Saturday 22 July 2023

Lullingstone parkrun

Lullingstone is a village in Kent which is thought to have been occupied since the Iron Age. There is evidence of two farmsteads dating back to 20AD and 65AD with the name 'Lulling's Tun' (Lulling's Farm), which is of course the origin of the present-day name and my understanding is that is how it should be pronounced. In 1939 a Roman Villa was discovered; this is thought to have been built in 100AD and contains some of the finest excavated remains of a Roman villa in Britain. During World War Two Lullingstone was the location for one of the country's decoy airfield sites, known as a Q-Site. I hear there are some bomb craters along the course, but I've never managed to spot them.

Probably the most famous landmark in the village, Lullingstone Castle features a Gatehouse and a Manor House dating back to 1497. It is home to the Hart Dyke family who are descendants of King Edward III of England. Henry VIII was a frequent visitor to the manor house. The castle was once home to the Lullingstone Silk Farm which produced the silk used in Queen Elizabeth II's coronation gown and wedding dress. The estate grounds were once a medieval deer park and covered a much larger area than they do today, but in 1937 the majority of the grounds were sold off. That land now forms Lullingstone Country Park.

The country park covers 460 acres within the North Downs Area of Natural Beauty and is internationally important for its collection of ancient trees some of which are over 500 years old. However, it's not all woodland; the park also features a golf course and large areas of meadowland which are home to orchids, wildflowers and butterflies. The River Darent flows along the eastern border of the park and feeds into the ponds and lake. Here you may spot Kingfisher, Herons, Dragonflies and even the odd grass snake. In 2022 the country park became one of 70 woodland areas that came together to celebrate 70 years of Her Majesty's service, and it became part of The Queen's Green Canopy.

On 11 April 2015 the country park became home to a free, weekly, timed 5k event called Lullingstone parkrun. As with all parkruns it is open to all abilities where walking is also warmly welcomed. I first visited the venue in April 2016 where it became the 100th different event I had visited. I subsequently revisited in 2017, 2018 and again in 2023. It was my most recent visit that prompted me to give this original write-up a bit of a refresh.

This venue is fairly rural and is most-easily reached by vehicle. There is an onsite car park which although not huge, can easily accommodate the vehicles present for this parkrun. The current 2023 parking charge is a flat £3.50 fee on weekends (£2.50 on weekdays). There is an onsite machine which takes cash or contactless payments. It is also possible to pay via Park Buddy, Pay By Phone, or RingGo apps. The apps charge a little extra as a booking fee. Please note that the mobile signal in the car park is virtually non-existent, so if paying by app you may have to remember to do it later in the day; you have up until 23:59 to pay. There are some bicycle racks in the car park just outside the visitor centre.

Anyone travelling to the venue by national rail train will need to head to Eynsford Station and travel the rest of the way on foot. The surrounding area is fairly undulating so be prepared for an uphill walk along the main road followed by a downhill section on a narrow country lane covering 1.1 miles in total. Once at the venue, there is a visitor centre which opens at 9am, however there is a special arrangement in place which means the toilets are open from 8am. Keep an eye out for the teeny tiny sinks in the toilets. For the record I am not aware of any bus services that run to Lullingstone.

The parkrun itself takes place over two laps which are almost entirely within the country park, and the terrain is completely off-road. Underfoot is mostly grass, but there are also sections on dirt paths. Some parts of the route feature a slight camber, and there are some parts with stones, flint or tree roots to negotiate. With all that in mind, trail shoes are a must during the colder, wetter times of the year, but I would still recommend them all year round. It's not likely to be most people's first choice for a spot of buggy running, but if you are determined you will get around.

The meeting point, start and finish are all in the same position. This is half-way up the hill as you exit the car park into the country park. In the summer there will most likely be long grass and wildflowers here, but there are paths leading upwards on both the left and right hand sides. Both the briefings take place at the meeting point, and at 9am the event gets underway. The lap starts off with a fairly tough, winding, uphill first kilometre which takes in 'Gabe's Hill' and eventually leads to Beechen Wood where if you take a glance to your left there are stunning views across back towards the start area and beyond. If visiting in June or July keep an eye out for the lavender fields which add a lovely blast of purple to the vista.

Once inside the wood, the grass paths turn to dirt and the course continues to rise. In the winter these paths are likely to be fairly muddy. There are also embedded stones and tree roots to look out for. The highest point of the course is found within the woods, where there is also a marshal, and the route immediately begins to head downhill. A few hundred metres later, the route exits the wood via a gate, and the view from this point is fantastic. The course now partly heads back down the same grass path that was used on the way up. Keep left along here as it is two-way. It splits from the main uphill part shortly after and heads off to the left.

The next section is an out and back where at the end the participants have a u-turn to negotiate at the end. Keep an eye out for the stunning red-bricked gatehouse to Lullingstone Castle. Incidentally the end of this section is run on land that belongs to the Hart Dyke family, but they have kindly granted permission for the parkrun to use it. With the out-and-back complete, the course passes through 'Ankle Breakers Alley' and at the end bears right to begin the second lap. At the end of lap 2, the parkrunners and parkwalkers head straight on at the end of the alley and follow the start tail back to what is now the finish. Most of this last section is also part of the Darent Valley 10k course which I ran in 20142015 and again the day after visiting Lullingstone parkrun in 2016, then again in 2017 and 2018.

Barcode scanning takes place right next to the finish and once all of the participants, the tail walker and the marshals have returned, everyone moves onto the post-event social in the on-site cafe next to the car park. I've been to the cafe a number of times over the years and always been happy with the food and drink options on offer. I remember once having a very nice homemade soup for lunch when I stopped here during a bike ride a few years ago. There are also a few children's play areas dotted around.

For an extended day out, there are options to go for a lovely walk through the picturesque countryside or along the river which will take you towards Lullingstone Castle. Walking a little further, visiting the Lullingstone Roman Villa remains is a must, and the 'picture postcard' village of Eynsford is a lovely spot to spend some time, make sure to check out the ruins of Eynsford Castle. I should also give a mention to Eagle Heights, which is a Bird of Prey centre and to Eynsford Viaduct (also known as Lullingstone Viaduct). During June and July Castle Farm run a series of sessions / tours where you can visit their lavender fields. These have to be booked in advance as they are very popular. Incidentally Castle Farm was also used as a location for scenes in the 2024 film The Beekeeper.

As always, I recorded the course using my Garmin, so if you'd like to check the hill profile etc you can find my 2023 GPS data here. For the record, the course has been identical every time I have visited, so any of my other Lullingstone parkrun gpx files would show the same.

As of 2023, I understand Lullingstone parkrun is the 16th hilliest in the country. I would imagine that status is partly responsible for keeping attendances on the low side here. On a regular parkrunday, you can expect to find between 40 and 80 participants here. In the 359 events that have taken place only eight of them have featured an attendance of over 100. Don't let that put you off, it is a lovely place to have a parkrun, I just suspect most people prefer to stick to flatter and easier to reach venues. Lastly, a massive thanks goes to all the volunteers who make this great event possible every week.

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