Sunday 19 July 2015

Raphael parkrun

In the London Borough of Havering, just outside Romford town centre lies an affluent area called Gidea Park. It consists largely of houses and cottages built to showcase town planning in the style of a 'garden suburb'. Six of these houses are now grade 2 listed. The area was formerly part of the Gidea Hall Estate of which the original 'Gidea Hall' dates back to 1250. It was improved several times over the next few centuries before falling into disrepair and finally demolished in 1720 when a new three-storey mansion was built on the site.

In 1897, the Gidea Hall Estate was purchased by Herbert Raphael who subsequently donated over 20 acres, including a lake, for use as a public park. A further 15 acres of land and an area of water named 'Spoon Pond' were purchased by the council and in 1904 Raphael Park was opened to the public by Sir Herbert and Lady Raphael. Herbert Raphael went on to develop the rest of the estate into the aforementioned Gidea Park (aka Romford Garden Suburb). The new Gidea Hall stood until 1930 when it was demolished.

Raphael Park [it is pronounced: rayfel, but you may also hear it said as rayfels] forms part of a 'green lung' which connects Romford in the south to Havering Atte Bower further north and consists of two distinct sections. The southern area is the more formal of the two and contains a variety of trees, shrubs and plants, plus a lake known as 'Black's Canal'. The northern section is more sports focused and is mostly comprised of a large, open, grassy plateau which is used for sports pitches, tennis courts and a playground. On 2 May 2015, Raphael Park became home to a free, weekly, timed, 5k event called Raphael parkrun. Like all parkruns, it is open to all abilities, including walkers and wheelchair users.

Travel by public transport looks simple enough. There's a train station at Gidea Park which is served by National Rail and the Elizabeth Line, plus the 174, 347 and 498 buses stop just outside the park's southern entrance. Anybody travelling by bicycle could secure their stead to one of the bike racks dotted around the park, but it's much easier to simply lock it to the railings within the bandstand which is located in the southern section of the park and is also used as the event's base.

We visited the venue in 2015 and again in 2023, and on both occasions parked on a road called Parkway, which is restriction-free and is on the north-east side of the park. There is also a car park opposite the southern entrance to the park. This car park serves both Raphael Park and Lodge Farm Park, which is just across the road. It is free-of-charge but there is a maximum stay of 5 hours on a Saturday or 3 hours if visiting during the week.

There are two sets of toilets in the park. Unfortunately the ones that are closest to the parkrun meeting point do not open before the run and the second set, which are open before the run, are located right at the far end of the course (500 metres away, next to the playground). So plan accordingly! When you enter the park, you'll more than likely pass through one of the grade 2 listed gates. The first-timers and tourists briefing takes place next to the bandstand, this is followed by the full briefing that takes place at the start which is on the path adjacent to the bandstand. The participants are then sent off on their 5 kilometre jaunt around the park.

The entire course is made of smooth tarmac which makes this venue a very good choice for a spot of buggy running - which is exactly what we did on our first visit. It looks like it would be fine for wheelchair athletes/users too. The course is largely, but not completely, flat so should be reasonably good for anyone looking to put in a good effort. With all that in mind, road shoes are the way to go at all times of year. The 5k course is made up of two full clockwise laps, followed by a third, shorter lap. The general rule is to keep left at all times.

The full lap starts off by heading south towards the southern tip of the park which is ever-so-gently downhill and ends with a sharp-ish right hand turn (where we collected hi-fives from the marshal on each occasion) onto the path adjacent to Black's Canal (the lake). Incidentally, the lake was created in the late 1700's by damming and redirecting a tributary stream. The path runs directly along the edge of the lake and there is no fence so it makes sense to stay sensible on this stretch, especially on the first lap when it is congested. Also bear in mind that there may be people fishing here, if so their fishing equipment / rods may take up part of the path (see photo).

This path leads the participants past the bandstand where there is good support from the finish funnel crew as they await the finishers. It then heads along to the northern end of Black's Canal and then up a short, sharp incline which weaves around until emerging in the northern half of the park. With the large open playing fields to the left, the course follows the tarmac path until it reaches the tennis courts. At this point a marshal (or arrow. or both) will be visible to direct the runners to turn to the left, passing alongside the tennis courts.

At the far end of the tennis courts is an adjoining playground which must be circumnavigated before heading back along the opposite side of the courts. You may notice that the tennis courts and playground are lower level than the paths - the reason for this is that they have been constructed within the area that was formerly a water feature called 'Spoon Pond'. This feature was never purposefully removed. Apparently, the drainage system for the new housing adjacent to the park was so efficient that it lowered the area's water table and the water feature rapidly emptied.

The course now heads back towards the southern half of the park where there's a slight incline heading back towards the start area. With the first lap complete, it is now a case of simply following the same route on the second lap. The third, and final, lap is somewhat shorter than the first two and very simply just cuts out the northern section of the park. At the top of the short, sharp incline the route just turns to the right and heads back along the final part of the original lap. Upon reaching the start area, the finish straight peels off to the right.

On our first visit, barcode scanning took place within the bandstand, but the second time around it took place adjacent to the finish. I recorded the GPS data of the course on both occasions. On our first visit, the start was a little further along the path and the finish had a slightly different set up. So if reviewing the data, the 2023 version is of course the most up-to-date. There is also a Relive course fly-by video made from the 2023 GPS data, which can be viewed on YouTube.

For post-event refreshments, the first option is Raphael's - it's more of a restaurant than a cafe and is very nice inside. The other option in the park is to head to the far end where there is a kiosk called 'Milli's Coffee House' next to the playground. There was plenty of outdoor seating, but it does not have the option of sitting indoors.

On both occasions the results were published shortly after the event. Our first visit was at event 12 where I ran with my daughter in the running buggy. Our 2023 visit was at event 331 where I was run-walking (mostly walking) with my son. In terms of numbers of attendees, expect somewhere between 250 and 300. There were 259 participants at event 331.

The formal part of the park is very nice, and we had a wander around on both visits. We also ended up in the playground both times around. The weather was nicer during our 2015 visit as it was summer, and we were still in the park in the afternoon. In 2023 it was pretty chilly so we didn't stay as long.

If you are looking for something else to do post-event, it's worth popping over the road to Lodge Farm Park, where there is a miniature railway (not open during the winter). We left the park with great memories of our visits and would not hesitate in going back again in the future. 

A final thanks goes to all of the volunteers who made us feel so welcome on both visits.

Related links:

My GPS data (Event 331 / 4 March 2023)
The Relive course fly-by video (Event 331 / 4 March 2023)

My 2015 GPS data (Event 12 / 18 July 2015)(Note: Slightly different start and finish points)

Note: The original of this write-up was published in July 2015. It was updated in March 2023.

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