Sunday 5 September 2021

Burgess parkrun

Nestled on the boundaries of the districts of Bermondsey, Peckham, Camberwell and Walworth, in the London Borough of Southwark you will find Burgess Park, which at 56 hectares is the largest park in the borough. Quite often, the land used for public parks are natural areas that have been bequeathed to, or bought by, the local council in order to establish a park. The origins story of Burgess Park is quite different.

The area that the park occupies was until the end of the Second World War mostly covered in dense housing and factories served by The Grand Surrey Canal since its construction in the very early 1800s. There were also a few smaller patches of recreational land, which now also form parts of the park. In 1943 a plan for the future development of London (known as the Abercrombie Plan) was written and the suggestion that a proper park should be created was born from that.

Many of the commercial buildings had suffered significant bomb damage during the war, and those that weren't damaged were eventually abandoned as the increase of freight being moved around by road lead to the decline and subsequent closure of the canal. The buildings that hadn't been damaged were gradually bought and demolished. This was not a swift process and it took many years for this to take place.

The early 1970s saw the canal filled in which gave another boost to the slow pace of the creation of the park. It wasn't until 1973 that it was actually given it's current name, which is in honour to Jessie Burgess who was Camberwell's first female Mayor. She served two-terms, 1945-46, and then 1946-47. Before that it had simply been known as North Camberwell Open Space, but it was still a hodge-podge of separate unconnected parkland areas. It wasn't until 1982 that all the fragments of land finally came together as a joined-up park.

On a personal note, my Dad's side of the family historically lived in the vicinity of what is now the park and this dates back further than he can remember. My Nan and Grandad got married in St Georges Church in the 1950s. I also spent the first few years of my life living locally, and my first nursery school was just a stone's throw away from the park. I remember the playground from the early 1980s which had the longest, fastest, scariest (and most brilliant) slide I had ever been on (probably not that scary, but I was only about 3 years old). If memory serves, it also had gymnastic rings and parallel bars, which were quite unusual for a children's playground.

The modern day park has recently had a multi-million-pound makeover which has freshened up some of the older facilities and added some new features. There are three playgrounds, tennis courts, football pitches (I remember playing rounds of the Metropolitan Police five-a-side football competition here as a child/teenager), BBQ area, community arts projects, gardens, and a lake. It's also home to 'BMX Track London' which is a world-class 350-metre-long BMX facility. Peckham BMX Club are based here and one of their riders recently won a silver medal at the Japan 2020 (2021) Olympics.

Since September 2012, the park has also been home to a free, 5k event on Saturday mornings called Burgess parkrun. I originally visited this venue in March 2013, but wanted to revisited as I felt that the original write-up didn't quite do this place the justice it deserves, plus I wanted to see how the event has matured. The course that was used in 2013 is no longer in use - if you are interested in the original course, links to my 2013 GPS data and the Relive course fly-by video can be found at the bottom of this page. 

The park has a small car park (25 spaces) just off of Albany Road - it is free for up to four hours. There are some local side streets that allow weekend parking, notably the roads around Addington Square and also along Albany Road.

The park is quite long and has entrances at both the Old Kent Road end and the Camberwell Road (Walworth Road) end - they are both well served by large number of local buses, but please note that you need to be at the Camberwell Road end for the start of the parkrun. There are a few cycle racks just inside this entrance, but fill up quickly - there are other cycle racks dotted around, but may not be so convenient. If travelling by train, you could head for Elephant and Castle, Loughborough Junction or Denmark Hill, or by tube to Elephant and Castle, Oval or Kennington (Kennington is the closest tube by a fraction, but Elephant and Castle has the most straightforward route to the park for anyone not familiar with the area).

Toilets, changing facilities, showers and lockers are all available inside the tennis centre which is right next to the start area. The course is a difficult one to categorise in terms of its layout - I think the best I can do is to say that it's an out-and-back with a loop at the end (but the way back has some slight variations). The profile is flat with just the slightest hint of some undulations at the eastern end of the course. Underfoot is tarmac with a stretch of grass at the very end, so I can safely say it's a road shoe course all year round, and it's perfectly fine for running buggies and wheelchair users.

The current (2024) average number of attendees stands at 296.9, but this does not tell the complete story. A quick look through the results reveals very large peaks and troughs from week to week - these may been down to bad weather, or nearby events cancelling etc. In 2020, just before the Covid lockdown, the event had been attracting over 600 people on a regular basis. At time of writing, the record attendance is 884, set in January 2020. The current (2024) attendance figures seem to be hovering around the 500 mark.

Starting outside the tennis courts, the course heads east along the perfectly straight main path. Please be aware that this path is also a cycle route and is very well-used by cyclists. Along here you'll spot many of the parks interesting features. The first one is the Grade II Listed Lime Kiln - it was built in 1816 and would be used to produce 'quicklime' which was used in mortar for houses and in agricultural fertilizer.

Looking beyond the park's boundaries, you may be able to spot the remaining buildings of the Aylesbury Estate, built in typical 1960's grey brutalist concrete. It is as imposing and deprived as the appearance suggests. The estate originally consisted of 2,700 flats which housed around 10,000 people. It is currently undergoing a major regeneration plan, and you can see some of the new buildings from the park. In the far distance you should be able to clearly make out the distinctive shape of The Shard, at London Bridge. 

The course then heads through an underpass which takes you under Wells Way which from 1913 was home to Camberwell Central Cinema, past St Georges Church and into the eastern section of the park. You may also spot the building across the road with the butterfly mural on the side - This was originally built as the Passmore Edwards Library, Baths and Wash House. The butterfly on the side is the Camberwell Beauty, a butterfly that is not native to the UK but is sometimes found. The species' UK name came about after two were found in Camberwell in 1748.

The eastern side of the park is where you will find the 'Bridge to Nowhere'. At first glance its presence can be a little confusing, but when you realise you are running along the route of the former Grand Surrey Canal, it all makes perfect sense. The bridge was constructed in 1906, and I think it's fantastic to see such a feature left in situ long after it was originally in use. There was a period when it was closed, but as of 2024 it has been reopened and you can walk across it.

After just over a kilometre since the start, the course takes a couple of left hand turns and heads back westwards. Somewhere around this part of the park is where the original R.Whites drinks factories and depots were located from 1887. The company employed hundreds of local people and are probably most famous for their 'secret lemonade drinker' adverts in the 1970s and beyond. Another big manufacturer was 'Watkins Bible Bookbinding Factory' who again employed hundreds of local people where they produced up to a million bibles every year.

It's worth noting that Burgess parkrun doesn't appear to use any course signage, so you will have to rely on the marshals in order to navigate the course. They were stationed in many places around the park, but there are still a few points where a wrong turn could be made. I would recommend having a detailed look at the official course map (and perhaps some GPS data and a Relive video) before visiting. Also the narrowest section of course is where you may encounter two-way parkrunners - my wife and daughter had an issue here where some faster runners were running three-abreast, taking up the entire width of the path and forced them onto the grass.

The route then takes in a single loop of the lake (when I first ran here in 2013, the course was slightly different and featured two loops of the lake). You briefly leave the perimeter of the lake at the top end where the course reaches its highest point. You may not spot it, but just outside the park is the former Thomas-a-Becket pub which is famous for its boxing training ring upstairs. This is where former British, Commonwealth and European Heavyweight title-holder Henry Cooper used to train. David Bowie was known to have used one of the pub's rooms as a rehearsal space in the 1970s.

This northern section is nice as it passes through a denser area of trees, and at the end you rejoin the lakeside perimeter path. The lake is a man-made feature and when it was constructed it featured the largest plastic lining ever produced. It holds around 12 million gallons of water and is home to a large number of fish. The eastern half is used for fishing while the western half is purely ornamental.

The rest of the parkrun route is, broadly speaking, a case of heading back along the same paths that were used on the way out, with the small addition of an extra dog-leg before heading back along the former canal path back under the bridge to nowhere, then through the underpass. Instead of continuing along the main path, the course now veers slightly to the left onto a different path before finally moving onto grass (it's a little bumpy underfoot) for the final 50 metres or so where you'll find the finish line.

As this venue can have very high numbers of finishers, it has a long, windy funnel before reaching the volunteers handing out tokens. With the 5km and barcode scanning complete, it's time to move on - the official post-event refreshments are at Fowlds Cafe which is just outside the park behind the tennis courts. As of 2024 the cafe itself seems to be closed, but they have a pop-up option just next door. An alternative would be to use the cafe at the tennis courts which is run by the charity 'Burgess Sports'. Or you can head across to the other side of the park where you will find the Park Life Cafe.

An interesting event takes place each September - The four parkruns in the borough of Southwark have an event called the 'Southwark Slam'. This is where people are invited to visit all four of Southwark's parkruns (Burgess, Southwark, Peckham Rye, and Dulwich) during the month. A brilliant idea which I'm sure really helps to maintain a great community between the four venues.

The results for event 388 were processed and published later that morning. 397 people had completed the 5k. This was spot-on the current expected number. I recorded the route with my Garmin and the full GPS trace of the course can be viewed on my Strava account, here: Burgess parkrun #388. The GPS data was also transferred to Relive and the course fly-by video can be viewed, here: Burgess parkrun course fly-by. We revisited in January 2024 where the attendance figures were over 700.

After giving the kids some time to test out one of the playgrounds, we headed off to visit my parents just around the corner in Bermondsey. It was really nice to spend some time in a park that I visited quite often as a young child. A final point to note is that this is a very busy park. The sheer number of non-parkrun people in the park at 9am on a Saturday was incredible. There are so many things going on, and that's a great thing to see. The team of volunteers were wonderful and I can only offer my thanks for making us feel so welcome at their event.

Related Links:

Other Southwark Slam venue write-ups:

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