Sunday 20 March 2022

Southall parkrun

Southall is a district of West London with a resident population of around 70,000 people. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'æt súð healum' and 'súð heal' which reflects on the area being at the south corner of the land or woods. Over the years it has also been known as Suhaull, Sudhale, and Southold (or Southolt) where Northolt was at the northern end.

The area was once part of the chapelry of Norwood when it would have largely been farmland outside of London and the oldest building still standing in Southall is the Elizabethan Manor House. The Grand Junction Canal (Later know as the  Grand Union Canal) was constructed between 1793-1805 and passes through the area. An interesting local feature is the Three Bridges (aka Windmill Bridge) which was Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last major project to be completed before his death in 1859 - it allows the main road, the train line and the canal to cross each other at the same point.

The area has been home to many industries including film studios, locomotive works, Southall Gas Works, AEC who built London buses for 50 years, and to a Quaker Oats factory which produced Sugar Puffs until it closed in 2016. Heathrow airport is close by and from the 1950s this directly contributed to Southall becoming home to a large South Asian community where many took up the opportunities on offer to work in a local factories and in Heathrow Airport itself.

Southall is also known as Little India and features 10 Sikh Gurdwaras. One of these, The Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha is said to be the largest Sikh temple outside of India. It cost £17.5 million to construct and opened in 2003. There are also 2 Hindu temples and 3 mosques. Interestingly, the now-closed pub The Glassy Junction was the first pub in the UK to accept Indian Rupees as payment.

The Southall Rail Crash happened in 1997 when a passenger train driver ran a red signal while travelling at 125mph and despite applying the brakes collided with a goods train at around 80mph. 7 people were killed and 139 were injured. There is a memorial plaque and garden next to the train station.

In the 17th century a prominent family who owned much of the local land were the Merricks. They had a house called either Southall Haw or Shepherds Haw and this was located in what is now Southall Park. The house later became a private asylum but burnt down in 1883 killing 6 people. The grounds were taken over by the local council who then, between 1910 and 1920, constructed new paths, a bandstand, a boating lake, pavilion, various sports areas and a playground.

The modern-day park features some of the original features plus some new additions such as updated play facilities, a water cascade and a mosaic globe. Sadly the boating lake and the bandstand are no longer here. On 8 January 2022 the park became home to a free, weekly 5km walking and running event called Southall parkrun. I visited on 19 March 2022 to take part in event 11.

I travelled by car (after dropping the family off at St Pancras on the way) and upon arrival headed for Green Drive which runs along the eastern border of the park. This is the best place to attempt to park, but be warned that it is extremely popular so a space is not guaranteed. If it is full, you may also find some space on Knowsley Avenue or Argyll Avenue but most of the houses have driveways which reduces the on-street parking considerably. The side streets to west of the park have parking restrictions that start from 10am, so theoretically could work depending on your post-parkrun plans.

Using public transport, you'll find the 195, 207, 427, 607 and the E5 buses will get you to Southall. The closest mainline train station is Southall and this is just a few minutes walk away from the park. Southall is one of only 8 train stations in the country to feature bilingual signage, so you'll see Gurmukhi, which is the official script of the Punjabi language, alongside the English text. Southall is part of the Crossrail project, so once the Elizabeth Line is fully operational this will open up further travel options. If you happen to be cycling, I didn't see any racks, but the park is surrounded by wrought iron fences so I'm sure you'll have no trouble with securing one.

As for toilets, there are none in the park. Alternative options for a toilet could be; the McDonalds on the corner of Uxbridge Road and Greenford Road just to the east of the park (I stopped here on the way to the park) or a different McDonalds to the west on Uxbridge Road - both are approx 1km away from the park's main entrance. There is a Lidl, also on Uxbridge Road. I haven't checked this out personally so cannot confirm, but Lidl opens at 8am and many branches have customer toilets. There are also apparently toilets within Southall Train Station but on the other side of the ticket barriers, so that's another option. Particularly useful if you are travelling by train.

The park can best be described as compact but very well presented, with meandering paths coupled with some wider tree-lined avenues. The parkrun takes place over a three-and-a-bit lap course which is almost entirely on tarmac paths. The only bits that aren't are a very short section on a gravelly/stony path which you encounter three times, and the finish which is on the grass. The start/finish area is on the western tree-lined avenue just next to the central 'roundabout' which looks like it could have once been the location of the bandstand (I've looked at a map from 1940 and I'm convinced it is, you can also see where the water feature was).

To cover the course in more detail, the start is on the western avenue and the participants head to the west and complete a loop of the inner south-western grass field. Upon reaching the roundabout, it is then three full laps which largely, but not exclusively, follow the perimeter of the park. On the way around you'll get to tackle most of the meandering paths, of which I am a huge fan. Plus there is the tiniest bridge to cross that takes you over the water cascade (sadly was not operational when I was here), so tiny that it's little more than a speed bump, but I enjoyed it. You'll also find marshals in all the right places around the course and they seem to come pre-charged with bags of enthusiasm.

There are a few very tight corners (ie more than 90 degrees) so they may interrupt your flow if you are pushing for a decent time but otherwise it is a flat and fast course. Also, as you go along the western border next to the tennis courts, there is a circular brick structure, which I'm guessing is for flowers, right in the middle of the path, so pay attention otherwise you may have a nasty surprise. Also if you look at the official course page, you may notice the lines showing the course have not been overlaid correctly on the map - you can view my GPS data on Strava for a more accurate overlay.

The finish is back where it all started but on the grass and after finishing there were treats in the form of samosas on offer to all to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi. This brings me nicely round to the locals, and you can feel straight away that there is a strong sense of community here and it was good to see a significant number of walkers and other people that do not necessarily fit the stereotypical image of a 'runner'. It seems to perfectly capture the ethos of parkrun.

The results were published just a short time later and there were 113 participants at event number 11. The average number of participants currently stands at 168.6. With the morning's exercise done, it was time to go and explore the surrounding area, I wandered along the busy High Street with all its amazing colours and smells, I also found the Manor House, the War Memorial, the Southall Rail Crash Memorial Garden, and the huge, and stunning, Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha.

A huge thanks goes to the team involved in putting on the day's event. What a great morning!

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