Saturday 5 November 2022

Gunpowder parkrun

Waltham Abbey lies at the western end of Essex, just near the borders with Hertfordshire and London. The town's recorded history dates back to the 11th century. It was originally the ancient parish of Waltham Holy Cross where it took its name from its former abbey. The abbey itself is notable for being the last to be dissolved following King Henry VIII's Dissolution of Monasteries. In fact, King Henry VIII is known to have been a frequent visitor to the town and stayed on multiple occasions. The abbey is one of a number of possible burial places of King Harold II, who was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.

waltham abbey

One of the early industries at Waltham Abbey was fulling, used for cloth production. This was possible due to the supply of water from the Millhead Stream which is a man-made water course supplied by water from the River Lea. The mills also went on to produce vegetable oils. During the 17th century, shortages in gunpowder required for the Second Dutch War resulted in the mills turning their attention to producing gunpowder. The mills were privately owned until, in 1787, they were purchased by The Crown, thus ensuring the security and high quality of this highly valuable commodity. It was known as The Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills and was one of three such sites in the UK.

Over the years, demand for gunpowder for military use grew during periods of conflict, such as Napoleonic Wars (which included The Battle of Waterloo), the Crimean War and the Boer War. Large quantities of gunpowder would have been taken south to the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich (now home to Thames Path parkrun, Woolwich) via canal. Demand was traditionally lower during times of peace but during the industrial revolution demand for gunpowder from commercial companies such as those in the mining, construction and tunnel building industries kept the mills busy. Then of course, World War I started, and production soared to a new high where the Royal Gunpowder Mills' employees doubled from 3,000 to over 6,000 people. It was notable that most of the additional workers were women, and this marked quite a significant point in social history.

gunpowder park

The mills, associated buildings and munitions testing grounds were spread across two adjacent sites, typically known as the North site and the South site. Advances in technology meant that newer explosive technologies became favoured. The mills were involved in producing TNT and also RDX - two of the components which make up Torpex, and this was the explosive used in the famous Bouncing Bomb (Dambusters) during the Second World War. In 1945 The Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills closed. Almost immediately the site re-opened as The Explosives Research and Development Establishment, and in 1977 it became the Propellants, Explosives and Rocket Motor Establishment where they worked on the Skylark project who produced research rockets.

By 1991 both sites had closed. The North site is now largely covered by Waltham Abbey Site of Special Scientific Interest, and it also still contains many of The Royal Gunpowder Mills buildings. It is run as a heritage centre where visitors can learn all about the fascinating history of this very significant place. The South site was decontaminated and sold for development. It is now a combination of supermarket distribution centre, housing, and the remaining 255 acres are called Gunpowder Park. It is part of the Lea Valley Regional Park, and its main focal points are wildlife, science and the arts. At 9am on Saturday mornings it plays host to a 5km event called Gunpowder parkrun.

parkrun briefing / start

I previously visited Gunpowder parkrun back in December 2012, and on that occasion, I travelled from central London using a combination of the London Underground followed by a Greater Anglia train where I alighted at Enfield Lock (there is of course a Waltham Abbey station, but this is further away from the park). From Enfield Lock it is possible to walk in an easterly direction and enter the park via a small footbridge that crosses the River Lea - at this location, the river forms the border between London and Essex. The parkrun meeting point is over on the east side of the park, so it's about a 2km walk in total. Cycle racks are available and they are located in the main car park.

If travelling by car, the main and obvious place to park is the main Gunpowder Park visitor's car park. This on the east side of the park and is accessed from Sewardstone Road (the A112). The car park has a fee which rises depending on the duration of your stay. As things stand (November 2022), payment needs to be made just before you exit and the machine will calculate the cost based on the time the ANPR camera recorded your entry. The on-site payment machine is debit/credit card only (no cash). The signage in the car park also suggests that payment can be made by telephone or by registering with the 'good2go' website. Please also note that, according to my quick count, the car park only has 45 regular spaces, plus a further 5 disabled parking spaces. If the car park fills up, the noted alternatives are all in the town centre. You can complete the rest of the journey (1-2km depending on where in the town centre you park) on foot or by taking the 505 bus which stops close to the main entrance on Sewardstone Road. There may also be some on-street parking available locally, but if you do go for this please be respectful of local residents.

around the course

The parkrun meeting point is on the eastern side of the park just near the main entrance, car park and the toilets - I'm not sure of the official opening time of the toilets, but they were definitely open at 8.30am on the day we visited. A first-timers briefing takes place and this is followed by a full briefing. The whole crowd is then lead around to the start which is on the path at the northern end of the park. At 9am the participants are sent on their way around the park. The course here at Gunpowder parkrun is two-and-a-bit laps which simply follow the meandering path in a clockwise direction. Underfoot is a compact gravel surface, so road shoes are fine on this course, it is also fine for buggy runners. Overall it's reasonably flat but there are a couple of gentle inclines during the first half of each lap.

The park is divided into four bioregions. Firstly, there's the Cob Fields (The Shock Wave Galleries) - This zone consists of bands of trees and shrubs which have been designed to represent the shock waves sent out during an explosion, with the blast centre located fairly close to the parkrun meeting area. The second zone is Cob Meadow (Blast Mound Plateau) which provides ideal nesting grounds for Skylarks. The third is Osier Marsh (The Salix) which is an area of wet woodland which provides a great environment for wildlife to thrive. As I understand it, Osier is the name of a certain type of Willow, which grows in abundance in this area and is part of the Salix genus. Lastly there is the Cob Fields (The Energy Fields) this area features some arable farmland and contains a viewpoint at the top of an incline.

around the course

At this venue the course is not marshalled (this was noted in the briefing), but instead relies on direction arrows to help parkrunners navigate the course. Fortunately, it's quite an easy route to follow. Being a clockwise course, it features mostly right-hand turns, but there's also a single left turn as well. A fact that I find quite interesting about Waltham Abbey is that the Meridian Line passes right through the centre of the town, and it also goes straight through Gunpowder Park, meaning this is currently the UK's only 5k parkrun whose course actively crosses the line (the participants cross it four, or possibly five, times). There's a bit more info in my Meridian Line parkruns post.

Once the two-and-a-bit laps have been completed, there's a finish funnel set up on an offshoot of the main path. Barcode scanning takes place at a table over at the main meeting point, There isn't an on-site cafe for the post-parkrun social, but I understand they have a community cafe once a month (possibly the second Saturday). I recorded the course with my Garmin and uploaded the data to Strava where I spotted a few witty gunpowder-themed segment names. I used that data to create a course fly-by video using the Relive app on my phone. I was actually quite relieved that the GPS worked as when I visited in 2012 all of my GPX files ended up being corrupt.

around the course

In terms of expected numbers of participants, as of 2022, Gunpowder parkrun generally has around 150 taking part each week. However, we visited on 5 November 2022 which of course tied in perfectly with Guy Fawkes Night and the Gunpowder plot of 1605. On this particular day 479 people participated in the parkrun which broke their previous attendance record by a whopping 150. It was of course a huge undertaking for the team of volunteers who had to cope with three times as many participants as they would usually expect.

With such a high number of finishers, towards the end the finish tokens ran out, so the last 29 people (us included) received their finishing position either in writing on their hand or as a hand written number on a piece of paper. It didn't help that it was raining, which then caused problems with scanning and writing down barcodes! I'm sure there was a little stress behind the smiles, but they coped magnificently and I can only offer my sincere thanks to each and every one of the volunteer team for making sure everything went as smoothly as possible. I think they'll be relieved that the next time 5 November falls on a Saturday is in 2033!

the finish / barcode scanning

You may notice our green cuddly toy in some of my photos. This is a Creeper, and it is found in the Minecraft video game. Its significance at this venue is that, firstly, the way the Creeper attacks the player is by silently creeping up and then exploding. Also, if you manage to kill a Creeper, the item it drops is gunpowder. So, if anyone was to pursue a Minecraft parkrun challenge, this venue would be on that list!

Related links:

My GPS data (5 November 2022)

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