Saturday 26 May 2018

Great Dunmow parkrun

The Essex town of Great Dunmow sits on high ground on the west bank of the River Chelmer, exactly halfway along the old Roman Road (Stane Street) between Bishops Stortford and Braintree. This historic market town has a population of around 9,000 people, but with developments ongoing in the north-west of the town, this will surely rise in the near future. Its name means 'meadow on the hill' and there have been settlements here (on and off) since Roman times.

great dunmow

Over the years many Roman artifacts such as coins and pottery have been found in and around the town, and it is also home to 167 listed buildings. As far as industries go, the main ones over the years have been corn which was grown on the high ground, and wool/textiles - notably a fine cloth known as 'bay and say'. There was Beer from the Dunmow Brewery which closed down in the 1940s. However the Grade 2* listed Dunmow Maltings which served the brewery have been restored and the building now houses the Great Dunmow Town Museum which costs £1.50 to visit. Finally there was the bacon industry, with the Dunmow Flitch Bacon Factory based in the town employing many people until it closed down in the 1980s.

On the subject of bacon, the town is probably most well-known for its four-yearly ancient custom, The Dunmow Flitch Trials which actually originated in the nearby village of Little Dunmow. Married couples can enter and are quizzed by six batchelors and six maidens. If they can prove that they have not wished themselves unwed for 'twelvemonth and a day', they may win a flitch of bacon - that is half-a-pig, cut lengthways. The custom is not unique to Dunmow but I hear that it is the only town that still awards a flitch as a prize.

recreation ground / start

I travelled to Great Dunmow on an overcast and muggy mid-may morning to take part in event seven of Great Dunmow parkrun, which had its inaugural event in April 2018. The free, weekly, 5k event starts and finishes near the Dourdan Pavilion at The Recreation Ground, just off The Causeway, in the North East of the town. This part of the town used to be a large area of impassable marshland.

Interestingly, Great Dunmow is twinned with the French town of Dourdan (hence the pavilion name) and there is even a Dunmow-Dourdan Twinning Association who with their French counterparts arrange social visits between the two towns with families on both sides of the channel providing accomodation and food for their visitors. If a parkrun ever starts in Dourdan I'm sure it would be quite a popular trip for both sets of participants.

the first 500m / pillbox

The recreation ground has toilet facilities, a skate park and a playground, but is mostly open grass which is marked out with football pitches. On the third Saturday in September, the venue hosts the Great Dunmow Carnival, so there is a good chance that setup for this could result in the parkrun taking a week off - remember to check before leaving home.

Anyway, I had driven to the event and although the Dourdan Pavilion has a car park, the advice on the parkrun web page asks participants not to park here. The suggested parking options are to use one of the town centre car parks and walk over to the venue - they seem to be fairly reasonably priced and you should be able to park for about £1.20 which will cover a three-hour stay. Of course, it you're savvy, you'll find a local residential side street and park there.

meadows / through the alley

In 1869 a railway line opened between Bishops Stortford and Braintree which served Great Dunmow. It was in operation for over a hundred years as a freight line and its passenger services ran for just over 80 years before being axed as a cost saving measure by British Rail (Beeching wasn't responsible for this one!). As a consequence there is no way of getting to the town by train, however the old train line is now The Flitch Way which is a walking and cycling route that takes its name from Dunmow's Flitch Trials. I couldn't see any cycle racks but the bikes I saw had been chained to the underside of one of the skate ramps, which seemed to work out fine.

Once at the recreation ground the meeting point for the parkrun is easy enough to spot on the grass right next to the skate park. The run briefing takes place here and the crowd of parkrunners are sent on their way straight after. The flat course is made up of one large loop followed by one smaller loop, underfoot you will find grass and dirt/trail paths which are all fairly uneven, so watch your step. The ideal footwear would be trail shoes, but when the ground is bone dry in the middle of the summer, road shoes would also be fine. Buggy runners will be fine, but note that it will be a bumpy ride, plus in the winter it'll be a lot tougher due to the changing ground conditions.

the bridge (outgoing)

The large lap (approx 3km) starts by heading south on grass through the recreation ground and around the football pitch field. The route then goes into the extended parkland where it hugs the western border of the meadows. An interesting fact is that Dunmow was on the GHQ Line (General Headquarters Line) during the second world war, which was a line of defences built to defend against a German invasion. If you look very carefully within the bushes you can spot a pillbox which survives from that period.

The course then continues through a very short section of trees and along a tarmac alley past some houses before crossing the River Chelmer via a single-file footbridge. At this point, the loop switches from being anti-clockwise to clockwise and the route follows the perimeter of the parkland all the way around and then down towards Dunmow Cricket Club, whose ground can be seen in the adjacent field.

the other side of the water / the bridge (with two-way runners)

After passing a small car park at the southern tip of the course, the route starts to head back towards the bridge with the river on the left. Heading back across the single-file bridge the route now switches back to being anti-clockwise and the participants continue following the twists and turns of the river with it now on their right hand side. This gently meanders all the way to the northernmost point of the course via Harp Mead Jubilee Wood which was planted in 2012 in commemoration of the Queen's diamond jubilee, before heading back into the main part of the recreation ground. This first lap actually forms a figure of eight (very rare for a parkrun), albeit with a lot more twists and turns.

A second lap is now run, but this one is shorter at approx 2km. When reaching the river, the course doesn't cross the bridge, but this time just heads back along the river following the same route as the latter part of the first lap. Incidentally there is another pillbox located near/within the Harp Mead Jubilee Wood. Once back in the main section of the park, the participants break off of the loop and return to the start area where they will find the finish.

heading through the meadows along the bank of the river chelmer

A point to note would be the single-file bridge - the lead runners (and possibly everyone running under 25 minutes) will make it back to the bridge before the tail walker has gone through (this will vary from week-to-week), so it could cause some conflict and ultimately someone will have to yield. So it's worth keeping it in mind and whatever happens try to be polite and give thanks to anyone that gives way to you.

So with my morning's run done, I had my barcode scanned right next to the finish line and headed off to take some more photos and to chat to some of the marshals around the course. Special thanks to the marshal that told me exactly where to find the pillbox, and another thanks to the marshal who took my photo. Of course with me being me, I didn't ask anyone's names (sorry!) but I enjoyed chatting nonetheless.

through the newly planted woodland / orchard area

After the event there may be a mobile refreshment van onsite to grab a quick drink (but I didn't spot one when I visited) or you may find that the team head over to the Angel and Harp pub just to the north of the park. If that doesn't take your fancy then you can take a short walk onto the high street where a number of independent cafes etc can be found.

If you walk into town, do take a moment to stop at Doctor's Pond whose name, it is said, comes from a doctor who used to breed and keep leeches in the pond when they were used in medicine. The pond was also the location that Lionel Lukin, born and lived in Great Dunmow, conducted experiments which lead to the development of the first (possibly unsinkable) lifeboat in 1784.

Once back at the car I uploaded my GPS data to Strava and converted the file into a course fly-by video using the Relive app on my phone.

back at the recreation ground

The results for event 7 were processed and online before I got home. There were 158 participants on the day I visited which was around the average number this venue is attracting at the moment. It's a nice course to run on and I can imagine it'll get pretty muddy underfoot in the winter, which some will love and others will not! A huge thanks to the team for putting on the event and for making me feel so welcome - May Dunmow (parkrun) Prosper!

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