Sunday 10 November 2013

Tonbridge parkrun (inaugural)

Please note: As of August 2019 there is an updated venue guide: Tonbridge parkrun new blog

My history with Tonbridge began in 2009 when me and the-soon-to-be-mrs7t rented a flat just off the High Street. In early 2010 we were married in Tonbridge Castle and later that year our daughter was born - in Tonbridge of course. Around this time, I took up running and spent many a happy hour plodding around the local streets.

Tonbridge Castle

My first (and to date, only) half-marathon was the inaugural Tonbridge half-marathon back in 2011. The only other race I took part in in Tonbridge was the Tonbridge Wells Mental Health Resource 5k, and is held in the private grounds of Tonbridge boys school (the Australian Olympics team stayed here during the London 2012 Olympics) , which you can see across the river during the early and late stages of the parkrun.

The River Medway

I first discovered parkrun while I was living in Tonbridge and for 18 months I commuted - mostly to Riddlesdown - to get my weekly fix. While it did cross my mind to look into setting one up in Tonbridge, the time wasn't (and still isn't) right for me to take on the responsibility of being an event director. When we finally moved away, we had our check-out and handed the keys back to our former landlord on Friday 9 November 2012 - Exactly one year before the inaugural Tonbridge parkrun!

A view from the course

So, on Saturday 9 November 2013, I and the ladies drove down to Tonbridge. There is ample car parking near the start line but you do have to pay. The first car parks you'll see as you approach the park are the Castle Grounds and Upper Castle Field car park. However, if you continue past these and take the next left hand turn, you'll arrive at the Lower Castle Field car park - this is much closer to the start line. Another option for parking would be to park in Haysden Country Park, which is at the far end of the course, but it is much cheaper to park there (70p for up to four hours as of Nov 2013) and you can enjoy a lovely 2km walk to and from the start line.

Tonbridge Juddians

Those travelling by train will simply alight at Tonbridge train station and take a short walk down to the park. On the other hand, if you fancy cycling, the closest bicycle racks (approx 8) are just outside the swimming pool, which is also right next to the main car park. The main toilets are in the rugby club house, but there are also some public toilets within the park and are located just on the other side of the car park (across the footbridge). If you were to park in Haysden Country park you'll also find toilets there.

Start/finish area (feet already feeling a little wet)

If you wander around the immediate vicinity of the start/finish area, you'll find Tonbridge Castle, the swimming pool, the miniature railway track, and a few separate meandering branches of the River Medway. Walking a bit further across the park, you'll find a children's playground, crazy golf, outdoor gym, tennis courts and just outside the park, the Tonbridge war memorial gardens. Tonbridge is also famous for being the birthplace (Pembury) and home (Hildenborough) to double Olympic gold medallist, Dame Kelly Holmes.

Runners assemble!

The start of the run is in Tonbridge Racecourse Sportsground and starts on the grass next to Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club club house but before the inaugural run could get underway, there was quite a long list of people to thank for helping to make this event a reality. The course is flat and is on a mixture of grass, tarmac, trail, gravelly paths and a couple of wooden bridges thrown in for good measure. In fact, there are seven river crossings during the course of the run and as it is an 'out and back' (or even a lollipop) route, you do them all twice. Some of the crossings are very narrow.

My biggest and littlest fan

Although road shoes could be worn on this course, my preference is for trail shoes - especially during wetter weather conditions. The wettest/muddiest part of the course is the start/finish area which tends to hold onto quite a bit of water. The trail section can be a tad muddy or slippery when covered with leaves. Buggy runners will be fine on the course but there are a few pinch points to watch out for.

262 runners heading towards a tiny hole...

Once under way, the runners (262 at the inaugural event) make a 90 degree right hand turn on grass and head towards a hole in the hedge that leads onto the tarmac river path. As the hole is only suitable for one runner to pass through at a time it does create a bit of congestion and it took over two minutes for everyone to pass through, which is a shame but unavoidable as the alternative route would see runners negotiating a bridge which has trip and slip hazards and was recently damaged by the fire brigade rescuing a dog from the river. However, I have heard that the event director is looking at options to resolve this issue.

262 runners filtering through

The first part of this section along the river is pretty much single file (unless you venture onto the grass verge) so lining up sensibly is crucial (ie line up approximately where you think you'll finish). However, the path does open up a few hundred metres later where it joins Regional Cycle Route 12 (quite a nice ride from Tonbridge Castle to Penshurst Place and almost takes you all the way to Penshurst Off-road Cycling Centre - read about my visit here).

The first part of the path through the park

The course then takes a quick detour around the edge of one of the rugby fields before returning to the cycle path and immediately leaves the park by passing underneath the main railway line. Runners may need to slow slightly while passing through as there are some bicycle calming barriers in place at each end of the short underpass. An additional point to note is that while the underpass has sufficient headroom for the vertically challenged (that's me), taller runners may feel the need to duck whilst passing through.

The trail section

The run now enters its trail section where runners cross a small bridge and again run alongside the river (take caution, as there are some short wooden posts in the ground along this path), a few hundred metres later the course swings left, passes over two more bridges and continues along the river - eagle-eyed runners may notice the small world war 2 pillbox hidden within the line of trees. The next significant point you'll reach is Lucifer Bridge...


... which is very narrow and may require runners to stop to let other people cross (not great for your 5k time, but crucial for the reputation and future of the event). On my way back across the bridge, I and another runner who was on his 'out' section as I was on my 'back' section managed to squeeze past each other. This is followed immediately by Little Lucifer Bridge. A slight right hand turn through a forest path takes runners into Haysden Country Park.

Barden Lake

The country park is a beautiful, peaceful area with the centrepiece being the glorious Barden Lake, which runners will see as they cross the wooden bridge upon exiting the trail section. Runners will now need to complete one clockwise loop of the lake. They turn left and where the path splits in two follow the outer path where there is the ever-so-slight suggestion of an incline, before passing the duck feeding area at the far end (roughly at the half-way point) and then on the north bank, fishermen (or fisherpeople). Interestingly, the lake is not a natural feature but the remains of a sand and gravel excavation pit which was in operation between 1974 and 1980.

Almost finished

Once the loop of the lake is complete, it is just a simple case of following the previously trodden trail, grass and paths all the way back to the rugby club house. As runners near the end of the course they will have to negotiate the hole in the hedge in the opposite direction, which is slightly tricky because it involves taking a sharp blind right hand turn through the hedge - thankfully there are marshals here. After this it is a frantic dash on the (waterlogged, muddy) grass towards the finish line.

The final bit

The post-run social gathering takes place in the rugby club house, but as the rugby takes priority, the swimming pool cafe may sometimes be used as an alternative. Sadly I couldn't stay for the post-run fun because I had to be in central London by 11am. Tonbridge parkrun brings the total of Kent parkruns to eight and rounds of 2013 nicely for the county. It's definitely worth getting yourself down to Tonbridge to give this one a go but definitely bring a spare pair of shoes and socks!

Please note: The course has been modified and the start-finish is now in a slightly different location. Please see the official Tonbridge parkrun course page for the latest information.

Edit: I made a video of the new course and it can be found on this page.

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