panelists would score with the answer ‘Epsom Salts’, or perhaps ‘Emily Davison’, the suffragette killed under the hooves of the King’s horse protesting for the female vote. But this is just the language of Wikipedia. You can’t feel this heritage on the streets of the town, and you can’t see it.  There is still no meaningful memorial to Ms Davison and visitors would be hard-pushed to find the site of the original Epsom Well without the aid of the internet.

When the occasional minibus of American tourists arrives in Epsom (sales of Epsom Salts are huge in the US), they eventually end up at a turning circle of small homes on The Wells estate. Neighbours in the bungalows draw their curtains to shield themselves from the disappointed looks at the lack of a gift shop or tour guide. A descriptive board enlightens the reader about Epsom Spa, and the original Epsom Well sits under a wrought-iron cover and low surrounding wall. But it is an isolated feature that makes no contribution to the town’s modern identity.

The shadow of London

The economic growth of Epsom Spa continued until eighteenth century tourists turned to Bath, Harrogate and Brighton as the preferred fashionable places to be seen. Its proximity to central London (just 15 miles) ensured Epsom’s continued appeal for nobles building family homes, and the aforementioned horse-racing. Being in the shadow of London, though, has somewhat deprived Epsom of a sense of modern identity. No longer a countryside retreat, it now sits at the heart of the commuter belt, with many city workers leaving early and arriving home late, preferring to patronise the plethora of cultural haunts the capital has to offer than get involved in the local community scene.

Like many provincial locations, the borough is generally ‘run’ by older, retired residents with a comfortable pension – whether that be councillors, faith and community group leaders, and charity volunteers.  People of working age have been disengaged – too preoccupied with their own squeezed family finances and how much more fun other people appear to be having on Facebook – to drum up the motivation to strive for change.

A recent artistic project at Epsom’s University of the Creative Arts saw the recurring motif of a zimmer-frame being associated with the town. Young people feel like the minority and see themselves as transient residents, without cultural or emotional connections.

Acknowledging inequalities

The idea that Epsom is a rich, successful town that doesn’t deserve the support of public funding bodies does its residents a great disservice. It’s true that almost half of residents inhabit the world of the most privileged 10% in the UK, but a significant number of are in the most deprived 30% of the UK, scoring the lowest numbers possible, in several deprivation ranking measures (Index of Multiple Deprivation 2015).

On the High Street, the inequality is palpable. And far from being a white British enclave, several wards in the borough are ethnically diverse – with 46% of the pupils of one primary school speaking English as a second language. A step-change is needed that acknowledges these inequalities and grasps the town’s enormous placemaking potential.

Placemaking through the arts

Recently, new shoots of civil action have begun to appear. Groups have come together, united by a common purpose, to share the real story of today’s Epsom, and to make change. The focus is on social cohesion and economic improvement through arts and heritage.

MGSO4 Epsom & Ewell Arts (named after the chemical formula for Epsom Salts) is a grass-roots charity established 3 years ago as a springboard for arts activities. The ethos that enriching creative opportunities can improve wellbeing for everyone, led to the borough’s first ever arts festival and spin-off activities such as an intergenerational sculpture project, in which primary school children worked side by side with elderly people living in care homes. But building capacity to meet this demand is hard work without any core funding.

Embracing stories from the margins

Returning for the final round of our gameshow – the Pointless answer to the question, ‘name something associated with Epsom,’ is mental health.

The heritage of more recent times stems from the purchase of 1000 acres of Epsom’s land by London City Council in 1899. The capital was keen to be rid of what it called ‘pauper lunatics’, so a ‘cluster’ of five hospitals was built sharpish and more than 10,000 patients forcibly transported to Epsom. It completely transformed the town.

Europe’s biggest self-contained psychiatric community grew their own food, made, mended and washed their own clothes and attracted care workers from all over the world for almost a century. Individuals from all backgrounds lived veiled lives within the cluster until the Care in the Community policy and the value of the land led to the closure of the hospitals in the 1990s. Since then, thousands of people have moved into the converted and new homes built on the sites.

Harnessing potential

The Horton Chapel Project is a community-led endeavour to save the only building of the original Victorian hospital cluster with the potential to be open to the public. Currently derelict, plans will transform the Grade II-listed former Chapel into a vibrant arts and heritage centre – a destination attraction that offers cultural opportunities that don’t currently exist in the area, and that gives a voice to the previously hidden history of the hospitals.  The fascinating stories of pioneering treatments skirting the boundaries of ethics, children and societal rebels misdiagnosed and locked away, and meaningful relationships between dedicated staff and institutionalised patients, will be swept back out from under the carpet.

The legacy of the hospitals is integral to the town’s personality and make-up today and can be a significant positive force in its path into the future. There is a fledging community spirit amongst the people who have moved into the redeveloped homes and much of this is being channeled into hopes for Horton Chapel. A cross-party round of applause was given by councillors on the planning committee, whilst sitting in chambers, in joy that a scheme had been proposed and unanimously approved that could benefit everyone.

The local authority is poised to release ring-fenced matched-funds that have been held for decades, and the project has so far been supported by Heritage Lottery Enterprise Fund, Architectural Heritage Fund and Power To Change. But it is not over the line yet. Funders must have the confidence in the will of competent local people to shape solutions to local issues.

There is a sense of anticipation in Epsom that something great could happen. Times and attitudes to mental health have changed, and residents of Epsom are ready to embrace the past rather than to be embarrassed by it.

The theme of this year’s MGSO4 Epsom & Ewell Arts Festival is ‘Discovery,’ in celebration of the 400-year anniversary of the unearthing of Epsom Salts. But this is also a year of self-discovery, and hopefully one in which the town will find its place.