Saturday, 4 February 2017

Mersea Island parkrun

On a fairly mild Saturday morning in February 2017, I headed through Dartford tunnel into Essex and onwards to the most easterly populated island in the UK - Mersea Island, which sits in the Blackwater and Colne estuaries. It is around 7 square miles (18km2) in size.

The name comes from the old English word 'Meresig' which means 'island of the pool'. The biggest industries on the island are tourism and fishing. In particular, the island is famous for its Oysters which are taken from the Oyster beds which date back to Roman times.

mersea island

The island has been inhabited since pre-Roman times and currently has a population of just over 9000 people, the majority of whom live in the small town of West Mersea. The other side, East Mersea is described as a scattered village - this side is mainly farmland, but is also home to Cudmore Grove Country Park, and this is where Mersea Island parkrun takes place.

During the second World War, a number of defensive structures were constructed on the island, and the area covered by the country park is rich with the remnants of this time. There are two intact pillboxes, plus the remains of two gun casemates, a battery observation post and a coastal artillery searchlight down on the beach. These were originally on the cliff top but constant erosion of the cliff face lead to them falling onto the sands below. A third pillbox stood atop the cliff, this also fell but the remains have now totally disappeared.

briefing / start

Before I go any further, let me take you back to the days leading up to my visit. I had read a little about the island and found out the only way to access it (without a boat) is via a causeway called 'The Strood'. Here's the important part - The causeway floods when the high tide reaches 5 metres and this completely cuts off access to the mainland.

The advice when the tide is 5 metres or above is to leave up to 1.5 hours either side of the high tide before attempting to make the crossing - it is not uncommon for people to become trapped on the causeway. So when I was planning my trip, I used this webpage to check the tides. On the day I visited, the high tide was forecast to be at 4.41am and the height at 4.81 metres, so that meant I had a trouble-free crossing when I arrived at about 8.15am.

early part of the lap

With travel in mind, this parkrun venue is quite isolated and the text on the official course page says 'there is no viable public transport option'. The closest train station is in Colchester which is about 9 miles away, and while there is a bus (one bus at 8am) to the island, it only goes to West Mersea and if you took it, you'd be stuck on the wrong side of the island. A taxi from Colchester would probably be the best bet if train was your only travel option (but of course, check the tides).

Once arriving at the country park, there is a car park. Please note: access to the car park for towed vehicles and coaches is not permitted due to restrictions on nearby roads (the approach road is very narrow). Parking charges are currently [Feb 2017] £1 for up to 30 minutes, £1.50 for up to an hour, £2.50 for up to 2 hours, £3.50 for up to 3 hours and £4 for over 3 hours. The money collected is used to pay for park maintenance and to protect the wildlife. Cyclists can lock their bikes to one of the bicycle racks in the car park. There are toilets located adjacent to the car park.

end of tree-lined section / estuary

The meeting point for the parkrun is adjacent to the car park and you'll quite easily spot the gathering of runners and volunteers on the grass at the far end. The course is made up of a short start tail, two large laps, followed by a shorter half-lap and then back along the tail to head to the finish. There are just a couple of tiny changes of gradient during the run, so this goes down as a flat course. For the record, I wore my trail shoes and I think they were the correct choice, however it wasn't terribly muddy when I visited so road shoes would have done the job. Also, I'd have no trouble running this course with a running buggy.

The official description is available on the course page, but to a first-timer to the venue, the course may sound a tad complicated. I found it made a lot more sense once I had taken a look at a GPS trace of the course. Now that I've run here, you might find it quite handy to check out my GPS data. Of course, if you look at the first photo in this post, you'll see the course map handout.

cliff-top path

Anyway, I'll have a stab at a detailed description. The run was started with a countdown and a blast from an air horn. The start is on a relatively wide grass area (watch out for the picnic tables) and the runners head north from here. A right hand turn awaits as the runners reach the northern boundary of the park.

This next section is run on a dirt path through a meandering tree-lined / wooded section. Eagle-eyed runners might spot the bird hide and the lake to their left early on. Towards the end of this section one of the pillboxes is nestled within the trees. After this, the course curves to the right and the trees give way to an open view of the centre of the country park to the right, and the Colne Estuary to the left. There's a tiny stretch of stony path to run on here.

central grassy area

At this point, the course now heads west along the top of the clifftop adjacent to the sea which gradually becomes woodier until you can only see glimpses of the sea through the trees. Now within a second wooded area, the course effectively does a u-turn and the runners head back the way they came, but only a little more inland on a wide grass path.

A tight left-hand turn points the runners back in the direction of the car park where they run directly past the second pillbox. At the end, they turn right to start their second full lap. When the runners reach their third lap, they follow the beginning section of the lap through the tree-lined path, but at the end they run back through the centre of the park (cutting out the seafront section). They soon joins the final stretch of the lap, go past the pillbox, and at the end turn back into the opening start section and run south until they reach the finish line.

finish etc

Barcode scanning takes place right next to the finish line and if you think you've run a personal best you can honk the 'PB Horn'. Once scanned, I headed back off into the park for a cool-down, where I chatted to a couple of marshals and took some photos before returning to the start/finish area. The final runners had just come in and the course signage and finish funnel were being packed away. Post-run, there is a cafe that serves all the usual cafe things, but it only has outdoor seating and I think it was a bit cold for people to hang around.

I'm a fan of courses that feature different sections and lots of turns, so this venue was right up my street. The results had been processed and online by the time I arrived home. I ran at event number 8 and there were 71 finishers - I say finishers because there were at least two more who ran over 4 kilometres of the course before turning to run off along the sea path in the opposite direction instead of finishing the parkrun. Anyway, I'd had a great time and it's safe to say that Mersea Island is another great addition to the set of Essex parkrun venues.

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