Sunday 6 November 2016

Hadleigh parkrun

Hadleigh is a town in Essex, not far from Southend. In the 13th century, during the reign of Henry III, the Manor of Hadleigh belonged to Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent, and Chief Justiciar (equivalent to the modern day position of Prime Minister), who built the original Hadleigh Castle which is the town's most well known feature. It was seized by the king a few years later and retained as a royal castle.

The castle suffered subsidence due it being built on an unstable outcrop of London Clay. Over the years it was rebuilt and expanded by various monarchs and, in later years, was owned by various Earls and Dukes. In 1544 the estate was broken up and much of the land sold off. The castle itself was purchased in 1551 and over the next 24 years, the valuable stone was sold off leaving a ruin.

hadleigh park [photos: 7t / dani]

What remained of the castle was sketched by John Constable in 1814 and the finished painting is considered to be 'one of his most monumental works'. In 1891, the castle and the remaining 900 acres of land were bought by a William Booth who established Hadleigh Farm as part of his 'Darkest England' scheme where the extremely poor were offered work and shelter. During the second world war, the farm provided accommodation to around 70 Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe, and being close to the Thames, formed part of the key defensive ring around London.

The modern day Hadleigh Farm is owned and run by the Salvation Army and continues the work started by William Booth by offering training to disadvantaged people to help them find employment. The farm was used as the venue for the 2012 Olympic Games Mountain Biking events (chosen over the nearby Weald Country Park, which also now has a parkrun - Brentwood parkrun).

start area [photos: dani / 7t]

Post Olympics, the Active Essex team at Essex County Council have preserved this sporting legacy by creating a world class mountain biking facility called 'Hadleigh Park' which is adjacent to the farm land. In addition to these, the remaining land is a conservation area called 'Hadleigh Country Park' or 'Hadleigh Castle Country Park'.

In additional to the mountain bike trails, Hadleigh Park has a pump track, a playground, walking trails, a cafe, and, from 22nd October 2016 a free, weekly, 5km run called Hadleigh parkrun. We travelled over to the venue by car on 5 November 2016 to take part in event number 3 and we parked in the large on-site car park (400 spaces) where the fee is £1.50 per hour (payable upon exit) - this is capped to a maximum of £6. As you'd expect from a world class cycling facility, cyclists are well catered for here and there are an abundance of bicycle racks.

switchback [photos: andy kenyon]

Those travelling by train will need to head for Benfleet Station which is right outside the country park, but at the opposite end to the run meeting point which means there are 2 uphill miles to cover on foot before reaching the start. There are on-site toilet facilities just next to the car park and 'The Hub' cafe, which is where the post-run refreshments can be had - the cafe is run by the Salvation Army. The meeting point for the run is past the playground (which got a big thumbs up from my daughter), over a cattle grid and across a small field. Expect to find some curious cows hanging around this point.

The run briefing takes place here and the runners are then sent off on a 5km lollipop-style route around the park (1.3km out / 2.4km loop / 1.3km back). Probably a teething problem here, but the start sign was in the ground about 20 metres or so from the run briefing area and I was expecting everyone to be ushered over to the start sign for the formal start. However the runners were sent off straight from the briefing area. This resulted in me starting from the back and it took quite a while to filter through the back end of the field and into some clear running space.

the course [photos: 7t]

The start is at the highest point (64m) of the park and the first kilometre of the route features a hair-raising, downhill combination of switchbacks and chicanes all on a loose gravel path - my GPS data recorded a -14% gradient at the steepest section. It's worth noting that there is a pinch point about 300 metres in as runners squeeze through a narrow gate and into the country park.

After this, the course undulates for a bit until the runners reach the far end of the country park and head down another steeper path (nice view across Hadleigh Ray here) where the the lowest point (5m) of the course is reached, at around the 3km point. It stays relatively flat about about 800 metres, but then at around the 3.5km point the course swings onto grass and starts to head back uphill - my GPS data picked up a 16% incline at its steepest here.

the course / coming back up the switchbacks [photos: 7t / andy kenyon]

Once back onto the gravelly path, there's a little break in the climbing, but the 5th kilometre is all uphill back along the opening section of chicanes and then the switchbacks. As you head back up the switchbacks, you'll get a glimpse of the remains of the castle in the distance - which is worth taking some time to admire even though at this point you'll just be wanting the finish line to appear and will most-likely not really care about the castle.

The finish line does, of course, appear shortly after this and you'll soon be discussing that last kilometre with whoever you find slumped next to you on the grass (watch out for cow pats). The last few metres of the course are a little odd at the moment as since starting the event, it has become apparent that vehicle access is required to an adjacent facility.

view across to the castle / finish [photos: 7t / dani / official photographer]

My gut feeling is that this is not going to be one of those venues that runners completing their couch-to-5k programmes are going to flock in great droves because this is a pretty tough course. At the same time it does offer some great views across the country park, The Thames Estuary / Hadleigh Ray and Canvey Island.

As far as footwear goes, I ran in my trail shoes but you would be fine in standard road shoes during the summer months. I'm not entirely sure if the paths will suffer much during the winter months, but considering there is a short (250m) section on grass, I would probably stick with trail shoes over the winter just to be on the safe side. Oh, and if you're a buggy runner, you will be able to get around, but you'll have to be extremely careful on that opening downhill and the last kilometre will be absolute agony!

post-run [photos: dani]

With the morning's exercise done, we headed over to the cafe where we ordered a couple of hot drinks. I was a little surprised that a cup of tea and an instant hot chocolate cost us £4.50, but we sat down and continued our analysis of the day's parkrun anyway. The results for event 3 were online within an hour or so and there had been a turnout of 106.

I was planning to have a walk over to Hadleigh Castle to take a closer look, but I started to feel unwell and it was cold so we paid our £4.50 parking fee and may our way off to Southend and popped into a vegan pub where everyone (except me) had some great vegan food. I had planned to have a vegan full English breakfast, but didn't feel well enough so I'll have to pop back over when I'm feeling a little better. That aside we'd had a great morning at Hadleigh Park, so if you fancy a tough 5k run in Essex, this is right up there along with the equally challenging Brentwood parkrun.

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