Willmore, Epsom,

the Saxon Wellig Mor, or Willow Marsh

A recent proposal by The Woodland Trust for a Visitor Centre at the First World War Centennial Wood development on the old Langley Vale Farm has revived interest in the nature and purpose of Nutshambles bank which lies along the Ashtead boundary.

The Earthwork

This feature was discussed by the late Dorothy Nail in the Meeting place of the Copthorne Hundred (SAC Vol. LXII , 1965) as a linear earthwork which may be traced on the ground from what was the Pleasure Pit to Nutshambles (NGR: TQ 20065787 to TQ 20105744). It was excavated between 6 - 17 July 1964 by a team led by Colin C M Coward at Grid reference TQ 20185709 and their findings were published in a 1965 Bulletin of the Nonsuch and Ewell Antiquarian Society (now Epsom & Ewell History & Archaeology Society). It was suggested to have been defensive but perhaps not connected with Stane Street having regard to what was then thought to have been the route of the Roman road. Evidence discovered more recently, however, indicates that Stane Street continued down what is presently called Downs Road to Langley Bottom - flanked by the earthwork under discussion.

The Coward report noted that air photographs showed slight traces in the north continuing to the quarry called Abbot's (Pleasure) Pit at Grid reference TQ 199583. A question has now been posed as to why it might have ended there.


The northern terminus is close to a point called Wilmerhatch where an ancient 'pack horse' trail exited Ashtead parish.

XIII Quarter Sessions at Reigate, 2 October 1666, include:-
'm.47. A gate called Willmore Hatch at Epsom, on the highway from Headley to Kingston ought to be repaired by the tenant of certain lands lying near; and Robert Mayuenel, late of Epsom, gentleman, being the tenant of those lands, ever since 1 September has allowed the gate to be out of repair.'
This barrier would have closed the Abbots Lane exit from Ashtead just north of Abbot's Pit and the suggested end of Nutshambles Bank. Interestingly, it was to be maintained by a tenant on the Epsom side of demesne land in Epsom Manor [presumably what became Plot 1559 on the 1843 Tithe map called 'King's Close', part of Highfield Farm.

Willmore Pond

The 'pack horse' route towards Epsom town then continued alongside Woodcote Park, about 81m. above sea level, around what is shown on maps from 1594 as Willmore Pond, considered by the late J R Clube in Ashtead's Missing River.

John Speed's map of Surrey from 1610 (apparently based on Norden 1594) shows this to have been a very large body of water scaled up in size to about half a mile in length.

Extract from the Speed Map with scale
Extract from the Speed Map with scale

The pool's early prominence may be contrasted with the residual, fairly small and relatively insignificant, Baron's Pond which lies at 80m.

It may be inferred that there had been a further flooded area down to 75m. fed by local springs when the water-table was higher - now represented only by the source of the Rye. A hypothesis is that in antiquity standing water lying near to the Ashtead boundary over-flowed into the Rye channel. By the late 17th Century this area could have been provided with drainage into the Rye to dry out what became Woolmerhatch Field and the 'land called Sytus' for farming.

The Morass

The name of this area, Willmore, is thought to have been derived from the Old English Wellig Mor, meaning Willow Marsh.

Victorian maps show a Fish Pond, east of Highfield Farm, in two parts inter-connected around the end of a bank. Gordon Home's 1901 book, Epsom - its history and surroundings, describes Baron's Pond as a 'fair-sized piece of water … surrounded by bushes and sedgy ground … where the sunsets on the water are often of the loveliest'. It remains in part a sallow scrub swamp.

Previously, a map of Surrey, surveyed by Andrew(es) Bryant 1822/1823 and first published in 1823, had showed an un-named pond outside the entrance to Woodcote Park from Wilmerhatch Lane - Baron's. Further south a natural depression in the ground extends to the junction of Wilmerhatch Lane with Headley Road. This would have provided a distinct basin for Willmore Pond and the two pools may never have merged.

Extract from Bryant Map
Extract from Bryant Map

One may assume that this area waterlogged ground could have been considered impassable by a force of armed men at a date when the Nutshambles earthwork came to be constructed for defensive purposes.

A 'missing' river

On present analysis Wilmore Pond could well have extended to provide a headwater of Ashtead's Rye, the course of which proceeded north to Summersgate, Epsom, and then turned east eventually to join the Mole.

The outflow from a higher north eastern entity, now Baron's Pond, descended past Woodcote Green then under Epsom High Street to Longmead stream and thence to the Hogsmill River. It had appeared that way on a map of Surrey surveyed by John Seller during 1693, but from 'Willmore Pond': also in 'A correct [derivitive] map of the Country thirty Miles round London; with an alphabetical Table of all the places mentioned in the Map, by Charles Price, 1712', and others up to 1750. Thereafter the residual pool is not given a name other than 'Fish Pond' on maps. Apparently the larger part of Willmore Pond had disappeared by the 19th century.

The earliest cartographers seem to have become confused into believing there had been a 'serpentine course' running directly north, passing west of Horton and Chessington, east of Claygate and west of Long Ditton, to the Thames at Ditton two or three miles upstream from the Hogsmill.

Extract from Seller Map
Extract from Seller Map

The Aquifer

Evidently, below the chalk of Epsom Downs, there is an underground layer of water-bearing rock, perhaps sand and gravel, in the vicinity of Wilmerhatch. In the London Gazette of 29 November 1881, the London and South Western Spring Water Company announced its intention to seek an Act of Parliament in order to supply water to Epsom and elsewhere. Amongst their proposals was 'a well and pumping station to be situated in a chalk pit … on the west side and adjoining Headley Road at the junction of that road and Wilmerhatch Lane'. Nevertheless such a well does not seem to have been established at this location until 1919.

In earlier times the water table would have been higher and one imagines that there could have been springs in the vicinity additional to the existing source of the Rye. Inadequate drainage would then account for a bbody of standing water in the Willow Marsh.

Brian Bouchard, 2018