I first met some of the key people involved in getting Great Notley parkrun up and running, Len, Dan and Rory, at the inaugural Great Cornard parkrun back in March 2014. At the time, they were clearly very excited about the forthcoming parkrun just outside Braintree, in Essex. Fast forward a couple of months and I was pulling into the car park at Great Notley Country Park for the inaugural event.
|the bird of freedom [photo: 7t]|
If travelling by car, it is worth noting that the brown directional tourist road signs along the way are labelled 'Discovery Centre and Country Park'. Car parking is provided at the official on-site car park at a cost of £3.50 per car. This seems a little expensive if you are simply coming here for a run and then leaving, but if you plan on hanging around for a longer period, the value for money increases. There was much discussion about this at the inaugural event and if you are visiting it might be worth investigating the parking at facilities at the nearby Tesco or, as I heard on the grapevine, within a nearby industrial estate.
|the water pump interactive playground thingy [photo:7t]|
For anyone who is fairly local, (safer) cycling is a very real option for travelling here. The is an off-road cycle path that runs along the old Bishops Stortford to Braintree railway line called the Flitch Way - this leads into the country park with only the tiniest section on a (very quiet) road. Bicycle racks are provided just outside the Discovery Centre. Anyone arriving by train will need to alight at Braintree station where the country park is a 4.5km walk / jog / run / ride along the Flitch Way.
|run briefing [photo: 7t]|
Once in the park you'll find the toilets in the Discovery Centre. The Discovery Centre houses the Wooden Spoon Cafe, which is conveniently located for post-run refreshments. The park has a number of children's play features/areas which make up part of a play trail. The first of these is on the grass outside the centre, which is also the central point for all things parkrun related, and lets children (and adults) use a hand pump to pump water into the feature which then makes its way through various channels and water wheels.
|the meandering path heading towards the lake [photo: official account]|
At 9am, the run briefing takes place and then it's time to get down to the business of the day. The 5k course is almost exclusively run on gravel paths and grass - this is a course where trail shoes are going to come in handy when conditions are less favourable. However, as it was bone dry when I visited, I wore my road shoes. A large amount of the participants were either hard core parkrun tourists (great to see you all!), or visitors from nearby parkruns looking to welcome the new event into the parkrun world. It is clear that the region has a very supportive parkrun community.
|the lake [photo: 7t]|
The run starts by heading north along the gravel path around the perfectly formed hill which stands adjacent to the start area. On top of the hill stands the Bird of Freedom, which runners will soon be encountering at much closer quarters. Once around the hill, the runners proceed along the gravel path, passing many of the play trail features along the way. The first of these is a small playground. The meandering path continues and then leads runners through another of the park's play trail features where they encounter an unexpected running surface - sand! To be fair, it is only a few metres long and runners are soon back on the gravelly path.
|the hill at 2.8k [photo: dani]|
As runners near the far end of the course, there are a couple of sharper turns - the double 90 degree turn over a wooden bridge is fun. The route briefly passes through a grass section which is on a slight camber and quite bumpy underfoot - so watch your ankles here. This brings runners out at the lake, which runners must now run a three-quarter lap of. The lake has quite a lot of trees around its perimeter so it is only possible to catch the odd glimpse of it where there are breaks in the trees. Fishing is permitted in the lake, so it is worth keeping an eye out for any stray fishing equipment (none during the run but there was some later on).
|runners coming back down the hill and rejoining the gravel path [photo: official photographer]|
Once around the lake, the course starts to head back towards the Discovery Centre via some more gently meandering gravelly paths and past some more of the play trail features before turning back onto another grass section which leads back to parkrun central. That's lap one complete. Lap two is identical apart from one little detail.... that hill that the runners ran around on lap one must now be climbed. It's probably only about 100 metres of incline, but is steep. At the top it felt right to #touchthebird upon reaching the summit, which I did (well, I touched the base - the bird is too high to reach). I'm sure as the weeks and months progress, regular runners here will have an enormous amount of fun trying and comparing different hill climbing strategies.
|5k done [photo: dani]|
|in the finish funnel [photo: official account]|
The official course page says that the course is unsuitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs. I can't comment on the part about wheelchairs, but as a buggy runner I'd say that it is certainly possible to buggy run around the course. There are bumpy sections and of course the hill will be hard work. The only reason I would consider avoiding buggy running here would be if the weather had been particularly bad or if the runner themselves doesn't feel confident with the terrain.
|barcodes at the ready [photo: 7t]|
I had done some research before visiting this venue and had seen that the Discovery Centre has a cycle hire facility. So, after the run, we hired two bikes plus a trailer for our daughter and set off on a little adventure around the country park and beyond. Apart from being caught in a torrential downpour shortly after heading off, it went really well and we really enjoyed our little family cycle ride. We even stopped off at a beautiful old railway station, which is now a cafe, to have a quick pitstop before heading off along the Flitch Way and a few hours later returned to the country park where we had some lunch in the Wooden Spoon cafe.
|the flitch way [photo: dani]|
All in all, it was a brilliant day out in Essex at a country park that I would never had heard of if it hadn't been for parkrun. Definitely a venue worth visiting, and I expect if you do, you'll probably want to go back and give that hill another go....
... unless you really hate hills.