Sunday 4 August 2019

Walmer and Deal Seafront parkrun

The towns of Walmer and Deal are found on the east coast of Kent. Although technically separate they are contiguous and indeed share many amenities. They have a combined population of around 40,000 people with Deal, the larger of the two, being home to around three-quarters of this figure. The towns are fairly residential and their seafronts are picturesque and quite natural in character.

The two towns, together with Sandown to the north, sit in a strategically important place, as just six miles off the coast lies the 16km long sandbank called Goodwin Sands. Sitting right next to The Dover Strait (the busiest shipping lane in the world) has lead to it becoming notorious for claiming sea vessels that sail too close. Over the years around 2,000 ships have become wrecked here. The area between the sandbank and the coastline is called The Downs and, maintaining the delicate balance of nature, this provides ships safe refuge from bad weather.

walmer castle / julius caesar etc...

These features also contributed to this stretch of coast being an ideal place to land a ship. In fact, Walmer is said to be the place where Julius Caesar landed in 55BC and 54BC (Update: New evidence suggests the actual land point is more likely to have been further along the coast at Pegwell Bay). The ease of landing ships here meant it was a high risk as an entry point for an invading army, and with poor relations with both France and the Holy Roman Empire, King Henry VIII ordered the building of a chain of defensive Device Forts at strategic places around the south of England.

A line of three stone forts (castles) with earthwork defences and Bulwarts in between was constructed in around 1539-1541. Deal Castle was the largest of these with Walmer Castle and Sandown Castle making up the trio. Together they were known as the Castles of the Downs, and while Deal and Walmer Castles are intact, Sandown suffered from coastal erosion followed by being partially demolished for its stone and is now effectively a ruin that has been incorporated into the local sea defences.

walmer and deal seafront parkrun

We visited the towns on 3 August 2019 to take part in the 48th running of Walmer and Deal Seafront parkrun. The official course page directs visitors to park in the Kingsdown Road car park (free of charge) which is conveniently placed right next to the toilets (open from 7am) at the southern end of the course - from here it's a kilometre on-foot along the seafront to the start/finish area. For the record, the roads immediately adjacent to the start/finish do not have any parking restrictions.

If traveling by train, both Walmer Station and Deal Station are around 2km from the start, so take your pick as to which one you alight at. Although if you need to visit the toilets, you may find that Deal Station is the better option as a second set of toilets are available for use on Marine Road (also open from 7am), which is en-route. I couldn't see any cycle racks at the start but there is a barrier/fence alongside the road that all the parkrunning cyclists were using.

start area / opening section

The 5k event started on 15 September 2018 and attracts around 200 participants each Saturday morning (at time of writing, the official current average is 195.1). The course is effectively an out-and-back along the seafront (no surprise there given the event's name!) but the start/finish is in the middle rather than at the end of the out-and-back, so you head 1.5km out-and-back to the north and then 1km out-and-back to the south.  Underfoot is tarmac and the course is flat.

Starting at Walmer Green adjacent to the road called The Beach, the route heads to the north towards Deal with the stony beach to the right and grassy lawns to the left. The path is of a fairly regular width with a designated cycle path running along one side of it. It's worth keeping an eye out for the benches which could pose a hazard during the opening section as they take up a bit of space on the path. After just a hundred metres or so, take a glance to your left where you may see the commemorative stone marking the approximate location of Julius Caesar's landing point.

deal castle / timeball tower

The cycle path seemed to be fairly busy when we visited, so take great care if close to it and avoid running in it - this can be difficult until the field spreads out, but try to be patient as a collision with a cyclist is not desirable for either party or the volunteers. You soon pass The Downs Sailing Club which is opposite the post-run cafe 'The Sea Cafe'.

These are followed by the RNLI Walmer Lifeboat Station and the bandstand. If a lifeboat needs to launch you may find the parkrun route gets diverted mid-run, so pay attention to the marshals! Before you know it, Deal Castle comes into view - it has a keep with six inner and outer bastions, plus a dry moat. As you reach the castle you officially cross into Deal.

deal pier / embracing the sea statue

Continuing northwards past the fishing boats moored on the beach, you now find yourself running alongside the road rather than being flanked by the pleasant lawns. The next landmark to look out for is the Deal Timeball Tower, a four-storey white building facing the sea. The timeball is connected by electronic signal to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Since 1855 it has been dropped at 1pm every day, giving ships' navigators an accurate time reading by which to set their instruments. Of course these days, the navigators will have modern methods of timekeeping and navigation, so it's really just a tourist attraction. During the summer (tourist season) the ball is dropped on the hour throughout the day.

Deal Pier marks the turnaround point at the northern end of the course and this is gracefully handled in the form of a loop around a 10ft tall bronze statue called 'Embracing the Sea' which features a man in a boat lifting a fish from the water. The pier itself is the third in the town's history. The first having been destroyed by a storm and the second purposefully destroyed during the Second World War as an anti-invasion measure. The current pier with its 1960s-style concrete design, opened in 1957 by Prince Philip, is 1026ft long and has a three-tiered pier head.

heading back towards walmer

The course now heads back southwards back along the same route and if it's a clear day you stand a really good chance of seeing the coast of France just over 20 miles away. Once past the original start point, the course continues further into Walmer where the paths splits into two very distinct sections to separate the pedestrians from the cyclists. This end is much quieter and has no real landmarks until you reach the southern tip of the course which is just past the Kingsdown Road car park.

At the turnaround point you may just be able to see the top of Walmer Castle through the trees on the opposite side of the road. Walmer Castle is the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, which in modern times is a ceremonial post. Over the years it has been held by politicians including William Pitt the Younger and Sir Winston Churchill, and by royalty such as King Henry VIII, Prince George (King George V) and The Queen Mother. It's also worth noting that this stretch of the course crosses the cycle path twice, so listen out for any instructions given by the marshals as you approach.

the walmer out-and-back

All that's left to do now is head back to the start/finish area. There's one section where the route briefly follows a different path but you are soon filtered back onto the main one. With the 5k complete, barcodes are scanned adjacent to the finish and then its over to The Sea Cafe for breakfast etc. I had the vegan breakfast which was nice, but for some reason they put butter on the toast which was disappointing.

We followed this with a lovely day out in the town, where we visited Deal Castle (my daughter managed to run into a historic cannon and spent the rest of the day with a golf ball-sized lump on her forehead - other than that she was fine), watched the timeball drop - the ball rises half-way at five-to the hour, rises all the way to the top 2 minutes later and then slowly drops precisely on the hour. We also walked to the end of the pier, had some sorbet on the beach and generally just relaxed while enjoying the atmosphere and the sun.

finish area / cafe

The results for event 48 were published shortly after the event and 228 people took part. I can confirm that the course is quick in good conditions, but as with all seafront venues, your time may suffer if there's a strong wind coming off the sea. The full GPS course data can be found on my Strava account and the relive course video can be found on YouTube. Finally, a huge thanks to all the brilliant volunteers.

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