Sunday 23 June 2019

Bethlem Royal Hospital parkrun

The Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem (Bethlem) was founded in 1247. The original site was on the land which is now occupied by Liverpool Street Station - Liverpool Street itself was once called Bethlem Road. As the years passed, it moved location a few times. Firstly to Moorfields, East London in 1676 on the site of what is now Finsbury Circus - this was known as New Bethlem - sadly the buildings for these are long gone.

Very early in its existence, the name 'Bethlem' had mutated into 'Bedlam' and this is how many would have referred to it, in fact some still do. Of course, these days it may seem a little distasteful and insensitive to use this name for the hospital. Use of the word expanded beyond just the name of the hospital and became ingrained in the English language as a way to describe a 'scene of uproar and confusion'.

bethlem royal hospital

Over the years the hospital went from being a shelter for travelling pilgrims through to being known as a lunatic asylum, mental hospital and finally a psychiatric hospital. It is generally thought that 1403 marks the time it truly became dedicated to mental health. In fact it is the world's longest running psychiatric hospital and the largest of its kind in the UK.

It has had dark times where the treatment of its patients was truly barbaric by today's standards; patients being restrained in chains and being beaten by staff were just considered normal. It was quite fashionable from around 1610 to visit the hospital as a form of entertainment, a kind of human zoo where fee-paying members of the public would take pleasure in watching the struggles and antics of the mentally ill patients.

meeting point

In 1815, it moved south of the river to St George's Fields and was housed in the building that we now know as the Imperial War Museum. The hospital building was much larger than what we see today as some parts were demolished once the hospital left this site. It was around this time it came under the ownership of the crown and picked up its Royal prefix where it became one of the five royal hospitals of the City of London. The architect Augustus Pugin, who designed the Palace of Westminster, was a patient here in 1852 shortly before he died.

1930 is when the hospital moved to its current location in Beckenham, South East London and became Bethlem Royal. It sits in 365 acres of grounds which were formerly part of the Monks Orchard Estate. Sadly the original centrepiece of the estate, 'Monks Orchard House', which was one of the most substantial mansions in the area, was demolished during the construction of the hospital buildings.

there was a very large contingent of tourists present and we posed for a group photo

The newly designed buildings left behind the hospital's grim past and ushered in fresh new approach to the treatment of its patients. They are mostly one-two story buildings and are pleasantly spaced to have a 'village feel' with many areas of green/trees/flowers in between. It wasn't long before the NHS was created and the hospital was amalgamated with the famous Maudsley hospital in Camberwell.

In a pioneering move, the hospital became the first NHS facility to have a weekly parkrun held entirely within its grounds, and of course this makes perfect sense as exercise is a well-known way to stay healthy in both body and mind. The event is fittingly called Bethlem Royal Hospital parkrun. We visited the event in June 2019 and took part in event 5. We travelled by car and upon entry followed the signs to the free car park within the grounds of the hospital. The advice is to leave 10 minutes to walk from the entrance/car park to the meeting point of the event - possibly a bit longer if you need to visit the toilet.

the new quiet signs and the start

The closest train station is Eden Park and although it is only a few hundred metres from the course, there is no direct access at this point. Instead you need to walk just over a kilometre to the main entrance, so be sure to leave enough time to complete the journey plus the advised 10 minutes from the main entrance. If arriving by bicycle you will find bicycle racks within the main hospital near the 'Bethlem Museum of the Mind' or you could just take it with you to the meeting point where I imagine it'd be fairly safe.

If you are looking for the toilets you'll find them in-between the community cafe and swimming pool which are both clearly signposted and positioned quite nicely en-route to the start, which was also signposted albeit with temporary signs. The meeting point itself can be found at the edge of the wooded area as you head northwards. The briefings take place here before everybody walks through the woods to the start area.

the long line of participants heading off from the start

It's important to note that, given the nature of the hospital, there is a photography policy in place across the site. Essentially, you must not take photos around the main hospital areas of the buildings or of people/patients that you do not know. However, photography over in the vicinity of the parkrun is generally ok as long as you are mindful with regards to the policy. As you'll see I have still taken photos for use here on the blog to give a better visual idea of the course.

The course is made up of two anti-clockwise laps around the two large open grassy meadows that are nestled within the woods. They are mostly left to grow naturally with many wild-flowers and long grass present, but the hospital gardeners keep the path sections neatly mowed and this makes the course very easy to follow. Being private land, access to dog owners is very restricted, so for the purposes of parkrun dogs are not allowed. You will still find dog walkers present, but they are obliged to have pre-registered their dog with the hospital staff before being brought onsite.

the course

The start is fairly narrow so it's worth making the extra effort to line up in the most appropriate place for your intended pace. I was run-walking with my daughter and had my son in his running buggy, so we stayed almost right at the back to avoid holding anybody else up. Underfoot is almost entirely grass with just a few bits being dirt paths. As far as the hill profile goes, it's basically flat - you may notice the slightest change of elevation at points, but it's nothing more than that. You may also notice that the grass is a little bumpy in places (it's more noticeable if you're running with a buggy).

Although you may read or hear that it's a figure of eight course, I'd say an hourglass shape is a more accurate description as the course doesn't technically cross itself like an eight does. The transfer between the two meadows is via a short, but fairly narrow dirt path through the wooded area that separates them. It's down to single file in here and is two-way, helpfully you'll find cones to help you stick to the correct side of the path. During the wetter months, parts of the course become very soft underfoot. Trail shoes are highly advisable after significant rain or during the winter.

the course

The area is very pleasant and it feels like you're in the middle of the countryside even though it is technically in London. The grassy paths are quite fun to negotiate and they meander in a really pleasant, flowing way. You will of course find direction arrows and some lovely marshals on hand at various points around the course. Once the two laps are complete, the finish is found on the woodland path that you walked along to reach the start after the briefing. Once across the finish line you'll find barcode scanners waiting to scan your barcode and finish token.

Post-event the team move across to the onsite Community Cafe which is basic, but quite pleasant and because it isn't a fancy-pants place is really reasonably priced - we picked up a tea, two hot chocolates, a sandwich, some crisps, some chocolate and an ice cream for under £6! On a serious note, it is worth remembering that you are within a working psychiatric hospital environment so expect to see some residential patients around and be respectful of their needs.

the approach to the finish

The site has a Nature Trail which you can follow and this takes you through both the historic and newly planted orchards. Plus as mentioned above, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is located on-site, but the opening times are restricted, so if you would like to visit after parkrun you will need to do so on either the first or last Saturday of the month.

There's also an art gallery which is fitting as the hospital uses many of the arts as treatment programmes for its patients, in fact many of the featured artists have been patients over the years. The hospital also featured in an access-all-areas BAFTA-award-winning TV mental health documentary called 'Bedlam' which was aired on Channel 4 in 2013. I was going to watch it before visiting but sadly it wasn't available online when I checked.

Anyway, the results were soon processed and the results of the 280 participants published online. Event 5 saw a boost in numbers as Bromley parkrun (3km to the east) was cancelled.

To see the course in more detail you can take a look at my GPS data on Strava and there's also a Relive course fly-by video which you can find on YouTube.

Update: We revisited the venue in December 2022 and everything is exactly the same as it was when I first posted this write-up. I can also confirm that trail shoes are a must at this time of year - it was very squishy in places. It is advisable to have a change of shoes and socks. The typical number of participants each week is currently in the region of 60-80 people. There were 77 during our second visit. This venue has also become quite well known for its rubber duck collection - be sure to look out for them!

Related Links:

London Borough of Bromley parkrun write-ups:

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