Sunday 24 January 2016

Hockley Woods parkrun

Hockley is a large village in Essex. Its name is an Anglo Saxon word that means small hill. It was a small, quiet village until 1889 when the Great Eastern Railway arrived and made it an ideal spot for London workers to settle. The village grew as local land owners sold off for their land for development into homes.

hockley woods [photo:7t]

Just to the south of the village lies a 250 acre area of ancient woodland. There are a number of different woods here which are collectively known as Hockley Woods. It is the largest area of what remains of the wild woods which covered the whole of Essex after the Ice Age 10.000 years ago.

to the start [photo:7t]

The woods have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by English Nature owing to the variety of rare plants and trees that grow in its undisturbed soil. If you spot any fallen trees, they will probably be a result of the Great Storm of 1987 which uprooted many trees in the woods. Some were cleared, but most were left exactly where they fell.

runners walking down to the start (note the uphill section in the distance) [photo:7t]

Historically the woods were owned by separate people and because of this there are a network of earth banks throughout the area marking out the old boundaries. The woods have always been an important source of building materials and fuel. Timber from the wood was apparently used in the construction of Southend Pier, which is currently the longest pleasure pier in the world.

negotiating the uphill start [photo:7t]

The woods are the focus of this post because they are now the home to Hockley Woods parkrun which had its inaugural event on 7 February 2015 and currently has an average attendance of 144.5. As we visited on their 50th event I used it as a perfect excuse to give my old 50 club t-shirt an airing. The run itself follows an clockwise, undulating course which is just under two full laps. Underfoot you will find the typical forest dirt paths which turn to mud during the wetter months, so trail shoes are recommended.

a fairly good section for the wheels (no accumulations of mud) [photo: official photographer]

As we visited in January (2016) we were lucky enough to enjoy the gloriously splashy, muddy conditions underfoot. We arrived at the venue and parked in the main Hockley Woods Car Park (free on Saturdays) which is just off the B1013 main road. The entrance is right next to The Bull pub, which has its own car park that can be used for additional parking - this currently has a fee of £2 which the pub will refund with an order post-run.

a slightly muddier section (you can see our tyre tracks if you look closely) [photo:7t]

Had we travelled by train we would have headed for Hockley train station and covered the remaining 1.5km on foot. There are also a couple of local buses (services 7 or 8) that pass the venue. I didn't spot any bicycle racks but the were plenty of wooden fences around the edge of the car park that could be used to secure a bike of necessary. There are toilets just inside the main entrance of the car park.

a nice little downhill section [photo: official photographer]

The main meeting point is right next to the car park, this is where the pre-run briefing took place. Sadly there was a lot of chatter from within the crowd when we visited so I didn't hear a single word of the briefing. It's not unique to this venue, but runners really need to have a little more respect when the run director is speaking.

follow that unicorn [photo: official photographer]

The start of the run is roughly 450 metres away from the meeting point at one of the lower points of the course, so after the briefing the runners are lead down to the start area before being despatched. As usual with runs in the woods, it is quite hard to describe the individual sections as everything looks pretty much the same. So I'll do my best to pick out the notable parts.

another section of woods [photo: official photographer]

Before I get started let's just have a look at the course shape (official course page). It clearly resembles a fish and while showing my daughter the course map prior to our visit she decided that between us this venue should be called Fishy parkrun. I doubt if it will catch on, but at least we'll know what we mean! Another key thing to note is that as this venue starts at a lower point than it finishes it is actually a 'net uphill' course.

from the top of the final incline (doesn't look that bad, does it?) [photo:7t] 

Right, the opening section is uphill and a fair section of the run takes place on a bridleway which means there is always a chance that runners will encounter horses en-route. From what I witnessed, both sets of users seem to be able to co-exist pretty well. We also saw a few squirrels on our way around the course. The area is also very popular with dog walkers; there weren't too many during the run, but afterwards there were loads.

all done [photo: official photographer]

The early to middle parts of the lap consist of fairly gentle undulations and some flat sections, but the towards the end of the lap there is a longer gentle uphill section which gets very steep at the end. This steep section also has the added bonus of having some protruding tree roots and being extra muddy, which during a standard run might not be so bad. However, I was buggy running and this section was very challenging indeed.

some of the mud we picked up around the course [photo:7t]

Fortunately the finish is right at the top of this steep incline on lap 2 so after a short final push you'll soon have a chance to take a well earned breather. Barcode scanning takes place right next to the finish line and if you happen to forget to get yours scanned there is a friendly reminder (along with a very good drawing of a finish token) notice to give it back before leaving.

two queues for scanning [photo:7t]

After the run we went into the The Bull to have some toast and a drink where we were joined by fellow parkrun uber-tourist and former 'the parkrun show' host Danny Norman. If you've never listened to the show, it's well worth starting from the beginning and working your way through the 186 episodes which can all be found in the parkrun show archive.

not impressed [photo:7t]

As I mentioned above, I ran this event with my daughter in her running buggy. Although this worked out fine for us it might not work for everyone - saying that, I wouldn't hesitate in doing the same again. The underside of the buggy was caked in mud and I had to spend some time afterwards scraping it out of all the fixtures and fittings. Some of the sections were a little squishy underfoot (underwheel?) so required a fair bit of effort to get through. Also, she ended up with quite a bit of mud splashed over her which she didn't mind. However her toy unicorn also suffered and she wasn't too impressed with me for that. Ooops..

apparently i cleaned the buggy with my face [photo: danny norman]

As usual I recorded the run with my phone and my GPS data can be found on Strava [Hockley Woods parkrun], just incase you want to check out the course profile or check out the fishy shape of the route! As we were over in Essex we followed up our muddy adventure with an afternoon at Southend-on-Sea. It really was a great day!

Edit: I visited the venue for a second time in October 2017 and created a #relive fly-by video of the course, here: Hockley Woods parkrun relive video

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