Saturday 2 April 2022

Highwoods parkrun

Colchester is a historic market town (which now has city status) in Essex, and quite possibly the oldest recorded town in Britain. It has a population of around 140,000 people. It was the first major Roman City in Roman Britain and for a time it was the capital. It was awarded city status as part of the 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations, which puts it in the very unique position of being both the oldest and the newest city in the country. In pre-Roman times it would have been known as Camulodunum, but the Romans officially called it Colonia Victricensis. The city was eventually destroyed in AD61 during Boudica's rebellion.

It's a great place to visit if you are interested in Roman history and new Roman discoveries are still being unearthed to this day. Along with that, the town also has many other historic buildings, and there are many Grade II listed structures ranging from the 12th century right through to the 20th century. There is also the medieval Colchester Castle which was built on the original vault of the earlier Roman Temple of Claudius. There are of course many other interesting historical buildings and stories from the town.

Just to the north of the town centre you will find the area of Highwoods (sometimes styled as High Woods) and the centrepiece of the area is the 150 acre High Woods Country Park which was opened in 1987 after Colchester Borough Council acquired the land to protect it from development. The country park features a small portion of what was once a medieval royal hunting forest called Kingswood plus sections of arable farmland. The park features all sorts of habitats from ancient woodland to meadows, scrub and marshland. All these supporting a vast array of wildlife.

The park has a visitor centre, walking trails, picnic areas, fishing lake, view points and a few children's playgrounds. In March 2019 it became home to a 5km running/walking event called Highwoods parkrun. I visited on 2 April 2022 and took part in event number 92. Sadly I was a few weeks too early to see the forest's display of bluebells which pop up on the forest floor every year.

There are 17 entry points - most are pedestrian only, but two have car parks. The main entrance is on Turner Road however this is not the best place to head for as the parkrun starts and finishes on the opposite side of the park. The recommended entry point is the Chanterelle Entrance - this also has a car park but parkrunners are asked not to park here. It is also noted that parkrunners should not park on the adjacent residential streets. The advertised parking arrangement is to use the nearby Tesco Extra which allows up to three hours of free parking (if you exceed that you'll get a ticket).

If arriving by train, you would alight at Colchester station and head east - the route on foot may be a little tricky, especially as you'll enter the country park a fair distance from the parkrun meeting point so best to take some time to plan this beforehand (and leave some extra time in case you get lost). For cyclists the town seems to have some infrastructure in place and part of this runs into the park itself. There were no bicycle racks that I could see, but there are wooden fences that will do for securing a bike. The closest toilets are located in the Tesco Extra (just inside the entrance on the left), so that ties in nicely with the car parking arrangement. However there are also toilets in the country park over at the Turner Road entrance - this is about 1km away from the parkrun start area.

Once at the parkrun meeting point just inside the Chanterelle entrance there is a first timers briefing (aka first timers welcome) and then the main briefing. The course here is largely off-road so you'll be well advised to wear your trail shoes, especially in the winter months. The actual route may vary from time to time as there are summer and winter courses. I took part at the beginning of April and the winter course was still in operation. My understanding is that the summer course may be slightly hillier overall than the winter course (but not by much).

As the clock strikes 9am the event gets underway. Both courses are effectively single lap routes that have quite a few identical sections. The summer course does have some parts on grass which are omitted from the winter course. Whether you take part on the summer or winter course you will start at the same place, and this is one of the highest points of the park. After a little undulating opening stretch the course heads along a fairly steep downhill section and into the centre of the country park. See if you can spot the googly eyed fallen tree.

For a large portion of the event you will be on fairly wide forest paths, but there are some sections that use tarmac, and there's also a couple of short stretches on loose stones. Even through most of the course runs through the forest, some sections are quite open with grass fields to the sides. There are plenty of ups and downs as you progress around the course, some gentle and some a bit harder. At some points you can see the undulations stretching out on front of you which I thought was pretty cool. Most of the paths are also designated cycle routes so keep your eyes peeled for cyclists (I only saw one).

If you happen to be a buggy runner I think you'll generally be ok here if you are happy to deal with the hills. The main thing I'd note is that the steep downhill could cause the buggy to pick up a significant amount of speed so be cautious as it is near the beginning meaning there'll still be a fair amount of other participants close-by to look out for. As always with parkrun events, you'll find some wonderful marshals dotted around the course - they were mostly positioned at turnaround points and junctions and were always a welcome sight after conquering a hill.

The finish sections of the two courses are different. The summer course does not finish exactly where it starts, but the winter course does. Either way, you'll have to make your way back up to the high point of the park from the lowest point. The course I ran had me going back up the hill that we had descended at the beginning and I'm not ashamed to say that I walked a fair chunk of it. Before I knew it I was back where it all started and had crossed the finish line. I had my barcode scanned and was happy that I could finally take a break. If you'd like to see the course in more detail please take a look at my GPS data and the Relive course fly-by video.

I think it would be fair to describe this event as intimate. They don't have a huge number of participants here, but the number can bounce around from week-to-week. When I took part at event 92 there were 43 finishers, but the official average is currently 102.3. Before the Covid lockdown there were regularly in excess of 100 people but since the return there are more likely to be between 40 and 80 people taking part each week. It's a great place for it and I was made to feel very welcomed by everyone I spoke to.

The official post-event refreshment venue is the Harris + Hoole cafe inside the Tesco Extra which is perfect if you've parked there anyway, plus you'll be right next to the toilets again. The results were processed and online not long after 10am (SMS arrived at 10:18). I'd had a very nice morning out at High Woods Country Park, so thank you to everyone who made the event happen.

Related links:

The GPS data for the summer course (to follow)
The Relive course fly-by for the summer course (to follow)

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