Sunday, 12 February 2023

Shorne Woods parkrun

Roughly halfway between Gravesend and Rochester, in Kent, is the parish of Shorne, which is home to around 2,500 people. The name comes from the Old English word 'Scoren' which effectively means 'a steep place', and in early records the village had been recorded as Scorene.

The land is largely rural, consisting of Shorne Marshes (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) at the northern end, where the parish meets the bank of the River Thames. Agricultural fields account for most of the central area. The parish extends as far south as the famous Roman road, Watling Street (now the A2). The southern end of the parish contains the village of Shorne and some areas of woodland, which includes Shorne Wood, Brewers Wood, Brummelhill Wood and Randall Wood. This southern part of the parish is the focus of this write-up.

The first small manor in the area (c.1108), possibly called Rundale, was in the name of Smalesman de Schornes. The area had become home to the de Cobham family by 1202 and they resided in Randall Manor which stood in what is now Randall Wood, just to the south of Shorne village. The de Cobham family, and in later years, other tenants, resided in the house until around the mid-1500's. The house is thought to have been dismantled in the 1580's in order to provide building materials for the nearby Cobham Hall, which was being rebuilt by the Baron Cobham.

Cobham Hall later passed into the hands of the Bligh family who later became the Earls of Darnley. The hall had (and still has) it's own landscaped grounds and deer park. The woodland containing the ruins of Randall Manor was also part of the estate. During the second world war parts of the woodland became home to an Army camp. A RAF camp was established at Laughing Water at the far south-west corner of Shorne Wood for groundcrew working at the nearby RAF Gravesend. From the 1920s until the 1970s part of the woodland called Furzy Leas Wood was used for the extraction of clay to supply the local cement industry.

In 1982 Kent County Council bought Shorne Wood and opened it as a Shorne Wood Country Park. The council subsequently bought Randall Wood and Brewers Wood and these three combined woods now form Shorne Woods Country Park. The present-day country park covers an area of 292 acres and features woodlands, wetlands and meadows. The main central hub, containing the visitor centre / cafe, playground, toilets and car park is located in the largely flat area which would have been the clay pit - it is now known as Furzy Leas Meadows. Had the clay extraction not taken place, this area would still be a hill (Clay Hill) with the ground level being around 15-20 metres higher than it is today.

On 30 March 2013, the country park became home to Shorne Woods parkrun. This is a free, weekly, timed, 5km event put on by volunteers and all abilities are welcomed. I had taken part in this parkrun a few times since its inception (2014 and 2015), but returned in 2023 to try out the latest version of the course and to produce this updated write-up. For most people, travelling to this venue is going to mean arriving in a vehicle, as the public transport links are not great.

The car park can hold somewhere in the region of 250 vehicles and has a 2 metre height restriction. There is a charge to use the car park, which on Saturdays is £3.30 for the whole day - there is no further charge to access to country park. Payment can be made by machine using cash or card, or by using the paybyphone app, but please note phone signal and data connection can be intermittent in the park (however, you can pay right up until midnight). I had read loads of poor reviews about the app, so I played safe and paid with my debit card at the machine. There is also a car park season ticket (£57 for 12 months at time of writing) which covers all of Kent's country parks. From a parkrun point-of-view, this would also cover car parking at Lullingstone parkrun and Pegwell Bay parkrun.

If attempting to reach the venue by public transport, the closest train stations are Sole Street (to the south) or Higham (to the north east). They are both three miles away from the country park and the direct walking routes both feature significant stretches of country lane with no pavements, so they are not ideal. From what I can see, the bus services which stop outside the country park are the 416 and 417 Redroute Buses, but the services seem quite sporadic, so you'd need to do a bit of research to see if that option would work. Finally, cycling is a genuinely decent option if you can make it work. Alongside the A2 is a shared-use foot/cycle path which links into Dartford to the west (taking in the Cyclopark parkrun course on the way) and to Rochester to the east. There are cycle racks in the car park.

The main visitor centre and cafe building is quite interesting. It was designed to be eco-friendly. The Sweet Chestnut wood used for the main structure was sourced locally and the building itself is powered by a wind turbine, has a biomass boiler and rainwater recycling facilities. It is here that you will find the first toilet option. The meeting point for the parkrun is adjacent to the car park, next to a separate toilet block, and to be fair this is probably to most convenient of the two. The briefings take place here before everyone heads down the steps and over to the start line.

As you may remember from the earlier points in this write-up, the original meaning of Shorne is 'a steep place', the clay extraction was done on a hill, plus there's also an area of the woods called Caradiac Hill (seriously, there is). With all that in mind, it would come as no surprise if I was to talk about how hilly the course is... But it's not hilly at all. The team here have taken the sensible approach and kept the entire course relatively flat. This is brilliant for keeping the event inclusive to all abilities. 

The course uses the well established paths that make up the more central areas of the country park, so underfoot is mostly hard surface. Even so, in the winter things can still get a bit splashy and there can be some mud. Road shoes would quite likely do the trick, but the more cautious participant may prefer to use trail shoes. The course is totally fine for buggy running. On previous visits, I noticed this had been quite a popular venue for canicross runners, but this time around I didn't see any. I suspect parkrun's policy change on waist harnesses has been responsible for their absence.

Over the years, Shorne Woods parkrun's course has been tweaked a few times. There was a time when there was a two-and-a-half lap summer course and a three lap winter course. The latest configuration is an anti-clockwise three lap course and this is planned to remain the same throughout the whole year. Just note that the first lap is ever-so-slightly different to laps two and three. The start is contained within the regular-width tree-lined country park path, just behind the cafe. So it can be a little tight to begin with, but the field soon spreads out.

The course is extremely well marked out, with arrows, cones and marshals at all the important points and junctions. The route is almost always within the woods apart from a short section next to the playground which is within an area of open grass. The slight difference on lap 1 is a new out-and-back section which heads 150 metres off into the woods off the main loop. This helps make up the bit of extra distance that was lost from previous versions of the course when the playground was redesigned, resulting in the loss of a bit of previously-used footpath.

It's a really enjoyable course to navigate. There are only a few sections of straight path, and the rest features many different styles of meandering paths, with both shallow and tight turns. My favourite of which is the tight combination of alternating left and right turns towards the end of each lap. There are a few very gentle undulations around the course. I'd say it's just about the right amount to keep things interesting without being too troublesome to your finish time. Once the three laps are complete, the course continues back into the open grass area where the finish funnel is just on the path to the right-hand-side (in the summer it may be on the grass).

Unusually, barcode scanning does not take place right at the finish line. The barcode scanning volunteers are located just up the path outside the car park. The post-parkrun social and refreshments take place in the park's cafe where they serve all the usual drinks and snacks. They even have a pizza oven and I understand pizzas are available from midday. The results for event 441 were posted online a short while later and 182 people had taken part, very close to the official average which, at the time of writing, stands at 187.6. My GPS data of the course and the Relive course fly-by video are both online to view if you would like to see more detail.

After the parkrun we spent some time at the playground before heading off on a walk to explore the woods. We found the site of Randall Manor, followed the sculpture trail, headed to the top of Cardiac Hill, found many of the ancient trees and a Faerie Ring, wandered around the sensory garden and explored the small Arboretum.

It was a lovely day out and we are baffled as to why we'd left it so long since our last visit. Somehow I've only ever been to this parkrun in the winter, so the next time I visit, I'll make sure it is summer. I'd really like to see the place when the trees are in full leaf.

Finally, I'd like to add a huge thanks to all of the volunteers who made us feel so welcome.

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