Sunday 19 May 2019

Kingdom parkrun

Penshurst is a historic village in Kent. It takes its name from the manor of Penecestre (or Penchester) in which it was located. The current population figure (combined with neighbouring Fordcombe) stands at just over 1,500.

The village contains many listed buildings, but the most well-known of these is Penshurst Place - It is open to the public and according to Wikipedia is 'one of the most complete surviving examples of 14th century domestic architecture in England'. In the time of King Henry VIII it was owned by the Duke of Buckingham until he was executed for treason and the house forfeited to the king who subsequently used it as a hunting lodge (possibly while courting Anne Boleyn who lived at nearby Hever Castle).


Interestingly the village is home to the original Leicester Square - The one in London took its name from Penshurst after the subsequent owner of Penshurst Place, Robert Sidney 2nd Earl of Leicester, built a house in London called Leicester House on the land which is now home to one of the cinemas. The London square has retained the name.

As time went on sections of the manor were sold off and other large houses constructed. One of these built in the late 18th century was called South Park owned by the Hardinge family. While not on the scale of Penshurst Place it was still significant enough to host lavish parties for the elite of the day including the Prince of Wales.

kingdom / the seven sisters tree

The house was subsequently enlarged and the grounds extended, landscaped and woodland planted. The grounds made it as far as the 1950s before being divided into parcels and sold off. The house itself was stripped of its valuable fixtures and fittings, and was partially demolished. It was rescued and restoration finished in the 1960s.

In 1991, 44 acres of South Park Wood was purchased by cycling enthusiast Mike Westphal and he set about creating a mountain biking centre within the woods. The centre was called Penshurst Off Road Cycling (PORC) and was very highly regarded within the mountain biking community. He built the visitor centre building and also a house which he still lives in - the building of the house was featured in a ten episode TV show called Treetop Pavilion.

around the start

Coincidentally, I visited PORC with my brother in 2012 to have a go on the trails - at the time most of them were beyond our abilities and we both went home injured. For me it resulted in a trip to the minor injuries unit at Sevenoaks following a crash that saw me catapulted off the bike and into some brambles. My hand was badly bruised and I even had to miss a parkrun because I couldn't drive.

In early 2017, Mike sold some of the land and PORC closed down. As it was held in such high esteem within the mountain biking community, he was persuaded to have a re-think, and just over a year later it reopened as Penshurst Bike Park. This now sits alongside, but totally separate from, a brand new venture which is called Kingdom.

the opening section

Kingdom is essentially a place of wellness. It has its own cycling club, a cafĂ©, a yoga studio, Nature's Gym personal training and various other activities. At the heart of it is the main clubhouse (the one that MIke built) which alongside the above is also used for events and has a 360 degree panoramic view over the woodland and the Weald of Kent from the roof terrace.

In April 2019 the venue became home to Kingdom parkrun. It's an interesting naming choice as it's not really a geographical location or park name, but essentially the name of the business venture that currently inhabits the area. Anyway, as you may have gathered from the above, this event is of the off-road variety. It takes place on some of the former mountain biking trails which weave their way along the southern edge of South Park Woods.

first half of the lap

We drove over to the event on 18 May 2019 and took part in event number 4. The car park holds around 60 cars and is free-of-charge; if it fills up you'll need to park just outside the entrance on Grove Road.

After parking up I went for a walk with the kids and bumped into Mike who was doing some chores outside his house. He filled me in on a few details about the history of the place and it was really nice to have a brief chat to the man who created this fantastic place.

the first half of the lap (still)

Being based on the outskirts of a village in the middle of the countryside does mean that travel via public transport isn't particularly easy. The nearest station is Penshurst, but it's over 3 miles away and the interconnecting roads are country lanes which are probably not the safest for walking along. You may find a bus can get you from somewhere near the station to around 1 mile north of the venue, but you'll still have to walk uphill along a country lane to reach the entrance.

An option if you fancy cycling could be to use Cycle Route 12 - also known as the Tudor Trail -  which runs from Tonbridge (taking in most of the Tonbridge parkrun course) through to Penshurst. I rode this route a few times when I lived in Tonbridge - it's mostly on traffic-free paths but some sections are on the road, and the final section from the centre of Penshurst to Kingdom is all on roads (and uphill). Bicycle racks are opposite the clubhouse.

at the bottom of the course (inc the banked section)

Once there you can find the toilets in the Kingdom clubhouse. If the queue seems long pop downstairs to find more toilets plus some changing rooms. It's worth taking some time to admire The Seven Sisters tree which is claimed to be the largest living tree in the British Isles. The briefings take place in the shadow of the tree and the start line is just a few metres along the path.

This is a three lap course with grassy/stony trail paths underfoot. I'm told that they drain pretty well, but even so, in the winter you're going to be looking at trail shoes as the preferred option. When its dry it'll be a matter of personal preference. I went with my light trails but road shoes would have been fine.

heading back up

The start is located at the high point of the course and it is essentially a case of heading gradually downhill for the first half of the lap and then all the way back up for the second. The official course page says there is a maximum elevation change of 24m - according to my GPS data, this must be per lap. The total elevation was recorded as 77 metres for the entire course.

I don't often get overly excited about a course, but I will make an exception here. I really like twisty courses, and although this doesn't have many tight turns it does have lots of long meandering ones which sometimes feature switchbacks. When you reach the bottom you encounter the longest of these curves which you then turn and run on the inside of. They have named this section 'The Washing Machine'. There are even some banked corners which were so much fun to run on - my daughter was doing her version of 'drifting' around them.

still going up / views / the house

The course was very well laid out with arrows, cones and barriers to ensure the participants followed the correct path. In fact, it was so well done that the marshals were almost not required - of course it's still best to have them there for safety reasons and for a morale boost when things feel tough. It's a credit to the organisers that this has been so well thought out and it must take a considerable effort to prepare each weekend.

You do, of course, have to keep an eye out for uneven ground which is a feature of this type of course, but you would be forgiven for not paying attention as you may find the stunning views over the Weald of Kent a little distracting. On the way back to the top you pass the former owner's house and Penshurst Bike Park, which is currently up-for-sale (update April 2023: sold, demolished and a new one being built).

view of the clubhouse from the course / the last bit of the lap

The clubhouse building soon comes back into view and the course passes underneath a footbridge (update April 2023: bridge now removed) before underfoot changes to loose stones for about 30 metres or so. I ran with my son in the buggy and while most of the course was bumpy, it was perfectly fine. The loose stones on the other hand were bl***y hard work (but fun) and to top it all off you negotiate them going uphill!

So, after a further two laps have been completed you turn into the finish funnel, have a breather, then have your barcode and finishing token scanned. I had recorded the course using my Garmin and the course, including the hill profile can be found at the following link: Kingdom parkrun 4.

the loose stones and the finish

Post-event the team head into the clubhouse for refreshments. It's not the cheapest place you'll come across, but the food options generally look fairly tasty. A notable thing to bear in mind is that the cafe is totally cashless.

We abandoned our plan to have a drink in the cafe (things got a little confusing), retrieved our packed lunch from the boot of the car and headed back down to the bottom of the course to an area that we had spotted during the run. It had a circular wooden seated area with a space for a bonfire in the middle. There was also a home-made swing to keep us entertained. Here we ran around, played on the swing and made the most of the opportunity to be surrounded by nature.

post-event picnic and playing

We had an absolutely amazing morning out, so a huge thanks to everyone that made it happen. It's certainly a venue that makes the revisit list! For the record, we re-visited on 8 April 2023 and were pleased to see that everything was basically the same as it was.

Related Links:

GPS data on Strava (May 2019)
Relive fly-by course video (generated from the May 2019 GPS data)
The Kent parkrun Venues

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