Wednesday 1 February 2023

Hackney Marshes parkrun

Hackney Marshes covers 336 acres of low lying open land located within the Lower Lea Valley in the London Borough of Hackney. As the name suggests, it is historically an area of marsh land, and it formed due to the periodic flooding of the River Lea. Its human history goes back at least to 2,000 years. In Roman times a stone causeway ran across the area, and evidence of a Roman burial ground has also been discovered (possibly just to the west of the marshes). The area has a long tradition of being common land and was largely used for grazing.

The natural course of the River Lea flows along the eastern edge of the marsh and this once marked the border between Middlesex and Essex. There have, over the years, been a few buildings within the marshes, one of these was the White House Inn which was supposedly a place frequented by butcher-turned-highwayman Dick Turpin. It eventually developed a bad reputation (as if hosting highwaymen wasn't bad enough), being the source of late night anti-social behaviour. Finally its licence renewal was refused and it was demolished in 1913.

hackney marshes

The Knights Templar once owned the marshes and during this time watermills, for the grinding of grain, were constructed alongside the river. These mills were later used in the production of lead and, for a time, a newer watermill was used for boring gun barrels. The adjacent River Lea has long been navigable from Hertford all the way through to the River Thames, and improvements made in the late 1760's, where a new channel was created which is known as the Hackney Cut. This now forms the western border of the marshes.

In 1890 the marshes were purchased by the London County Council in order to protect the land from future development, and in 1893/4 Hackney Marshes officially opened to the public as a place of recreation. At around the same time, a flood relief sewer was constructed under the marshes, which lowered the risk of flooding. The adjacent areas had become more appealing for housing and for industry, and both were in high demand as London expanded. Despite the protection granted by the council, small parcels of land were subsequently used for development of housing such as the Kingsmead Estate and for the coal-fired Hackney Power Station (now demolished). 

hackney marshes parkrun

During the First World War the National Projectile Factory was based here, and then during the Second World War, the marshes were used as an Anti-Aircraft Battery location. The devastating effects of the Second World War on East London are well known. Once the war had finished, Hackney Marshes was used a location for the disposal of rubble from destroyed buildings. This rubble was spread across the area which was then covered with soil and grass. It is reported that this raised the level of the marshes by around 2 metres.

During the 1940's the Lesney die cast model factory was built in-between the Hackney Cut and Kingsmead Estate, next to Marshgate Bridge on Homerton Road. This is where the Matchbox toy vehicles were made between 1953 and 1982 (if you use street view on Google maps, you can view the 2008 capture and see the building). The Matchbox name has continued but under various owners, currently Mattel. The building itself stood until around 2009 when it was demolished to make way for a new residential development.

the start

The use of the marshes post-war became centred around a very specific sport; football. In fact, Hackney Marshes is known internationally as the spiritual home of grass-roots and Sunday League football. At one point in time it is said to have had around 120 marked football pitches, however due to further land being lost to developments, that number now stands at around 80 football pitches, mostly full-size, but there are smaller pitches for youth teams and for other variations like five-a-side. Plus there are a small number of other pitches set aside for rugby and cricket.

On 29 May 2010, the marshes became home to a free, weekly, timed, 5 kilometre event called Hackney Marshes parkrun. I originally visited this parkrun venue in December 2012 and took part on a very cold, frosty morning. That original blog wasn't very detailed, and the course has changed since, so in January 2023, I revisited along with the rest of the family to sample the new course and create a more in-depth write-up.

east marsh with the view across to the olympic park / marshal dog

If travelling to the venue on public transport, there may be a bit of walking involved. If using trains, the most pleasant option would be to alight at Stratford Station which is served by mainline, tube, overground and DLR trains. The journey can then be completed on-foot by walking through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which is linked to Hackney Marshes by a traffic-free path and footbridges. Other nearby stations are Hackney Wick, and Homerton (Overground), Leyton (Underground), and Lea Bridge (Mainline). The number 308 and W15 buses both stop on Homerton Road, just outside the car park area.

If arriving in a vehicle, there is a car park just off Homerton Road at the southern end of the marshes. It is free-of-charge and can hold somewhere in the region of 150 cars. Adjacent to the car park, outside the Hackney Marshes Centre, are a large number of bicycle racks - this is where I stored my bike when I visited in 2012. However most cycling parkrunners didn't seem to use these and had chosen to use an unofficial location nearer to the parkrun meeting point. There are toilets located at the Hackney Marshes Centre. This is the building that looks like a large rusty box. They were open before 8.30am.

the tarmac section

From the car park it is about a 200 metre walk to get to the start line. You just leave the car park and follow the riverside path, then turn right and cross the bridge. The meeting point, bag drop, start and finish are all located in this area which is called East Marsh. I recorded the route from the car park with my Garmin - The GPS data is on Strava.

The 5k takes place over an out-and-back style course, which could probably be more accurately described as a lollipop (although it doesn't actually look like one). As you may have gathered, the area is completely flat so this is a decent place to go for a good time. Underfoot is a mixture of 3 kilometres of grass and 2 kilometres of tarmac. Buggy runners would be fine on this course. When it comes to choosing footwear, there's a good chance that road shoes would be fine most of the time, but I went for my trail shoes as a precaution.

the football pitches / the view

There's a first-timers briefing, followed by the main briefing which takes place at the start line. The course starts on grass with a full lap of East Marsh where the participants circumnavigate the 11 full-size football pitches which occupy this section of the marshes, in a clockwise direction. You'll get a great view of the Olympic Velodrome and you can also see the 114.5 metre tall ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture/viewing tower in the distance. The route then joins the path which goes over the River Lea via the bridge (this is where most of the cyclists had secured their bikes). Turning right, the course simply follows the tarmac path alongside the river. It meanders gently as it follows the thin strip of woodland that now separates the football pitches from the river.

For those at the very front or back, try to keep to the right-hand-side of the path when approaching fellow parkrunners. We were at the back and ended up on the left, so found ourselves in a position where we had to stop because there was a constant stream of parkrunners crossing our path. Also worth noting, the path is quite a popular route for cyclists so remember to keep an eye and ear out for approaching bikes. There was also a maintenance vehicle moving around, but the driver was very patient and respectful of all the pedestrians. I also thought that it was worth mentioning that, with Hackney Marshes being largely for sport, the area does lend itself to dog walking, so there were a relatively low number of dog walkers.

more football pitches / the last section of tarmac

At the half-way point, the route leaves the tarmac path and joins the North Marsh grass area (home to 49 football pitches) to begin the return journey. The course simply follows the natural route back adjacent to the football pitches. To assist with directions, there were some yellow flags to guide the way. This was particularly useful for us as we had lost visual contact with those in front of us. This grass section lasts almost exactly 1 kilometre before returning to the tarmac. I was expecting the grass to be muddier than it was, maybe it was just the day we visited, or maybe the drainage is just really good, but the only real mud was the very short sections when entering and leaving the grass.

In total I spotted four human marshals (plus a marshal dog) out on the course, all placed at the junctions where the course changes direction and they did a fine job of keeping everyone on the right course. The last section is just a retracing of the opening 1.5km but in the opposite direction. It starts with a final 500 metres on tarmac which finishes with a return crossing of the bridge. That leaves the one final kilometre where the course again circumnavigates the 11 football pitches, only now in an anti-clockwise direction. The finish is found in almost exactly the same spot as the start. As you'd expect, barcode scanning takes place on the grass straight after the finish.

the finish / barcode scanning

The event usually attracts around 300 participants every week, but we happened to visit on a particularly busy day. The results for event 585 were published later that morning and we had been part of a bumper crowd of 367 finishers. I'd like to make a special mention to the fact the course was very well marked and marshalled. On my travels I have noticed that established events can sometimes become complacent when it comes to these details. However, that certainly was not the case here. As always I had recorded the course with my Garmin and made a Relive fly-by video. The official post-event refreshments are noted to be had at the Hackney Marshes Centre. They have a fairly basic drink and food menu, and quite limited seating.

There are a couple of features of the marshes that I haven't mentioned that may be worth exploring post-parkrun. Firstly one of the southern areas that was previously football fields has been give over to nature and is called Wick Woodland. At the northern end are the former Middlesex Filter Beds which were used to filter water for drinking before modern-day solutions were developed. They are now a nature reserve. Also in the same area is an art installation called Nature's Throne. It is sometimes referred to as London's Stonehenge or Hackney Henge ('ackney 'enge). It consists of a number of large granite blocks arranged in a circular pattern - the blocks were originally the foundations of a Victorian Engine House. The central block is in the shape of a throne.

queen elizabeth olympic park

Sadly we didn't head north, as we had already decided to have a walk around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park so we headed off to the south instead. The Olympic Park was partially developed on land previously part of Hackney Marshes, and the last time we were there was in 2012 for the Paralympics. During our walk we went inside the velodrome, had some refreshments, saw the Olympic Rings and the ArcelorMittal Orbit, explored the riverside path and stopped at a couple of playgrounds on our way to the park's centre piece which is of course the stadium (officially now called London Stadium and home to West Ham United Football Club).

We returned to the car a few hours later after a brilliant morning out in East London. Finally, a huge thank you to everyone that helped to put on Hackney parkrun event 585.

Related Links:

My GPS data of the old course  (2012) (no longer in use)

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