Sunday 8 January 2017

Ellenbrook Fields parkrun

Please note: This parkrun is no longer in operation.

Hatfield is a town in Hertfordshire with a population of approximately 40,000 people. It's history is long and interesting and features many links to Royalty especially in the east of the town around 'Hatfield House' which is nestled within the extensive grounds of Hatfield Park and 'The Old Palace'. This is very interesting to read about, however, our attention must move to the west side of Hatfield....

The story of this parkrun venue starts in the 1930s when Geoffrey de Havilland (British aviation pioneer and aircraft engineer) (later Sir Geoffrey) was flying over farmland to the west of Hatfield town centre and saw a vast area of flat farmland that he decided to buy for use as an airfield as a much-required new location for his existing flying school and aircraft design business. The 'de Havilland Aircraft Company', was being squeezed out of its original site in Edgware by property developments.

ellenbrook fields - your flight is ready to board....

The new airfield opened in the 1930s and was called 'Hatfield Aerodrome'.The de Havilland company was a very important one for the British Aerospace Industry and it produced many planes over its existence. The most notable being the Mosquito - regarded as the most versatile warplane ever built, and the Comet - which was the first-ever jet airliner to go into production. By 1949 it employed nearly 4,000 people, making it the largest employer in Hatfield. Incidentally, you'll find a de Havilland Heron on display just next to Roundshaw Downs parkrun.

The company was merged into the Hawker Siddeley group in 1960, and the de Havilland name was dropped by 1963. The former companies are now owned by BAE Systems. Hatfield Aerodrome continued to be used until the early 1990s when BAE were experiencing severe financial problems and decided to close it down. The site has since been used for gravel extraction and this is still ongoing.

fasten your seatbelts for takeoff

Later on the site was used as a film set. The ruined fictional French village of 'Ramelle' was recreated for scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan and this set was used a second time for the television series Band of Brothers. During my visit I was told a story of Tom Hanks running up and down the old taxiing strip for some exercise during breaks in filming.

This brings us neatly around to modern day. Part of the old airfield land has partly been redeveloped into housing, retail and the Hertfordshire University campus. What remains is still owned by a private company, but has been opened to the public - it is now called Ellenbrook Fields. This gets its name, unsurprisingly, from Ellen Brook which is a tributary of the River Colne and flows north-south through the eastern side of the park.


On the 21st of May 2016, Ellenbrook Fields became home to Ellenbrook Fields parkrun. This free, 5km event takes place entirely on the paths around the park and attracts around 100-130 participants every week. I visited on 7 Jan 2017 and took part in event number 35. The weather was pretty mild for January, but there had been some rain the previous evening.

Upon arrival I parked just across the road in the vast car park within the grounds of Hertfordshire University's de Havilland campus (the name lives on!), as advised to do so on the event's course page. Incidentally, I should mention here that whilst planning my journey, I entered (into Google maps) the car park's postcode as given on the main parkrun course page and it created directions to a totally different part of the University campus, so please double check your sat nav before leaving home!

sluggish. like a wet sponge...

Parking is free at the weekend and toilet facilities are available within the main 'Hertfordshire Sports Village' building at the far end of the car park. Being a university campus, there are an incredible number of bicycle racks here to use if you have cycled to the event - alternatively, you could just use one of the fences within Ellenbrook Fields if you'd prefer. If travelling by train, you need to alight at Hatfield (Herts) Station, but please note that it is on the opposite side of the town so will require some kind of onward travel like cycling, walking, running, or perhaps taking the UNO 341 bus service which stops outside the park.

The course here is made up of a short start tail, 1.5 anti-clockwise laps of a small loop which runs adjacent to both banks of Ellen Brook. This is then followed by a large, single anti-clockwise lap of the rest of the park. As this used to be an airfield, you will not be shocked to hear that it is pancake flat. The start is on the long tarmac path which used to be the taxiing strip (yes - the one Tom Hanks ran up and down!).

there's something on the wing. some. thing.

Underfoot you will find a combination of tarmac/concrete paths, grass, gravel, and dirt - or when I visited, mud! So after the run briefing at the start line, the participants are sent off along the strip back in the direction of the entrance. A left turn at the end sees the runners and walkers following a meandering path northwards which when I visited was very wet and muddy.

After crossing a small bridge (at least I think it was a bridge) the participants takes another left-hand turn and this brings them back out at the end of the opening straight (1 small lap completed). They then follow the path back around as they did at the beginning until they cross the bridge for a second time - at this point they turn to their right (that's 1.5 times around the small lap) and begin the big lap.

mayday, mayday...

The big lap is very straight forward to follow as there isn't really any other path anyone can take. Most of the open grass areas in the centre of the park are fenced off for the resident Longhorn Cattle to graze in - their presence here is important as it prevents the meadows from becoming overgrown. Anyway, the path continues onward - underfoot is mostly grass/dirt(mud), but there is a short stretch of tarmac at one point in the middle somewhere.

There were a couple of sections that were very muddy, so I was pleased that I had arrived wearing my proper trail shoes, In the summer when it's nice and dry, I suspect road shoes will do fine, but in the winter this is definitely a trail shoe course. As I reached the final part of the muddy, offroad section I spotted a few mounds which are part of the gravel extraction that still takes place here.

At this point, eagle-eyed runners might spot, to their left, a series of tall wooden posts - these have been carefully placed at the 'runway rest' to show the location and width of the original 2km-long concrete runway. The runway itself was dug up in 2001 and the material was recycled for use as part of the construction material for the new roads and car parks that were being built on the development.

final approach / touchdown...

After this, the off-road part of the course is finished (mostly) and all that is left is for the participants to run the full length of the taxiing strip, past the start line and down to the Ellen Brook where there is a right hand turn back onto grass (or mud - careful, it was quite slippery here). As the corner is turned, the finish line awaits and the barcode scanners are on hand at the far end of the funnel to scan personal barcodes and finishing tokens. I recorded my run using Strava and you can see my GPS data here - Ellenbrook Fields parkrun #35.

There were lots of amazing marshals dotted all around the course and I chatted to a few of them as I went back out onto the course to cool down and take some photos. I also met and chatted to two volunteers who have known of parkrun since its very early days as they are the parents of a fairly obscure and not-at-all-well-known-in-the-parkrun-community 500 club member and former 'The parkrun Show' presenter. Since Ellenbrook Fields parkrun started, they have both become invaluable members of the volunteer team and kindly posed for a photo with me (actually, I didn't even have to ask - they must be so used to random people asking for photos that they just got into position!). Their enthusiasm and energy for the event was incredible and it really made my day having the pleasure to chat to them about the event and the history of the airfield. So thank you to Lynne, John and the rest of the day's volunteers for making us feel so welcome.

thank you for flying with us

Post-parkrun, we popped back to the car so I could change out of my muddy clothes and shoes, and headed over to the cafe in the Hertfordshire Sports Village building where we had some refreshments, but somehow managed to lose the rest of the parkrun crowd. I'm not sure if we went to the wrong place (there are more than one cafe on the university campus) or if the team just had to get away early.

Anyway, our sandwiches (it was pretty much lunchtime by now anyway) and coffee were very nice and we spent a long time chatting about the fantastic sports facilities that are available here for the public to use - the fees seemed to be quite reasonable too. Once we were done we popped outside to find the huge de Havilland logo on one of the building's wall, and then went over to the local shopping centre to spend some left-over christmas money before heading back down to Kent. We'd had a fantastic time at Ellenbrook Fields parkrun and I'd recommend that locals and tourists alike give it a go.

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