Tuesday 5 July 2022

Riddlesdown parkrun

Riddlesdown is an area located in the London Borough of Croydon. The 'Riddle' part of the name is thought to be linked to the Middle English phrase 'Riddle Leah' or 'Riddeleah' which means 'cleared woodland' or possibly 'cleared woodland on a hill'. Over the years the area has used various versions of the name. The first recorded example is Ridelesdoune from 1331. It has subsequently been known as Redele, North Ridle, Riddleys, North Riddeley and by 1765 was known as Riddles Down.

Riddlesdown / Chalk cliff

Adjacent to the residential settlement is Riddlesdown Common. This is a 43 hectare area of open natural space located on the North Downs and is comprised of chalk grassland and ancient woodland. It also forms part of the larger 'Sanderstead to Whyteleafe Countryside Area'. Riddlesdown Common itself is managed by the City of London Corporation and was given National Nature Reserve (NNR) status in 2019. The common also features a section which has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Historically the area has been used as a grazing area for livestock and the old Roman road from London to Brighton passed across the area, most likely to avoid to valley beneath which was prone to flooding.

From the late 1700s until 1967 there was a chalk quarry on Riddlesdown's western face which also included a narrow gauge railway to move the materials around. You can see the chalk cliff face from the nearby A22 road, or for a better view, head to the top of New Barn Lane, Kenley. There is apparently a network of tunnels (secret passages?) underneath the downs and these were used during the Second World War as bomb shelters. There were enough beds for 1500 people to sleep inside while seeking protection from air raids. There was apparently running water, electricity a canteen and toilets contained within. On the subject of tunnels, the train line south of Riddlesdown station travels underneath the common.

with our longest-known and favourite parkrun person, Nicki (she gets a full photo rather than a collage)

The City of London Corporation bought Riddlesdown Common in 1883 to protect it from enclosure and to safeguard the grazing rights for the local people. Following this, in 1892, a man called William Gardner opened a tea garden on the lower slopes. It was called Gardner's Pleasure Resort (and possibly also Riddlesdown Tea Gardens) and apparently attracted many visitors from the centre of London. There was a monkey house, aviary, donkey rides and various fairground-style attractions such as coconut shy and hoop-la. By 1906 it could seat 500 people and also contained further entertainment facilities such as a stage and outer pavilion which could hold hold up to 2000 people. The attraction was closed down and sold for housing shortly after William Gardner died in 1930. Records show there may have also been a rifle range in the early 20th century.

In 1996 The City of London Corporation purchased the former chalk quarry and it now forms part of the SSSI. However due to safety concerns it is not generally open to the public. The modern day area is a long strip of countryside nestled within the adjacent residential areas, and there are no real facilities to speak of. On 2 July 2011 the area became home to its very own free, weekly, timed 5km event called Riddlesdown parkrun, and this is a special venue for me as it was my very first proper parkrun home. I took part in every event for the entire first year and we really became part of that early Riddlesdown parkrun community lead by the event director, parkrun's most prolific volunteer, Nicki Clark. It was also my first ever attempt at a venue description blog.

Start area

The parkrun has very close links with the adjacent Warlingham School, and it is the school that kindly lends its car park and toilet facilities to the event every Saturday morning. Access to the car park and toilets is from Tithe Pit Shaw Lane. Please note that the event also sometimes uses the Tandridge Learning Trust car park, which is further along the same road - if in doubt, look out for the car park marshals who will give advice on the day. It is then just a few minutes walk across the road and onto the downs with the initial assembly point (and pre-event natter) being right next to the entrance. Travel by public transport is possible by train - Riddlesdown, Kenley, Whyteleafe and Upper Warlingham stations are all nearby. I've never taken the train to Riddlesdown, but I would say the latter two would probably be the best options, just be prepared for the uphill walk to the downs. Local buses that pass nearby are the 403 and 407.

Despite the fairly high elevation of the downs (525ft / 160m above sea level), the course itself is relatively flat. The terrain is of the off-road nature, so you'll find grass, dirt, mud, tree roots and stones all feature as part of the route. With this in mind I would say trail shoes are the obvious choice for a visit at any time of year, but bear in mind that in the winter they are essential as Riddlesdown parkrun is infamous for being a mud bath! Participants with buggies are of course welcome, but please note the previous point about the mud! I've used the running buggy here on multiple occasions and cleaning it afterwards was not fun on after those muddy events.

Around the fields

The original course was in use from the very first event in 2011 through until the Covid lockdown. However when Riddlesdown parkrun returned in 2021, it did so with a brand new course (exciting!). The start of the parkrun is actually on one of the adjacent fields, so make sure you arrive with enough time to walk across. Bear in mind that you have to follow the marked paths at all times as the central areas are essentially fields containing long grasses which are cut to make hay every so often. The fields are also home to nesting Skylarks and the fields are protected zones.

The new course consists of two laps followed by a tail that leads towards the finish. The start is located on a corner and is extremely narrow, so you'll need to take care to seed yourself sensibly. An interesting fact is that the new course takes place entirely within the Sanderstead to Whyteleafe Countryside Area and no longer passes through the City of London owned Riddlesdown Common. Each of the fields are named and the start area is located within 'Ibetts Piece', which is on land managed by Croydon Council. The course winds its way along the outer edge of Ibetts Piece before passing through the tree line and into the next field 'Long Acres' and shortly after that into the third field '20 Acres'.

The fields

The next part of the course will be familiar to anyone who has visited Riddlesdown parkrun in the past. Upon leaving 20 Acres, the route reaches Barrie's Bend (formerly Condon Corner) (but from a different approaching path), and this marks the beginning of the trail section that runs through the trees. The first part of this is characterised by its uneven stony surface where extreme care is required to avoid tripping. Thankfully the path smooths out as it progresses.

Keep an eye out for the Trig Point about half-way along - this marks the highest point of the downs. This section also forms part of The London Loop walking route. At the end of the path the course enters the fourth field which I understand is called Dipsley Field and after a couple of hundred meters the course turns left back into Ibetts Piece and the first lap (2.15km) is complete.

The path through the trees / London Loop

The second lap is identical to the first but instead of turning into Ibetts Piece the course continues straight on. The remaining 700 metres are covered on a long tail which leads all the way to the end of the field and then along the eastern border and into the finish funnel. The finish is right next to the original assembly point near the Tithe Pit Shaw Lane entrance and barcode scanning takes place at the table under the tree. It's also worth noting that the last section of the course and the finish are within Surrey (although I understand the land is managed by Croydon Council), so this makes Riddlesdown parkrun unique in the fact that it starts inside London and finishes outside. 

I had recorded the course using my Garmin so please feel free to take a look at the data on Strava for a more detailed visual of the course. I also made a Relive course fly-by video with the data, so again that may help with visualising the course. I'd note that the course remains narrow most of the way around, so if you start out of position it may take a kilometre or so to filter into your natural place in the field.

Heading towards the finish

The results for event 524 were processed shortly afterwards and 143 people completed the 5k course, this is not far off the overall average which as of 2 July 2022 stands at 127.1. On a beautiful sunny morning in July the course is such a pleasure to run, but be aware that if visiting in the winter it is a very different beast and a change of socks and shoes (at least) is very likely to be required (I'm speaking from experience - this was my 75th official finish here). Riddlesdown parkrun is still also my most-volunteered at event and accounts for over half of my V250 club membership. Usually as report writer, photographer and half-way timer, but mostly as the communications person (I was once dubbed the invisible volunteer!). I do very much miss compiling the event quick stats every Saturday afternoon!

When the weather turns it is not unusual for the attendees to drop down into double figures which is understandable as many people may prefer to avoid the mud bath. The venue has been the location of some of my most memorable parkruns. Notably the first time I saw it covered in a snow (click to see some stunning photos) and another time when the entire downs was covered in fog. Both were incredible!

The finish

The post-parkrun refreshments venue has changed a few times over the years, but the current place to go is the Whyteleafe Park Pavilion in the adjacent Whyteleafe Park which is also part of the Sanderstead to Whyteleafe Countryside Area (it's near Whyteleafe and Upper Warlingham train stations). If you arrived by vehicle you'd need to move it down to the cafe to avoid being locked in the school. The cafe car park is small, but free-of-charge (if you visit Monday-Friday you will need to obtain a free ticket from the machine, but this is not required on Saturdays). On this visit we didn't make it to the cafe as the 11 year anniversary celebrations took place over in the school grounds.

However a few weeks later we did get to sample the new post-event facilities when we popped back over to help Nicki celebrate her 50th parkrun. It's a great little spot, especially in the summer, with the cafe overlooking the sweeping landscape that is the park, and in the far distance you can see the steep footpaths that climb up onto the higher plateau of Riddlesdown. There's also a playground for the kids. The menu at the cafe is reasonably priced but quite limited.

Whyteleafe Park and cafe

Much like the original, the updated parkrun course is a joy to run/walk. If you visit regularly you'll get to experience the changing seasons and underfoot course conditions. It's such a nice, peaceful place to spend an hour or so on a Saturday morning.


Another interesting fact concerning Riddlesdown parkrun is that on 23 March 2024 the Event Director, Nicki, became the first person in the world to reach the 1000 milestone for volunteering and the new V1000 t-shirt was revealed. We were of course there to help her celebrate the occasion! It was a fantastic morning of celebration which has to go down as one of my most memorable parkrundays.


As always, a huge thanks goes to the wonderful team of volunteers that take the time and effort to put the event on every week.

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