Sunday 29 July 2018

Foots Cray Meadows parkrun

With 240 acres of parkland and woodland, Foots Cray Meadows is the largest open public space in the London Borough of Bexley. It spans both banks of the River Cray as it weaves its way through both Foots Cray and North Cray. The area is also a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation.

foots cray meadows

Foots Cray itself is largely industrial with the biggest name company to have a factory here being Coca Cola. The area takes its name from a Saxon landowner, Godwin Fot, who held the Kentish Manor here during the reign of Edward the Confessor. The Cray part comes from the river.

The Cray Valley, as it is sometimes called, was a popular place for 'gentlemen's retreats' during the 18th century and two of these originally occupied land that now forms the park. Firstly there was Foots Cray Place which featured a palladian mansion, this replaced an earlier estate called Pike Place whose centrepiece was an Elizabethan E-shaped house.

briefing / start

On the North Cray side there was North Cray Place whose grounds were landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in c.1780 and some of his work can still be seen as you will find out below. The most recent house dating from 1760 is still standing. Once known as Woollett Hall it is now called Loring Hall - interestingly, in 1822 the Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereigh, who owned the house at this time, commited suicide here.

Anyway, we were here for Foots Cray Meadows parkrun which started in July 2018. Had I been here alone, I would have cycled or ran the 6km from home. Alternatively, I would have taken the train to Albany Park station and walked the rest of the way. Incidentally I quite often alight the train at Albany Park on my way home from work and run the rest of the way home (those that follow me on Strava will sometimes spot entries named AYP-DFD).

five arch bridge

On this particular day, all four of us had decided to take part so we jumped in the car and headed to Woollett Hall Farm (Update: now renamed Beck Evans Farm) which is where the official car park and toilets are. I would advise checking the course page for comprehensive driving directions as those unfamiliar with the area could be caught out otherwise (hint: there's a dual carriageway which requires you to do a u-turn if you are approaching from Bexley Village).

On the subject of the farm, it's worth pointing out that there is a campsite here and showers are available at the cost of £1 for 10 minutes. From the farm there is a 5-10 minute walk to get into the park, so make sure to leave plenty of time to find your way along the country lane and footpaths that lead across the river and into the park. Please note that during the winter an alternative course may be in use which starts in a different place (see the update at the bottom for more info).

the meadows

Once in the park, you will spot the playground and then the huddle of fellow participants and the hi-vis jackets of the volunteers. The main briefing takes place on the open grass area which is known as Royal Park, and following that the crowd gather on the spacious start line. The course consists of an 'out' section, followed by a large loop, then a small loop, before heading back towards the playground.

Underfoot is mostly grass, and despite the ground having a few uneven spots, buggy runners would generally be ok here. However, it is worth noting that the park is used for one of the Kent Cross Country League races, so expect a softer, or even muddy, surface during the winter (see update re winter course). Road shoes will easily see you through the summer, but trail shoes are the better option during the winter.

the meadows

With the event underway, the course heads in a south-westerly direction across the open grass before picking up a more defined dirt path that leads onto North Cray Meadows. Interestingly, although the whole area is called Foots Cray Meadows, each part still retain its own historic name. Continuing in the same direction, the route passes Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's stunning 'Five Arch Bridge'. The course is basically flat, but there is the slightest rise in elevation when heading towards the southern and western end.

Before long the course arrives at the southern end of the park and passes through Wet Meadow while the participants head straight towards the spire of All Saints Church in the distance. Now on Foots Cray Lawns, the route now turns to the north and follows the edge of Chestnut Avenue. This section requires some self-discipline as the course now hugs the side of the avenue of trees towards cones in the far corner. However a few of the participants in front of us clearly, but maybe not intentionally, cut a huge chunk off the course by heading straight across the grass.

through the ancient woodland

After weaving around a little more, the course enters North Cray Woods which are officially listed as Ancient Woodland. They can be traced back until at least the 12th century, and may even pre-date the Domesday Book of 1086. Underfoot up to this point had been grassy, but changed in the woods to softer dirt and then to an ever-so-slightly downhill, gravelly avenue which leads back towards North Cray Meadows. This completes the large loop and a smooth tarmac path leads back in the direction of the bridge where the smaller loop begins.

The smaller loop cuts off most of the southern end of the course by taking participants along Lime Avenue - this leads through the central area of Foots Cray Lawns, and at the end, the course heads back through the ancient woodland. Upon reaching the tarmac path for a second time, the route now heads straight across and right through North Cray Meadows where you'll find wildflowers growing on either side of the mown grass path.

the meadows

Before you know it, you have rejoined the original 'out' section and it's just a simple case of following this back onto the open grass fields of Royal Park. The finish funnel team will be awaiting your arrival at the finish with the barcode scanners in position just beyond. Once all of the day's participants have completed the course the focus of the event moves back to Woollett Hall Farm Beck Evans Farm, or more specifically, to Kelsey's Farm Shop Penelope's Cafe/Restaurant (see below for update) which is where the post-run social gathering takes place.

After sampling the veggie sausage rolls and chocolate brownie, I popped into the farm shop (now Penelope's Farm Shop) to buy a Five Arches summer ale (very fitting, I thought) which was brewed locally at Bexley Brewery - if you fancy doing the same you may have to visit during summer as it is part of their four seasons range and may not be available all year round.

the meadows / finish

Our visit had almost come to an end, but as I was taking some photos of the thousands of sweetcorn storks that were growing in the farmer's fields, I recognised a familiar voice behind me saying 'with me now...',

It turned out to be Danny Norman who has just 'got the old band back together' (the rest of the band being Nicola Forwood of course) and launched a brand new unofficial podcast all about our favourite Saturday morning pastime. You can follow the podcast on Facebook or Twitter, plus the link to the show is in the update below.

Update: Click here to listen to With Me Now, episode 3 - 'Poodos'. It can also be found on itunes. Also, it transpires that Danny didn't actually say 'with me now', so it seems that I was distracted by the sweetcorn crops and wasn't actually paying attention!

post-run at the farm

The results for event two were published pretty quickly after the run and 146 people had taken part. I had recorded the course with my Garmin and the GPS data can be viewed on my Strava account. You'll also find a Relive course fly-by video on my youtube page. We came away having thoroughly enjoyed our visit and it's certainly local enough to swing by for a return visit in the future...

... which we did on a very cold morning in January 2023 (using the alternative course).

Jan 2023 Update: There is also an alternative route that is used during the winter (be sure to check which course is being used before visiting). The first point to note is that the alternative course starts in a completely different place. Signs are in place to help participants navigate from the official car park to the start (give yourself a good 10 minutes), but the important thing to remember is that you do not cross the river to get the alternative course start area, which is on the grass to the south of Bexley Allotments.

The alternative course is completely different to the regular one with only around 500 metres (x2) of the standard course used. It starts with one-and-a-half laps of some grass fields, followed by a path which leads down to the Five Arches Bridge. The course then crosses the bridge and this is where the route uses part of the regular course. This section is effectively one long out-and-back which goes off into North Cray Woods (technically the out-and-back starts once you finish the first lap of the grass).

The section through the woods is delightful. The path climbs steadily and just before the turnaround point there is a gap in the trees which reveals a lovely view across the park. Once turned around, you simply retrace your steps back down into the park, back across the bridge and along the path. Then complete a final half-lap of the grass fields in the opposite direction. I think I may like this course even more so than the regular one! The GPS data and Relive video can be found in the links below.

2023 snapshots

In terms of attendance numbers, this is a small, extremely friendly parkrun venue. Expect to find no more than around 60 people participating on any given week. There were 59 participants during our second visit at event 153. I really like it here, and would visit more often, but the area is popular with dog walkers and I struggle around large, loose dogs (They truly terrify me).

The volunteers were fantastic, especially during this second visit where they were extremely patient and understanding with us as we moved slowly around at the back of the pack. We also had some support from another participant who supported us towards the end. Thank you to everyone. We finished off our visit with a stop at the revamped cafe, now called Penelope's, where we had some hot drinks to warm ourselves up after a particularly cold morning out.

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