Sunday 11 August 2019

Tonbridge parkrun

Tonbridge is a historic market town in Kent. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as Tonebridge and was known for centuries after as Tunbridge. The origin of the name is not certain, but it is thought to have come from either; an estate, manor or farm (Tun) with a bridge, a bridge belonging to Tunna (an Anglo Saxon name), or simply a contraction of 'town of bridges' owing to the high number of streams the high street would have crossed.

Following much confusion with the newer spa town of Tunbridge Wells, in 1870 the post office had the name of the town changed from Tunbridge to Tonbridge. Even with the change, the pronunciation stayed the same [Tun-brij] which continues to this day. The wider borough of Tonbridge and Malling has a population of around 40,000 people.


One of the main features of the town is the motte-and-bailey castle, Tonbridge Castle. The original wooden structure was built by Richard Fitz Gilbert who had been awarded 176 Lordships following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The current Gatehouse was commissioned by Richard's descendant Richard de Clare. It took 30 years to build and was completed in 1260. Tonbridge is also famous for its public boys' school Tonbridge School, which dates back to 1553.

The town also features a public park, Tonbridge Racecourse Sportsground, which is just off the High Street. It sits on land which was used for horse racing for a period of 23 years from 1851 until 1874. The park covers 69 acres and has facilities such as sports pitches, a playground, and mini-golf. Next door is Tonbridge Swimming Pool which has indoor and outdoor pools (they are linked, so you can easily transfer between the two without getting out of the water).

briefing / start

The park became home to Tonbridge parkrun on 9 November 2013, and I attended that very first event. Since that date, the original course has been modified, so almost 6 years after writing my original blog, I popped back over to see how things are going and to write this update. The first thing to note is that the event has grown. A lot. On any given week, you would have to expect the number of attendees to top 500, but this seems to be increasing to 600 with a handful of occasions being over 700.

The meeting point for the event is just inside the park, next to the River Medway, opposite the swimming pool. For those arriving by car, there is a car park at the swimming pool called 'Lower Castle Field Car Park', but given the numbers of people attending, it will probably fill up long before 9am. The closest alternative is just a few hundred metres away outside Tonbridge Castle and this is 'Upper Castle Field Car Park'. Current fees are £1.40 for an hour, £2.80 for two, or £4.20 for three. Both car parks can be paid for using RingGo, but please note that they have different location codes, so make sure you pick the correct one.

opening stretch

If taking the train, Tonbridge Station is only a short walk away from the park. For any cyclists, there are fences around the park which will come in handy for securing a bicycle. There are also some bike racks outside the swimming pool. There are a few options for toilets - the swimming pool has some, also there are some more within the park less than 50 metres from the start area, and there are also some just next to the old Tonbridge Fire Station which is next to the Castle.

The course is run on an out-and-back lollipop-style route. The start section is of course in the park, but this event has a lot more to offer than just the park! It's a flat course and underfoot you will find mostly tarmac paths, but some are a little muddy/splashy when the weather turns. It's absolutely fine for buggy running too. The initial footpath is way too narrow to accommodate the entire field of participants so there is quite a wide spread of people across the grass as the course meanders along next to the river.

cycle route / bridges

It's not long before the route crosses the first of seven different river crossings which takes you into the other side of the park. There is a mini out-and-back here, which feeds the participants onto Cycle Route 12 - this links Tonbridge via a mostly-traffic-free route to the village of Penshurst, which, incidentally, is where you'll find Kingdom parkrun (my venue blog). The majority of Tonbridge parkrun is on this cycle route, so keep an eye out for cyclists.

The course then leaves the park by passing under the railway line (watch your head if you're tall) and heads onto the tree-lined path that leads towards Haysden Country Park. The path eventually opens out to a decent width, however the next few bridge crossings are essentially single file, so things may get a little congested at points depending on your position in the field. Keep an eye out for the World War Two pill box nestled inside the bushes.

haysden country park / barden lake

After crossing Lucifer Bridge (concentrate on your footing, it can be a tiny bit slippery) and Little Lucifer Bridge, there's another section through woodland as you enter Haysden Country Park, and as you cross the seventh bridge, the glorious sight of Barden Lake comes into view. The lake itself is not a natural feature - it is the result of a sand and gravel extraction pit which was in operation during the 1970s and 1980s. If the regular route is being used, you complete a full lap of the lake before heading back. However there is a 'B' route which has a turnaround point halfway around the lake.

The remainder of the 5k is just a simple case of re-tracing your footsteps all the way back over all the bridges (making it 14 crossings in total), under the train line, along the mini-out-and-back and back around to the original meeting point, which has now become the finish. It's worth noting that depending on where you are in the field you may have two-way runners/walkers on some of those single-file bridges. This will mostly affect those towards the front and back of the field.

bridges / a view / cycle route

Personal barcodes and finishing tokens are scanned right next to the finish, and with over 500 participants you may have to be patient in a queue, but that's just a perfect opportunity to chat to fellow parkrunners, isn't it? The post-event coffee takes place in the Swimming Pool Cafe, but there's no way that it'll accommodate everybody. Fear not, Tonbridge High Street has a nice selection of cafes (both big brands and independent) and also a Wetherspoons in case you need an alternative.

I recorded the route on my Garmin and you can view the GPS data via my Strava account. You can also see a Relive course fly-by video on my YouTube channel. Also, a few years ago, we made a video of the course - it was filmed using just our mobile phones, and I think it worked out pretty well considering. The results for event 300 were published shortly after and 462 people took part - slightly down on a regular week probably due to the forecast for strong, gusty winds. Finally, a big thanks to all of the volunteers without whom the event couldn't happen.

approaching the finish [left and bottom right photos: scott wishart]

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