Wednesday 18 April 2018

Victoria Dock parkrun

London's Royal Docks is a collection of three magnificent docks built between 1850 and 1921 in the Plaistow Marshes area of East London. Until that time, the marshes were quite often flooded and only really suitable for grazing. However there is evidence to suggest that the area was inhabited during the bronze age, iron age and during Roman times.

The docks were created to relieve the overcrowding of the River Thames as the expanding British Empire generated more and more trade. The main docking areas in the Pool of London had become almost impossible to navigate safely and the East India Docks, constructed less than 50 years earlier were struggling to cope.

royal victoria dock

The first of the docks to be completed was Victoria Dock. It was designed to accommodate the latest steamships and was around 9 metres deep. In 1880 Albert Dock was opened and this was followed in 1921 by King George V Dock. At this time, the docks were also assigned their royal prefix.

The docks were of course a huge success and lead to factories and housing being developed in London's East End. They were also the first docks to be serviced directly by the railways. As time went on container shipping became the preferred method of transport and as these ships were too large to reach the Royal Docks, in 1981 their time inevitably came to an end.

the crystal / community gardens

At exactly the same time, the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up. It's purpose was to regenerate the Docklands area of East London. Canary Wharf, The Docklands Light Railway (DLR), The London City Airport and the London Arena all followed and the area is now a major business centre with many skyscrapers as well as being a highly desirable place to live.

In 1988, Jean-Michel Jarre staged huge performances at Royal Victoria Dock which attracted 100,000 people on each of the two nights. Called 'Destination Docklands' it was designed to showcase the history and future development of the area and featured projections onto buildings, a spectacular light show which included WW2 search lights and lasers, as well as fireworks.

The Royal Docks are now a focal point within the area and many activities take place on and around them. Watersports are one of the main attractions and you'll find opportunities to try all sorts of traditional watersports including rowing, sailing, and canoeing. For the adrenaline-junkies there is the Wakeup Docklands centre, on Royal Victoria Dock, which specialises in Wakeboarding and Flyboarding. It's also home to the London Triathlon which uses Victoria Dock for the swim section.

the opening section

The Royal Victoria Dock dockside is also now home to a weekly, 5km event called Victoria Dock parkrun. The main meeting point for the event is at the Crystal Gardens Community Hut, and you can store your bag and bicycle here for the duration of the event. A toilet can also be found here, but please note that it is one single toilet so there may be a queue. It's also worth noting that at my second visit here (2022) the organisers were not present at the meeting point until after 8.30am which of course had most of the visitors panicking.

There are a few options for travel to the venue, however you may find that you want to avoid driving when you see the price of the local multi-story car parks. From what I can see, some car parks charge £20 for 24 hours of parking which works out at a decent hourly rate if you need 24 hours of parking. But for a short visit of 1-2 hours it is of course very expensive. Other local car parks may charge an hourly rate of around £10. For the record, the roads adjacent to the dock are for permit holders only. If you have to drive, it may be worth exploring the possibility of parking a little further away and using the DLR to complete the journey.

sunborn and excel

As far as public transport is concerned, there is no mainline train station within easy reach of the venue, and the DLR will likely form part of your journey. The closest station is the Royal Victoria DLR which is 3-4 minutes walk away from the start. The DLR actually has two lines running past the dock, so if you end up on the Woolwich Arsenal branch you could alight at West Silvertown DLR instead. A more recent addition to the travel options has been the opening of the Elizabeth line (crossrail) which stops at Custom House station next to the Excel Centre. Alighting here opens up a further toilet option which can be found in Starbucks on the footbridge in between the station and the Excel centre. It is only available for customers, so a small purchase should suffice.

However, there is also quite a unique way to reach the venue - The IFS Cloud Cable Car (formerly known as the Emirates Air Line, but that sponsorship ended in June 2022) is a cable car that crosses the Thames between Greenwich Peninsula (the O2) and Royal Victoria Dock - The station/terminal is only 1-2 minutes from the start area. From what I can see it opens at 8am on a Saturday and the journey time is 10 minutes, but I would advise checking for maintenance closures for whichever form of public transport you may use before leaving home. Starting in April 2022, the cable car can be used for free on Saturday mornings before 10.30am just by showing your parkrun barcode.

The standard (original) route uses a horseshoe-shaped course (could also be described as two different out-and-backs) around the dockside which is lined with the old dockyard cranes. Underfoot is entirely hard surfaces (tarmac/bricks/cobble stones) and the course is nice and flat. Please note that the event is currently (2022) using a double out-and-back route around the north side of the dock - the start/finish remains roughly in the same location.

Description of standard route: Starting near the south-west corner of the dock adjacent to the community gardens, the participants head in a clockwise direction, passing underneath the cable cars as they arrive/depart the air line station, and head around to the northern side of the dock with the course sticking to the roadside area of path avoiding the steps as it passes the cable car station and the Good Hotel.

back past the crystal and onto the southern side

After passing some more hotels and dockside apartments, the course passes the Sunborn London which is a five-star yacht hotel. The route immediately passes the Royal Victoria Bridge and then enters the shadow of the ExCel London exhibition centre which hosts all sorts of events each year including the London Boat Show and the London Comic Con. It is of course also the venue of the London Marathon Expo, so I would expect a large turnout of runners at this parkrun on marathon weekend (the average attendance tripled for the event in 2018 and in 2023 a new course record of 699 participants was set). However check carefully to make sure the event is going ahead as I believe the number of attendees became so large that it may no longer go ahead on that weekend.

Once at the far end of the building there is a turn-around point (approx 1.5km point) and the participants head back along the northern dockside bank. Interestingly, at the turnaround point, the course is only 1km (as the crow flies) away from the closest point of the Beckton parkrun course which certainly makes these venues contenders for the two closest active parkrun courses (although for the record the respective start points are approx 2km apart and by that measure are not the closest). At this point you'll also be only 600 metres from the end of the London City Airport runway.


Passing the original starting point (approx 3km point), the route now heads around to the southern side of the dock, which has more of a traditional residential feel to it. The surface underfoot contains quite a few patches of cobblestones so take care as you work your way along here. Participants will see the Royal Victoria Bridge up ahead. This is a high level pedestrian bridge which cost £5 million. Its design reflects the appearance of the tall sailing ships which regularly use the dock. It's also worth noting that the entire course is right underneath the flight path for London City Airport, so you may get to see and hear some low flying aircraft.

You may also spot the large white art-deco building in the distance with 'Spillers' written on the side. This is Millenium Mills, built in 1934 to replace the original 1905 Millenium Mills building which was destroyed in 1917 when 50 tonnes of TNT exploded in a munitions factory. The current building suffered significant damage during WW2 and sections were rebuilt in the 1950s. The mill closed down at the same time as the docks and has been lying derelict for many years. It was one of the buildings used for projections during John-Michel Jarre's performances in 1988. Since then it has been used extensively for scenes in movies, TV and music videos. I understand it is currently being redeveloped as part of a £3.5 billion Silvertown regeneration scheme.

royal victoria bridge and southern side

Just after the bridge is the second turnaround point (approx 4km). It is currently quite close to the SS Robin which was built in London in 1890. It used to carry cargo around the UK and would have frequently used the dock back in its early days. However it is due to be moved to a new location at some point during 2018. Also berthed here is Lightship 93, a decommissioned floating lighthouse vessel. It's currently being used as an art studio and filming location.

After turning around it's just a case of following the southern dockside back around to The Crystal, which is one of the world's most sustainable buildings and contains the world's largest urban sustainability exhibition. It has recently become home to The London Assembly taking over the role of City Hall from its earlier home near Tower Bridge. The finish is located just outside the building, and barcode scanning takes place outside the community hut. If you happen to visit during the summer you may spot the man-made Urban London Beach where you can relax on a deckchair in the sun.

the last bit and post run

I recorded the run using my Garmin and you can find the GPS data of the route on my Strava account. Plus I also created a Relive course flyby video which you can find on Youtube. I revisited in 2022 and you can see the GPS data of the alternative route via this link and the Relive alternative course flyby can be found here.

The full results for event 5 were online shortly after the run and 93 participants took part. I also revisted in September 2022 and took part in event number 141 where 178 people took part. As noted above, if visiting on the weekend of the London Marathon the number of participants swells quite significantly (699 attended in 2023).

Update: This event does suffer from a fair number of cancellations due to other events taking place along the dockside or in the dock itself. Sometimes they are announced at very short notice, so be sure to check the event's news and social media pages right up until the morning of your visit to avoid a wasted journey.

Update 2: During 2021 major works were taking place on the southern cranes and the parkrun route was altered to a double out-and-back along the northern side of the dock. The works were scheduled to finish in late December 2021. This alternative course was in use up until August 2023, however, please see the next update...

Update 3: During the summer of 2023, further works were started on the course and this led to a few months of cancellations. The team have come up with a triple out-and-back alternate version of the course, mostly along the north side of the dock, but with the turnaround point near the Sunborn. This came into use from 4 November 2023. There is a link to some GPS data below (original data not mine) - the trace isn't great (a common theme at this venue) but it should give a rough idea of what to expect if visiting.

Related Links:

The course GPS data (original course using the north and south sides of the dock)
The Relive course flyby video (original course flyby)

The alternative course GPS data (double out and back on the northern side)
The Relive alternative course flyby video (double out and back on the northern side)

The 3 x out-and-back course GPS data (triple out and back on the northern side - November 2023)

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