The Durdans Stables is the most outstanding in Epsom from a historical, architectural and equestrian perspective. Indeed, it is one of the most notable in the whole country.
Its equestrian history starts with Amato, the first Derby winner (1838) to be born and trained in Epsom. The horse belonged to the owner of the Durdans, Sir Gilbert Heathcote. The grave of Amato is to be found in woodlands adjacent to the paddocks.
The Heathcote family sold the Durdans to the 5thEarl of Rosebery in 1874, where he established a flourishing stud for race horses, his passion
When at university, Rosebery set out three aims in life:
1. to become very rich (In 1878 he married Hanna de Rothschild).
2. to become Prime Minister (a position he held in 1894/95).
3. to own a racehorse that would win the Derby (he owned 3!!).
In 1881, Lord Rosebery commissioned the eminent Victorian “Arts and Crafts” architect George Devey, to design an indoor riding stable at the Durdans in this style. Along with other new stable boxes, the result was described in the Victorian Dictionary compiled by Lee Jackson as “being the finest in the country”. There are 3 listed buildings at the Durdans still in use, along with listed iron entrance gates and 4 horse graves.
The most striking is the grade 11* indoor riding school, one of only five (two of which are owned by the Royal Family) from this era still in equestrian use in the country. The school was built so that mares and foals from the stud could be paraded before Lord Rosebery in comfort. The exterior has very much the appearance of a chapel, with heavy buttresses between walls containing stone window frames and leaded light windows. There are Dutch gables on the east and west walls. The interior is 15 metres by 37 metres, including a viewing platform. The roof is of unusual, possibly unique, construction. It is supported by semi-circular timber arches built up from three layers of short lengths of timber, bolted together with staggered joints.
The outward pressure of the structure is resisted by the massive buttresses. The only way in and out is wide and high enough to admit a rider on horseback. During the Second World War, the no. 2 Canadian Army Field Workshop, stationed in Epsom, used the riding school as a workshop. At the main entrance to the Durdans, bored Canadian sentries have inscribed names and other details in graffiti on the brickwork. In 2013 the roof was restored under the guidance of English Heritage, using over 16000 Trevillet slates from Cornwall, each individually hand made.
Outside the entrance to the riding school is a grade 11 listed range of 12 loose boxes, also built in 1881. Facing these and making up the classical quadrangle shape, are a further 14 boxes, constructed in 2012. All these loose boxes are now being used for livery horses.
The current racing yard is the nearby Cicero Stables, again a grade 11 listed building, with 11 loose boxes and an attached cottage for the trainer and his family. The Cicero stables were built in 1900 and named after the Derby winner who was bred here and owned by Lord Rosebery. The central tower is for pure decoration and does not even carry a clock.
Lord Rosebery owned two studs, the Durdans and another at Mentmore, Buckinghamshire. He bred 500 race horses at these studs over a period of 60 years. Most notably, he won the Epsom Derby three times with Ladas 11 (1894), Sir Visto (1895) and Cicero (1905). All three Derby winners were schooled at the Durdans as, after weaning, all Mentmore foals were sent to the Durdans for training. The chalk sub-soil at Epsom meant the soil was drier and warmer and the paddocks so well protected from harsh winds, that the “young stock obtained every possible advantage”.
Rosebery stated “I feel guilty winning the Derby for the third time as most owners do not get the chance to win once”. After this tremendous achievement, the Durdans Stables became famous and tributes were created around Epsom, ranging from naming public houses after the Derby winners to a horse trough carrying one of the winner’s names (Cicero), which can now be found just outside the Rubbing House restaurant on the Downs.
Near to the main entrance to the Durdans Stables on Chalk Lane are grade 11 listed iron gates built in the early 1700s for the Duke of Chandos’ Palace called Canons near Edgeware. The gates bear the Chandos motto and could well have been produced by a pupil of Tijou who produced the gates for Hampton Court. Unfortunately the Duke of Chandos lost his fortune in the South Sea Bubble financial disaster in 1720.
Shortly after his death, the palace was demolished in 1747. The gates were then brought to the Durdans. It is understood that the original gates were positioned nearer to the Durdans house, but with the increasing popularity of the motor car, Lord Rosebery had them moved in 1876. This meant the noise of the cars could not adversely affect his highly strung race horses.
During the First World War, Lord Rosebery is said to have locked these gates on bidding farewell to his son, Neil, stating that he would only open them again once his son had returned from the war. Sadly, his son never returned, being killed in Palestine in 1917and hence the gates have never been opened since (except for conservation in 2013).
After the war, Lord Rosebery’s daughter, Lady Sybil Grant, cultivated snowdrops in the woods near the stables, selling them in Epsom town and giving the proceeds to disabled servicemen. To this day in February a field of white can be seen amongst the trees, a delight to behold.
Another unique feature of the Durdans is the graves of 4 Derby winners. These are grade 11 listed and consist of the grave of Amato and, a short distance away, the graves of Ladas 11, Sir Visto and Cicero. Lord Rosebery died at the Durdans in 1929 and it is said, in his dotage, he was often found sitting by the graves of his Derby winners, his great passion in life. These graves were restored in 2014. Not far from the graves, a grotto can be found nestling at the edge of the woods and overlooking the paddocks. Its date of construction is not known.
In the late 1900s the Durdans Stables fell into a state of disrepair but have now been lovingly restored by the current owners, the Buckman family. They have been aided by the Halifax Estates (the freehold owners) who paid for the conservation of the iron gates on Chalk Lane. Also English Heritage, which gave advice and financial help with the restoration of riding school roof. The Forestry Commission, supported by Mole Valley volunteers, helped in tackling the overgrown woodlands. One final piece of history – after the death of Oliver Cromwell, a number of noblemen, including Lord George Berkeley who owned the Durdans at the time, travelled to France to invite
King Charles 11 to return to England as monarch. To thank Berkeley for his support, Charles 11 visited the Durdans on September 1st 1662. His horse must have brushed past a bush or tree on entering the grounds and lost an ornamental boss, the end piece of the bit through the horse’s mouth. This was discovered by an amateur enthusiast carrying a metal detector in the 1990s and is now on display at Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell. The boss was nominated as one of the 100 greatest finds by amateur sleuths in the ITV series of 2013, primarily because the exact date of its loss is recorded.