Sunday 22 April 2018

Clapham Common parkrun

Clapham is a district of south-west London. Originally known as Clopp Ham (village by the short hill), the name appeared in the Domesday book as Clopeham (Manor of Clopeham / Manor of Clapham) before eventually becoming Clapham. It started out as a small farming village in what would have been the Surrey countryside.

By this time, Clapham had become a focal point of evangelical christians who became known as the Clapham Sect (or Clapham Saints), who were in favour of social reform. They campaigned vigorously against the slave trade in the British Empire and beyond.  They also strongly favoured the British class system, and this appealed mostly to the wealthy, who came and built large houses in the area.

clapham common

The village grew slowly over the next few centuries, but it was the arrival of mass transportation in the 19th century into London that really saw the area grow. Horse drawn buses came first, followed shortly after by the railways. In 1889 Clapham became part of London and the start of the 20th century saw the arrival of the tube.

An area that was not built on was the common land 'Clapham Common' which spanned the parish borders of Clapham and neighbouring Battersea. Originally commoners would have had the right to graze cattle or collect firewood here. Interestingly in 1864 a proposal to run the railway line straight through the common was blocked by locals. Over the years a number of gravel pits were dug and these now form ponds.

meeting, briefing, and assembling at the start

In 1878 the common was officially converted to parkland in the Metropolitan Commons Act, although sheep were still grazed here until 1914. By this time a bandstand had been constructed and a network of paths laid out. It was used as farmland through the second world war, and this is when much of the common's natural wildlife was destroyed. The great storm of 1987 saw 400 trees lost.

So we now find ourselves in modern day Clapham Common - the 220 acres of land still straddle borders, only now the London Borough of Wandsworth covers the western half and the London Borough of Lambeth covers the eastern half. The whole area is managed by the London Borough of Lambeth. These days the area of Clapham is home to a large number of young professionals and families.

the opening section

The common is one of London's largest green spaces and features a huge selection of sports pitches as well as flower gardens, playgrounds, a paddling pool, and three cafes. The bandstand is still here, just. It fell into disrepair and was in danger of collapse. A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund helped to fund the repair works and it now, once again, forms a stunning centrepiece to the park.

The common has also traditionally been a venue for large-scale events. The Greater London Horse Show was held here annually between 1954 until 1985. George Irvin's Funfair rolls onto the common twice per year (February half-term and Easter). Music festivals are popular here with many being held over the years including headlining artists in the irk of Aerosmith and Stevie Wonder. It is also the starting point for the BHF London to Brighton bike ride which I took part in in 2013.

through the avenue of trees (my favourite bit)

On 24 March 2018 Clapham Common became home to a brand new free, weekly, 5k event called Clapham Common parkrun. The event here is long overdue and after a very soft launch with 110 participants, the attendance figures have rocketed. I first visited at event number 5 where 502 people took part. As time goes on, this is certainly going to remain a very well attended event.

I travelled to the venue by car and found a space to park on Clapham Common West Side SW, and there are plenty of other side streets with no weekend parking restrictions - however spaces are at a premium. Also bear in mind this area of London is a major thoroughfare - the common is surrounded by the A3, the A24 and the South Circular roads and these are all red routes (no parking).

the northern side

The best options for travel are either by bicycle or by public transport. Cyclist can lock their bikes to metal fencing within sight of the finishing line or use the racks at the post run cafe near the bandstand. The closest mainline train station is Clapham Junction which is a major transport hub and has 2,000 trains per day passing through (about half of these stop) - this is the highest number in the whole of Europe.

There are many buses that pass close to the common, but I won't attempt to list them here. The area is also served by the tube with the closest station the the start of the run being Clapham South. Incidentally there is a Clapham Common underground station but this is slightly further away from the start. If you need to visit the toilets pre-run, you'll be best to head towards the playground adjacent to Windmill Drive where you will find them.

narrow section past the skatepark / long pond

The main meeting place on the western side of the park next to the two gravelly football pitches, is about 550 metres away from the toilets, which are within the children's playground, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to reach that spot. I did spot that some people were using the toilets 'loos' at the cafe next to the bandstand. The course itself is made up of two clockwise laps around the northern and central areas of the park with the addition of a short tail at the start. Underfoot is a mixture of tarmac and dirt paths. Regular road shoes should be fine at most times of the year, but I'd expect a few sections may get a little muddy in the winter.

Although the route itself is fine for buggies, the course page does advise that the course may not be suitable for buggies. This is down to a combination of path width, large numbers of attendees and some tree roots around the north-west section of the course. Please check the course page or contact the event team before turning up with a buggy to clarify what the latest position is. For the record there were people participating with buggies when I visited.


The event itself starts on the dusty football pitches adjacent the The Avenue (aka South Circular Road) not far from Windmill Drive and The Mount pond, with participants heading off in a northwesterly direction. This is a modification to the original start area which was on the main path, which was a very tight squeeze getting everyone in position. Even with the change of start area, the first section is very congested owing to the high numbers of attendees at this venue.

After a chicane the course passes through a very pleasant avenue of trees. This eventually reaches the north-west corner of the common and the course turns to the right and follows the main A3 road along the northern border. There are multiple dirt paths that split off and take slightly different routes, thankfully they all lead to the same place. About half-way along, the path crosses the main tarmac path, where the parkrunners just continue heading straight on towards and around the north-east corner.

After passing the skate park via a narrow, slightly cambered section, the surface underfoot returns to tarmac and goes along the northern bank of Long Pond. The path leads towards a playground where, after a sharp right, the participants head straight towards, and pass, the bandstand before joining a final path which leads back to the original starting area and the whole loop is repeated.

final path

At the end of lap 2, the participants follow the sign and cones onto the grass and head straight into the finish funnel. Barcode scanning takes place adjacent to the finish line. With that done, the official post-run social takes place at The Pear Tree Cafe (formerly known as La Baita / The Hut), which is adjacent to the bandstand. The results for event 5 were processed and available online a short while after the run. The 502 participants set a new attendance record. I revisited in September 2023 for event 192 where there were 916 participants.

I recorded the course with my Garmin and uploaded the data to Strava - you can see the course in detail via my Strava account, here; Clapham Common parkrun #5. I also converted the data into a course flyby video using the Relive app on my phone. You can view that here; Clapham Common parkrun Course Flyby.

By the time I revisited in September 2023, the start area had been revised and the start line is now on the gravel football pitches rather than on the main path. The GPS data from my 2023 visit can be found, here: Clapham Common parkrun #192. I also made a new course fly-by video which can be found on YouTube, here: Clapham Common course fly-by 2023.

the finish / scanning

I've really enjoyed both of my visits to this venue. Although it is busy, everything feels so relaxed and easy. The large events make it quite easy to remain anonymous within the crowd if you wish. The high attendances mean it is regularly in the top five most-attended events in the country, and is quite often the second highest attended event, behind Bushy parkrun. My favourite section of the course was without doubt the short tree-lined avenue towards the north-west corner of the course. I can only commend the event team and volunteers who seem to have risen to the challenge of hosting an incredibly large event beautifully. Thank you.

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