Monday 7 August 2023

Higginson parkrun, Marlow

The town of Marlow, in Buckinghamshire, sits on the banks of the River Thames and has a population of around 14,000 people. It was first recorded in 1015 as Mere Iafan, which means 'land left after the draining of a pond'. By the time the Domesday book was written, it had evolved into Merlaue. In later years it was called Great Marlow, and this distinguished it from the nearby village of Little Marlow. Over time it became a significant town and was granted its own market in the 13th century. The town's position meant it became the location of the river crossing on the main road between Reading and High Wycombe.

A bridge has existed in Marlow since the 13th century. The current bridge is a suspension bridge, which was built between 1829 and 1832. It is famous for being a prototype for the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which crosses the River Danube in Budapest, Hungary. The town is twinned, or 'bridged' with Budapest and also twinned with the French town Marly Le Roi. Adjacent to the bridge is Marlow Rowing Club, founded in 1871 and one of the top rowing clubs in the country. In recent history, it has produced a number of Olympic standard athletes including Steve Redgrave, who famously won gold medals at five consecutive Olympics between 1984 and 2000. He also has a statue just across the river in Higginson Park.

Higginson Park, opened in 1926, is the town's main public open green space. It sits in the grounds of a former country house, Court Garden. The house itself was designed and built in the mid-1700s by its owner, Dr William Battie, who famously forgot to include a staircase to reach the upper floor; one was subsequently added. The house has offices used by Marlow Town Council and is also used as a venue for events such as weddings and other functions. The park is named after General Sir George Higginson who fought in the Crimean War and was one of the town's 'most distinguished and loved citizens'.

The park covers an area of 23 acres and contains a playground, skate park, cricket pitch, café, toilets, as well as formal planting, museum, and a maze. On 18 August 2018, the park became home to Marlow's very own free, weekly, timed 5km event, open to all abilities including walkers, called Higginson parkrun. We visited on 5 August 2023 and took part in event number 158. The venue can easily be reached by various methods of travel. If driving, the park has a car park called Pound Lane Car Park. This serves the park and the leisure centre which sits alongside Court Garden. Payment can be made via the pay-and-display machines by cash or card, but I paid using the RingGo app.

Travel by train is also possible. Marlow Station is located in the centre of the town and is approximately 1km away from the park. The station is located on the Marlow Branch Line, which is also known as the Marlow Donkey, and has one train per hour running from Maidenhead during off-peak times. If using this method be sure to check the timetables to ensure timely arrival is possible. There are also some bus services to Marlow from nearby towns, I understand these are the X80, 800 and 850 services. The park also has various bicycle racks dotted around. There is one in the car park, another outside the leisure centre, or one near the park's main pedestrian entrance. The park's public toilets are also located next to the main pedestrian entrance.

The meeting point for the parkrun is usually over by the skate park, but on the day we visited, a fun fair was set-up across the regular start area, so the meeting point and start was moved to the grass outside Court Garden, next to the statue of Steve Redgrave. As it was raining, the participants had congregated underneath a tree, so on this occasion the briefings were held undercover. The minor change to the start didn't affect the course very much at all.

The course at this event consists of two small laps of part of the park, followed by an out-and-back along the River Thames. The surfaces underfoot in the park are grass and tarmac, and the section along the river is a compact gravel style path. The course is flat, but there is a tiny incline during the laps of the park. For footwear, this course would mostly be fine for road shoes, but it looks like it can get a bit muddy in the winter, so some may prefer trails for that.

Please note that due to narrow sections on the course, double-width running buggies and dogs are not permitted at this parkrun venue. There is also a note on the course page advising those who wish to participate with a single buggy to contact the team in advance for advice on course conditions. So from the start, the participants start on a nice wide start line with plenty of space. Once reaching the path two anti-clockwise laps are completed. This includes a short stretch along the Thames past the moored boats, where you may also spot some of the resident swans. The wonderful suspension bridge provides a great backdrop to the view down the river.

With the two small laps completed, the parkrun route turns to head out of the park, heading south along the river. The out-and-back is simple to follow and there is absolutely no chance of getting lost. The main things to note are; there are a number of small wooden bridges to cross, they can be slippery in wet conditions, plus a couple of them feature quite a pronounced hump. The other thing to note is the path has some random chunks missing which could result in a dip in the river. Once you have seen these areas, the rules around buggies and dogs make perfect sense.

The river marks the boundary between Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, and the views across the river into Bisham, Berkshire are lovely. The main locations to note are Bisham's All Saints Church, which has a twelfth century tower, with further sections from the 15th century. It is quite an unusual, but nice looking building. Further along the river is the Grade I Listed manor house, Bisham Abbey, which originally dates back to 1260. It was built for the Knights Templar. The grounds are now home to Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, which provides specialist facilities for elite athletes.

Towards the end of the out-and-back section, the land to the side of the path opens up and gives a lovely countryside view, complete with cows grazing in the field. The turnaround point is reached at exactly 3 kilometres into the course. The route back is just a simple case of following the river path back to Higginson Park where the finish is found back at the original start line.

For clarity, for the alternative course used on 5 August 2023, the finish line was in front of the house, but when the standard course is used, the finish line is located over at the skate park. It was only the exact location of the start and finish that were different; the rest of the course was identical. I have managed to get my hands on some GPS data for the regular course, so the link to that can be found at the bottom of the page along with my data, where you will also find links to Relive course fly-by videos.

Barcode scanning is taken care of straight after the finish line and once the participants, tail walker and the marshals are all safely back in the park, the team go to The M Cafe, which is adjacent to Court Garden. They have the usual selection of drinks plus a small selection of breakfast food items and the prices seemed fairly reasonable. If you decide to sit and eat outside, please take note of the 'Beware of Red Kites' signs; they apparently steal food. The results were processed and online a short while later and 123 people took part in event 158. This figure was slightly down on the average, which at the time of writing stands at 157.9. The range is usually between 120-200 participants. The slightly lower attendance during our visit may have been down to the wet weather.

I would also like to highlight that this venue does have its fair share of cancellations throughout the year. Some are as a result of other events using the park such as the Marlow Town Regatta, which is usually held in early June. The Pub in the Park event in May also leads to a cancellation. Some of the cancellations are due to course conditions. During wetter periods the river level rises and can completely cover sections of the riverside footpath, leaving no choice but the cancel. So it is definitely worth keeping an eye out on the event's news and social media pages. Also, anyone requiring an overnight stay will be pleased to know that there is a Premier Inn opposite the park. 

On the day we visited, the weather was miserable, so we probably didn't see the course and town at its very best, however it was still lovely, as were all the volunteers. After we had refreshed ourselves in the cafe and changed into some dry clothes, we had a little wander around the town, including a quick visit to Marlow's All Saints church which is next to the bridge. There was also a small market open opposite the park with some lovely looking artisan bread and other local products. We'd had a very wet, but very nice time in Marlow. A huge thank you goes to all of the volunteers that happily stood out in the rain and made the event possible.

Related Links:

GPS data (standard course)
Relive fly-by video (standard course)

GPS data (5 August 2023 - alternative start area)
Relive fly-by video (5 August 2023 - alternative start area)

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