Saturday 10 May 2014

Northampton parkrun

For the seventh and final venue of the #7weeksofparkrun challenge, I headed off to my closest previously unvisited 'n'. However, as there aren't that many n's in the south east, I ended up driving around the M25 and up the M1 to Northampton, and after a brief stop while the motorway was closed following a nasty accident, I arrived with plenty of time to spare (I left home really early - so early that I didn't have to pay the toll to pass through the Dartford crossing).

welcome and a bit of history

Northampton parkrun takes place at 'The Racecourse' and if it wasn't obvious by the name, it used to be used for horse racing. Unofficially from 1632 with the official meet being held in 1737. However in 1904, due to a high number of accidents and the deaths of some spectators, the racing ceased.

from some parts of the park the view is quite picturesque

From 1715 to 1818, the park was used for public executions and in that time many hundreds of condemned convicts were marched through the local streets, and after being supplied with a last drink at the Bantam Cock pub, were finally executed (by hanging) in morbid and frightening scene in front of huge unruly crowds.

runners assembling for the start

During the first and second world wars, the park was used as barracks and in 1917 the park was ploughed for allotments. The Racecourse has pretty much been the park you see today since 1953. In more recent times, the park was used as the venue for the Northampton Balloon Festival. This has now been replaced by a free, community event - The Umbrella Fair.

some left-overs from the previous night and the pavillion in the background

Sadly, over the last decade, the park has attracted an unwanted reputation as an area with high crime levels. In 2006 the park regularly made front page news for its high levels of day and night-time robberies and assaults. During my pre-run course recce I bumped into a few groups of people drinking alcohol in the park and there were quite a few clusters of empty beer cans strewn all over the place. The Friends of Northampton Racecourse (FONR) have worked to reclaim the park from the criminals and anti-social elements. Hopefully the addition of the parkrun and its community has helped in this worthy cause.

tarmac path near the beginning of the run

I visited the venue on 10 May 2014 and ran at event number 106. I had driven up from Kent that morning and parked in the Jade Pavilion car park. The Pavillion (c.1930) is a grade two listed building and is now an oriental restaurant. After the long drive I was glad to find the toilets which are located in the new £1 million football changing rooms facility. The toilets here are not open to the general public but the parkrun has a special arrangement that allows parkrunners to use them. There is a toilet block on the opposite side of the park but they are no longer in use and the building has been badly defaced.

the victorian tram shelter

If I had preferred, I could have travelled by train, alighted at Northampton station and continued my journey on foot. For cyclists there are a set of bike racks right in the centre of the park (there may be others but I didn't spot them). However it looks easier and safer to just lock any bikes to the tennis court fence or a post right near the finish area.

the university of northampton

The start area is next to the basketball courts in the south east corner of the park. Not too far from the car park. This venue attracts quite a large number of runners and on the day I visited 247 ran the 2 lap course around the 118 acre open green space including a few buggy runners. The run director gave the run briefing from a high vantage point within the children's playground before setting us off.


The route takes the runners around the park in an anti-clockwise direction on tarmac paths. The first lap is slightly longer than the second and after passing the tennis courts cuts across the diagonal path that runs north until reaching the far side of the park where runners turn left to run along the back straight. It is worth noting at this point that the official course map shows a slightly different route at this point. You can see the difference by cross-checking with my GPS data from the run.

the north side of the park with the course incline in the distance

If the course had followed the official course map, the runners would have seen the Victorian tram shelter and the infamous 'The White Elephant' pub, which used to be the Kingsley Park Hotel and served as a residential club for ardent race goers. It closed in 1904 and got its current name from local residents who started calling it by its current name as it sat empty for eighteen years.

the dragon mounds

Along the back straight, the course dips slightly and the runners get a chance to open up a little. If any runners take the time to glance around, they may see the rather splendid looking Northampton University building on their right or, on their left, an interesting work of art. Anyway, what the course gives at the start of this section, it takes back as the runners approach the north-west corner of the park. The slight incline isn't too bad and I'd still refer to this as a flat course. On the day I ran there was a head-wind at this part of the course.

the final section of path at the end of each lap

The second lap is slightly smaller than the first and has the runners turning left and running along the central avenue of the park just after passing the point where it all started just a short time earlier. For the eagle-eyed, there is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Northampton Lighthouse (Officially: The National Lift Tower), which stands at 127.45 metres high and contains six shafts of varying heights and speeds that lift manufacturers use to test their developments. It is one of only two of this type of tower in Europe and the only one in the UK.

some runners approaching the finish

Around the park, the runners will see many of the park's sports facilities and features. The are 17 football pitches, 10 mini football pitches, a rugby pitch, a gaelic football pitch, bowling greens and 2 cricket pitches. In addition to the sports facilities, I counted 5 playgrounds, including The Dragon Mounds (I've now seen two parkrun dragons in the last 15 days).

onto the grass and follow the red and yellow poles to the end

Once the two laps are complete, the runners continue onto the grass opposite the tennis courts where they will find the finish funnel manned by the wonderful volunteers. Barcode and finishing token scanning takes place on the grass just after the finishing line. Once all that was done, I headed back over to the car. I was happy that I had run the last letter of the #7weeksofparkrun challenge, but quite sad that the challenge was now over.

finish funnel

The park here seems to be a mix of two worlds - Get in the right spot and it really is a picturesque park. It's good to see the local community fighting to make it a safe and enjoyable space for now and the future. It is a good course to run on - fast but with the added challenge of that slight incline. The number of runners here shows that the parkrun event is popular and the future is looking good for the park.

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