Sunday 20 May 2018

Mole Valley parkrun

Mole Valley is the name of a local government district in Surrey. It was formed in 1974 and takes its name from the River Mole. The district contains two towns, Leatherhead and Dorking, plus many villages and settlements. The area sits on the North Downs and also includes some of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I had visited the area to take part in Mole Valley parkrun, which takes place just outside Dorking in the grounds of the Denbies Wine Estate.

The estate takes its name from John Denby who was the first owner of the estate in the mid-16th century where he built a modest farmhouse. The next owner, Jonathan Tyers, transformed the grounds into a gloomy, gothic, garden. It's theme was 'reminder of death' (memento mori) and featured macabre statues including coffins and skulls as well as a clock that chimed every minute. The grounds were known as 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death' at this time.

Subsequent owners built grand mansions, this included the Denison family (wealthy bankers) who redesigned the grounds and removed the macabre theme. Finally the last grand building was built by Thomas Cubitt c.1854 and featured 100 rooms. In the 20th century small pieces of land gradually began to be sold off, and the mansion was used as the Home Guard headquarters before its demolition in 1953.

Parts of land were given to the National Trust (some via the treasury in lieu of unpaid taxes) and in the 1980s the remaining land was sold to a water-treatment company, Biwater. The chairman of the company, Adrian White, established the Denbies Wine Estate. With 268 acres currently under vines, Denbies is the largest vineyard in England and it's vines represent around 10% of the total amount in the whole of the UK. Outdoor activities are available, where visitors can tour the estate on the train tour (not on tracks), or enjoy a Vine and Dine grape picking experience. There are also indoor options which includes a selection of wine tasting experiences.

Denbies doesn't only produce award winning wine - they do weddings, civil ceremonies, dinners and private parties, as well as corporate events like exhibitions, conferences and product launches, plus seasonal family events around easter and halloween etc. There is also a Bed and Breakfast here, so you do have the option of an onsite overnight stay.

The grounds were used as a location for James May's Toy Stories where he built a full sized Lego house in 2009, it was dismantled soon after as the area was required for vines and the house did not have planning permission. They are also no stranger to hosting running events - The biggest of these is the Bacchus Marathon and Half Marathon which includes six wine tasting stations per lap. The Surrey Cross-Country League and various other races are also held here.

Mole Valley District Council had been searching for a suitable venue to host a parkrun for around two years before Denbies finally came forward. The one thing Denbies lacked was enough suitable car parking space to host the event. A planning application and a bit of groundwork later, the car park was complete and the event was ready to go.

Like all parkruns in England, this event takes place at 9am on Saturday mornings, is free, and open to all running abilities and to walkers. Upon arrival by car, participants can head straight into the aforementioned onsite parkrun car park or continue into the main car park, which is where I ended up parking. Cyclists can use the bespoke bicycle racks provided onsite just outside the visitor centre.

If travelling by public transport, Dorking train station is the closest, but there are two others in the town, Dorking Deepdene and Dorking West. Buses 21 and 465 stop just outside the venue.

Toilet facilities are officially available from 9am in the main visitor building (When I visited in 2018, they were available from 8.30am, the change of opening time is an economic decision made by Denbies - please see this post on the Mole Valley parkrun Facebook page which also lists some nearby alternatives). To summarise here, the suggestions are; either of the nearby Esso petrol stations on the A24, Waitrose, and St Martin's Walk Shopping Centre. I've also seen there is a Sainsbury's and a Lidl in Dorking town centre which both supposedly have customer toilets.

The run itself starts adjacent to the main Denbies visitor centre and takes place over a single lap course around the vineyard on a mixture of gravelly paths, grass and dirt. Being an off-road course you may find trail shoes useful here, especially in the winter when it gets very muddy and splashy underfoot. My personal preference would be to go with trail shoes all year round as they may help with negotiating the uneven surfaces.

There is a note on the main webpage that says that this course is not suitable for buggies, and to be honest, that is a fair statement. However, buggies have not been banned so if you fancy a challenge, you are free to go ahead. Also if you bring a dog, it must be kept on a lead at all times and it must not be allowed roam amongst the vines. There are signs to this effect and I saw a lot of people (not all of them linked to parkrun) ignoring this.

The vineyard has been planted on the south-facing slope of the North Downs which receives more sunlight and heat than northern facing slopes, and this is perfect for growing the grapes. The run also takes place on these slopes, so don't expect this venue to be a walk in the park. In fact, while I was doing my research for this blog I came across a few online comments along the lines of 'beautiful scenery, but I had to walk up the hills', 'the hills were traumatic but I loved the course', and lastly the very simple 'never again!'. However the event is attracting almost 300 people every week so it can't be that bad... right?

So after the main briefing, the participants are sent on their way, but before entering the tracks through the vines there is a quick loop of the grass field - this helps to spread the field before entering the narrower tracks. The tracks themselves aren't actually that narrow, in fact they are wide enough for the farm vehicles to move along. However the grass can be a bit lumpy in places at the edges so the prime route is along the single file well-trodden paths.

The route works its way up along the northern border of the vineyard until levelling out at about 1.3kms into the course. It's worth noting that this opening section reduced quite a number of people to walking pace, and if it does the same to you, you certainly won't be alone. After a short downhill section which dips down into the valley, the course hits the 2km mark and again starts to head uphill - my GPS briefly picked up an incline of 25% here.

At 2.8km into the run, the course finally reaches its highest point and the good news is that the final 2.2kms are either downhill or flat. Up to this point the course has been mainly grass and dirt underfoot, but it now changes to a dusty, gravelly, stony track for a while. The views across the vineyard are constantly changing, but stunning from all over the course, so don't forget to take a good look around every now and then.

With 700 metres left to go the course goes back onto the dirt/grass tracks and the route enters its final stage. It rejoins the northern border and heads back along it to the start line which is now the finish line. Barcodes are scanned right next to the finish line. Please note that the venue does have a b-course, which can be used if the start-finish area is unavailable. The map of both courses can be found on this Facebook post. However it seems the b-course still takes in the majority of the same used for the regular course.

Participants can now head into the Conservatory Restaurant for breakfast and a cup of tea. I picked a selection of vegetarian options from the hot food counter and paid £4 which I thought was pretty reasonable - however I forgot to show my parkrun barcode, if I had done I would have received a 10% discount. I Revisited in March 2023 and the breakfast options were reduced in comparison to my first visit. If you eat meat then you'd be able to have a bacon or sausage bap. Apart from that, all I saw was beans and fried eggs. They did have a good selection of cakes. There's also an outdoor kiosk for refreshments.

While sitting in the restaurant with fellow tourist Tim, who I know from my former home parkrun at Riddlesdown, I uploaded my GPS data to Strava and set the Relive app to create a course flyby video of the course. I also received my result and saw that 284 people had taken part in event 10. Once we had had a good ol' chinwag I headed back towards the car via the onsite shop which sells all the wines they produce as well as lots of other bits and pieces. I was almost tempted to buy some wine, but then I remembered that I don't really drink alcohol, so I went home empty handed.

If you are interested in wine, it would definitely make sense to spend the entire day here taking part in some of the activities listed above, or if you are more of a beer drinker you may find a tour of the on-site Surrey Hills Brewery is more to your liking. Whatever you do, there can be no doubt that the place would have left an impression on you. For me, the highlight was the beautiful scenery and the tough, hilly course. The changing seasons as the year progresses will make this course a real treat for those local enough to call this home. It's a great venue and us parkrunners are very lucky to get to run here. Every week. For free.

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