Sunday 25 July 2021

The Leas parkrun, Minster-on-Sea (Isle of Sheppey)

The Isle of Sheppey is an island just off the north coast of Kent and separated from the mainland by the water channel called The Swale. Its name comes from the Old English word 'Sceapig' which means Sheep Island. It was at one time known as the Isles of Sheppey owing to the fact that it used to be three separate islands - the water channels have since silted up leaving the land as just one island.

It has always been an important strategic point as it sits adjacent to the Thames Estuary. A fort was built in the town of Sheerness by King Henry VIII to protect the entrance to the River Medway as this lead to Chatham Dockyard which otherwise would have vulnerable to attack. In fact the Island has historically been a place susceptible to invasion; the first known Viking raid in southern England took place here in 835, this was followed by many more. Subsequently the Dutch army occupied the island for a few days in 1667 - this was the first time a foreign power had done so since 1066.

Isle of Sheppey, The Leas

The island also has aviation history. The Aero Club of Great Britain was set up here and the Wright Brothers are known to have visited. The founder of the club, Lord Brabazon, made what is thought to be the first live-animal cargo flight when he tied a basket to his plane and transported a pig. He subsequently became the first person to qualify as a pilot in the UK.

There are known to be around 200 shipwrecks off the coast of the island, but the most famous of these is the SS Richard Montgomery which ran aground and sank in 1944. The reason for it being so well known is that it was carrying approximately 1,400 tonnes of explosives at the time. It has always been considered too dangerous to attempt to salvage them, so they remain onboard about a mile off the coast. An exclusion zone is in place and its three masts are still visible above the sea. It is constantly monitored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Wet beginnings [right photo credit: Debbie Hodgson]

The island is home to three prisons which combined hold just under 3,000 prisoners. On the east of the island, Leysdown-on-Sea is home to the highest concentration of chalets and caravan parks in Kent. Modern-day Sheppey includes the Port of Sheerness which is one of the major ports in the UK. It is thought to be the largest point of entry for foreign car imports, but also handles large quantities of fruits, vegetables and meats.

The existence of the port has been responsible for the introduction of one of the islands most unexpected residents - Scorpions! It is thought that they arrived on cargo ships in the 1860s, and it is estimated that there are in the region of 10-15,000 of them residing in the colony which is centred around the port. The London Clay which forms the island makes it a prime spot for fossil hunting and is known for providing paleontologists with almost all the known examples of 'Dasornis', a 50 million year old prehistoric seabird with a wingspan of at least 5 metres. 

mid-run / turn-around points [bottom left photo credit: Debbie Hodgson]

The town of Minster-on-Sea is named after the monastery that used to be here, and now it is home to Kent's 22nd 5k parkrun, which goes by the name of The Leas parkrun, Minster. Interestingly a Sheppey is also an obscure, humorous unit of measurement. A Sheppey is equal to 7/8 Mile (1.4km) and is said to be the optimum distance that you should be from a sheep for it to look picturesque. So I think it only fitting that this parkrun's distance should be referred to as being 3.57 Sheppeys.

The Leas is the name of the road and promenade which runs alongside Minster Leas Beach. We visited the venue on 24th July 2021, then revisited 22 April 2023, and on both occasions parked for free alongside the seafront. If travelling by train, the nearest station is over in Sheerness which is three miles down the road, but I am reliably informed that there is a bus that runs between the two towns. There is also a traffic-free cycle route along the sea from Sheerness to Minster Leas, so cycling would be another reasonable option for navigating that final stretch.

The Leas [left photo credit: Debbie Hodgson]

The parkrun starts right outside the Sweet Hut which is at a lower level than the road, so that's the spot to head for. Toilet facilities are present. Firstly, there's a toilet block a few minutes away at the junction with The Broadway - this is fairly dated and had no toilet paper when we first visited in 2021. This toilet was closed on our second visit in April 2023. This was due to a fire in January 2023. Alternatively, if you head east along The Leas, there is another toilet block just outside a car park which is a newer and much nicer option.

The course is effectively a double out-and-back starting from the Sweet Hut and heading east to the end of the footpath. However, the first 'back' does not return all the way to the original start point. You could say that it's an out-and partial-back, followed by a partial-out and-back. The finish is back at the Sweet Hut. My GPS data on Strava and the Relive video are probably both better resources to show the course properly.

The finish

Underfoot is beautifully smooth tarmac and the profile is flat apart from a small bump as you pass the aforementioned toilets next to the car park. Being a seafront event, there is always the threat of wind, and the day we visited in 2021 had a strong headwind blowing from the east. To make it worse, it was also raining at first. Thankfully the rain eased off about 10 minutes into the event. The plus side was that we had a tailwind when heading back along the seafront, so that was nice. During our second visit, in April 2023, there was no wind at all.

The eastern section (after the bump) goes through the dog-friendly zone, so you may find a number of loose dogs running around at this end. You also get to run past the 35 colourful beach huts which add a bit of variation to the scenery around the route. Another thing worth bearing in mind is that the course is on a shared-use path with bicycles, so keep an eye out for those.

Post event

The official average number of participants stands at 124 at the time of writing in 2021, so it's quite a nice-sized event to attend. We took part in event number 25, which was the very first post-covid-shutdown event and the number of finishers was slightly lower than the average at 81, which was to be expected. The official average was 89.6 when we revisited in 2023. Everything seemed to run smoothly, the volunteers were fab and we received our results text messages while still hanging out on the stony beach.

Still living in this strange covid world, we decided to avoid any post-event mingling so didn't visit the post-event social venues (The Playa and The Beach Bar are mentioned on the official page). We didn't actually have any post-parkrun plans so once we had exhausted everything the beach had to offer, we headed back on the short drive home for lunch, grateful that the opportunity to have these experiences had finally come around again.

When we revisited on 22 April 2023 for event number 114 exactly 100 people took part. The only difference I spotted was that one set of toilets were closed (as noted above). Everything else was identical. Again the volunteers were wonderful so a big thank you to all involved.

Related links:

Relive Video (2021)

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