Monday 6 May 2019

Newbury parkrun

Newbury is a market town in Berkshire with a population of around 40,000 people. Originally named New Burgh, it prospered through various industries such as paper making, brewing, and brick making. The cloth trade was also big in the town. Subsequently it became a convenient and popular stop-over point for the wealthy travelling from London to Bath and many inns were present in the town.

The Inn trade dwindled when the Great Western Railway opened and it wasn't until the 1980s, when Vodafone decided to base their HQ here, that the prosperity truly started again. The town is now a hub for high-tech industries. It is also known for its connection to the world of horse racing with many training facilities being based in the surrounding area, and Newbury Racecourse is situated on south-east side of the town.

greenham and crookham commons

Moving our attention a little further to the south, we find Greenham and Crookham Commons which together cover an area of around 1,000 acres. Together they form the largest continuous open tract of heathland in Berkshire and are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is this area which is home to Newbury parkrun, however before moving onto that, there is still a little more history to go over.

Before the Second World War Greenham Common had been common land, but in 1941 it was requisitioned by the Government for military purposes. The land of the common is open and flat which made it ideal for use as an airbase - so despite a brief period of around four years after the war where the site was de-requisitioned, the land became part of RAF Greenham Common.

The base was used by the United States Air Force throughout WW2 and continued through the period of the Cold War. In 1951 the original runway was replaced with a 3km long runway which would have made it one of the longest military runways in the world at the time.

extra spacious start area

There are reports of an accident where a B-47 loaded with a nuclear warhead caught on fire in 1958 when another flying B-47 accidentally dropped a fuel tank containing over 1,500 gallons of fuel next to it - engulfing it in flames (denied by the military at the time). Subsequent studies have taken place that suggest the area was (or still is) contaminated with low level uranium.

In the early 1980s ninety-six 'BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missiles' (GLCM) were based at the site. The missiles carried a W84 thermonuclear warhead which had a potential yield of 150 kilotons (for reference the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had blast yields of 15 and 21 kilotons).

The operational missiles were housed within the GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA) which can still be easily identified by the 6 large grass-covered shelters. They were designed to withstand an air-detonated nuclear strike, having a 2 metre thick concrete ceiling plus additional layers of titanium, sand, more concrete and clay. More about the shelters later...

through the first kilometre

Naturally, the presence of these nuclear weapons caused an outcry and they lead to a peace camp being set-up around the perimeter of the site. This was known as 'Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp'. It was decided early on that this would be a women-only protest and using their identities as women/mothers legitimised the protests in the name of their children and future generations. Even though the nuclear weapons were completely removed by 1991 and the base closed by 1993, the peace camp stayed in place until 2000.

On 8 April 2000 the commons were reopened to the public. The majority of the concrete from the runway had already been removed for use as aggregate in the recently-opened Newbury Bypass, but you can still see the imprint of the runway through the natural vegetation which is slowly being restored. Some other parts of the base have survived, for example the Control Tower which is a Grade 2 listed building. Its design is one of only six remaining in the UK and is unique in the fact that it has not been significantly modernised internally.

the northern/eastern side of the course

We visited the common on 4th May 2019 and after spending two hours on-the-road we finally pulled into the main car park, which incidentally is right next to the control tower. We had initially tried to park in another car park on the opposite side of the common (Greenham Business Park) so we could be closer to the nuclear shelters for our post-run visit, but we just couldn't locate it despite using the postcode from the parkrun course page. We also couldn't find the toilets which are supposed to be somewhere within the business park...

So, as we had left ourselves a little bit of buffer time, we used the facilities in the McDonalds in the retail park at the western end of the common. With that sorted we headed towards the control tower car park as described above (for info, there was a queue of cars waiting to get in). The buffer time we had left ourselves had truly run out and by the time we had found a space, assembled the running buggy and changed into our running shoes it was just a couple of minutes away from 9am.

the eastern section of the course

The start of the parkrun is on the last remaining patch of tarmac right in the centre of the old runway. It is 600 metres from the car park which at a regular walking pace takes around 5-7 minutes. Fortunately the run director hadn't started the event by the time we reached the start point, so we composed ourselves and slotted into a nice place towards the back of the field. So the main points to take away from this would be, if you think you will need to use toilets plan this into your journey and leave yourself plenty of time to park and get to the start line.

If travelling by train the closest stations are Newbury Racecourse and Thatcham - they are both over 4km from the start line with no obvious sign of a connection. I've read that if you happen to alight the train at Newbury main train station you may be able to catch a bus to one of the entrances to the common - however you'll still be 2km from the start area.

the common and crookham athletics track etc...

For cyclists there are some bicycle racks right next to the control tower. At present there are no pre-run toilet facilities available onsite for parkrunners and there is a note on the main Newbury parkrun page reminding attendees to not relieve themselves on the common, as aside from being unpleasant for other users, doing so will put the future of the event in jeopardy.

Newbury parkrun is a very well established event which has been held on the common since February 2012. Our visit fell on the 390th event. Even from the early days this has been a very well attended parkrun which has always had the number of finishers in three-figures. At time of writing the official average is 361 but this doesn't reflect current day numbers very well. As of mid-2019 I would expect to find around 600 participants (it was the 26th busiest parkrun in the country on the day we visited - out of the 606 UK events that took place)...

The good news is that the start area is vast and there is plenty of room to position yourself where you think you should be within the field of participants. However bear in mind that you have just under 200 metres before the course narrows down to the width of the common's paths. The course here is one single clockwise lap which, with the exception of the tarmac at the start and finish, takes place entirely on gravelly paths. I would imagine that road shoes would generally be ok all year round, but some people may prefer a light trail shoe in bad conditions.

the final kilometre

Once past the first corner I don't remember encountering any marshals or arrows around the course, but there were some cones placed where required that did the job nicely. The first kilometre or so is on a perfectly straight path that heads east along the northern border of the runway. It then turns and the path meanders gently around the Crookham Common end of the route where you'll catch a glimpse of Crookham Athletics track. You may remember I mentioned above that we had the running buggy with us - the gravelly/stony surface underfoot makes for a gentle but bumpy ride for the occupant.

The views are pretty nice all around - expect to see plenty of gorse, heather and bracken. There are also a few ponds and occasionally you'll get a picturesque view over the adjacent countryside. Humans are not the only creatures you will find here - expect to see some cows and horses milling around. Also look out for the small wooden posts with red tops - these signify areas that are out-of-bounds due to ground-nesting birds such as the Nightjar, Lapwing, and the Skylark. Plus the Gorse bushes provide nesting opportunities for the Dartford Warbler.

At the end of the meandering section the course ends up on the southern side of the former runway where a long but extremely gentle incline leads back to the tarmac area and ultimately the finish line. As this is a very well attended event expect there to be some queues for the barcode scanners. Also being a wide open space means it can suffer from windy conditions - while we didn't really notice any on the way around, we did find we got very cold while waiting in the queue.

the finish area etc..

Earlier on I promised that I would come back to the nuclear shelters, well here we are! Once we had had our barcodes scanned we embarked on what would turn out to be a 45 minute round trip over to the south-west corner to see the shelters. This brings me to the reason why we attended this particular parkrun on this particular day - It was May the Fourth (aka Star Wars Day)...

The shelters were used as a filming location in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and again in The Last Jedi (2017). For these movies they became the Resistance base on the planet D'Qar and it was great to finally see them in real life - sadly you can't get amongst them as the area is still subject to very strict security arrangements. They are also regularly inspected by the Russians as part of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Incidentally they were also used in Top Gear as a backdrop for a segment on communist cars, and apparently Beyonce filmed a music video here too.

control tower / nuclear shelter

The Control Tower has a cafe and is open for visits where you can have an elevated view over the former airfield, but I hadn't read up on this before our visit and totally missed the opportunity (noted for when we are next in the area)! Instead we headed back to the car and off to another cafe we had spotted earlier in the day while trying to find the other car park. We had a lovely lunch in the Honesty Cafe which is located in an art gallery at The Base within the Greenham Business Park.

Our results came through a little while later and despite periods of walking and even coming to a complete standstill at points, my daughter (dressed as Rey from Star Wars) ended up with a new 5k personal best which was of course the cherry on top of the very delicious cake which is Newbury parkrun!

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