Monday 13 March 2023

Brandon Country Park parkrun

In the north-west corner of Suffolk, right on the border with Norfolk, is the small town of Brandon. It was previously known as Brondun, and has a modern-day population of around 10,000 people. The River Little Ouse flows through the town. It sits within the area known as Breckland, which naturally features a sandy heath landscape, covered largely in gorse. 

Historically the local area is known for its flint. The flint has been mined here since around 2,600BC and the remains of some of the historic mines, Grime's Graves, are now one of the area's major tourist attractions. There are 433 shafts which cover an area of 91 acres just a few miles outside the town.

The presence of flint led to knapping becoming one of the area's skilled industries. Knapping is the process of shaping flint, this would have sometimes been as a building material, and most of the older buildings in the local area have flint used in their construction and external decoration. Another use of flint was for weapons such as flintlock guns from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The supply of flint was vitally important for the military, and during the Napoleonic Wars Brandon flint was regarded as the best and most reliable. During this period, knappers from Brandon supplied around 400,000 flints per month to the British military. Local businessman, Edward Bliss, made his fortune from mining the flint and selling it onto the army. He used his wealth to purchase 2,500 acres of land just outside the town and created the Brandon Park country estate. The centrepiece of the estate was the mansion called Brandon Park House. The estate also included stables, a walled garden, an engine room, a mausoleum and an arboretum.

In the years following the First World War, the nation's timber supplies were running low. Much of the land of the local country estates was purchased and a huge tree planting operation began, this planting created what we now know as Thetford Forest. The forest covers an area of 18,730 hectares (73 square miles) and is the seventh overall largest forest in the UK. However it can claim the number one spot for being the UK's largest man-made lowland forest. The creation of the forest has changed the landscape considerably, taking away part of the traditional Breckland.

The former country house still stands and is now a grade II listed building. It changed hands a few times over the years, but is now owned by the Catchpole family, founders of Stow Healthcare. The house is now run as a boutique private nursing home where rooms cost up to £1,495 per week. The rest of Brandon Park, which is nestled within the vast forest, is now called Brandon Country Park. Most of the original features are still there including the walled garden and the mausoleum, but it now has additions such as a playground and marked walking routes.

We visited the country park on 11 March 2023 to take part in Brandon Country Park parkrun, which coincidentally fell on the event's official tenth birthday. We had stayed overnight in the Premier Inn at Thetford which is just a few miles down the road, so the journey was nice and simple. There are two onsite car parks which as of March 2023 cost £2 for up to two hours or £3 for over two hours. The country park managers request that parkrunners use the Orchard car park, which means driving past the main car park and the country house. Payment can be made by using the RingGo app or at the pay and display machine.

For cyclists there are bicycle racks within the main car park. Should travel by public transport be required, Brandon does have its own train station. The walk from the station to the country park is just under 2 kilometres. There seem to be a few bus routes around the local area that can get you into Brandon, but they are of course rural services so may be quite infrequent. However you travel, entry to the country park is off of the B1106, I understand it may also be known as Bury Road. Once in the country park, the main hub is adjacent to the car park and here you will find the playground, walled garden and the cafe building. The toilets are located in the rear of this building - when we visited they were open before 8.30am.

Brandon Country Park parkrun takes place over an anti-clockwise one-and-three-quarter lap course. Underfoot features a mixture of forest trails, dirt paths and some sandy paths. An important thing to note is that there are several areas containing protruding tree routes, so care will need to be taken to avoid tripping. With all that in mind my preference is for trail shoes. The course is not 100% flat, my Garmin picked up 51 metres of elevation change. The ups and downs are long and gentle, however I imagine the uphill could be challenging if running at a high effort. Taking part with a buggy would be totally fine, you'd just need to pay close attention to those tree roots and maybe some slightly uneven paths.

The parkrun itself has separate start and finish areas, so upon arrival you are likely to find most of the volunteers milling around the finish area which is on the lawn behind Brandon Park House - if you are visiting and want a pre-parkrun photo with the pop-up banner, head over to this area. However the briefings take place adjacent to the playground, so most of the participants seemed to assemble at that point. Following the briefings, the crowd moved further into the forest to the start area.

The start is on a typical forest country park type of path, so not terribly wide, however the attendance figures here are quite modest so I can't imagine there is ever a problem with overcrowding. In general the first half of the lap is gently downhill, this begins in the forest. However the feel of the course and its scenery changes multiple times on the way around.

After leaving the opening forest section, the path underfoot becomes more sandy, which is of course natural for this area of the country. It's a fairly light coating of sand so it's not like running on a beach. You may also spot flint in the ground. The landscape opens up a little here and the course follows the line of the overhead electricity cables which pass through the northern end of the park.

A left-hand turn at the most westerly point of the course marks the start of the long, gentle uphill. After not too long and a right-hand turn, the course reaches the mausoleum. Edward Bliss had this built as a final resting place for him and his wife. Initially they were both interred here, but were later moved to St Peter's Churchyard in Brandon. The building has the same style of knapped flint that can be found throughout the local area, and is now apparently home to Pipistrelle Bats. After passing the building, the course makes its way towards the formal area at the back of the house, which features almost a full loop of the rectangular duck pond. As you pass through this area on the first lap, the finish can easily be spotted on the grass.

On the first lap only, there's a very cool, wiggly woodland section to negotiate. This leads around the back of the cafe, past the playground and eventually merges into the forest path from the very beginning. The second lap is exactly the same as the first, but after rounding the pond for the second time, the finish awaits. As with most parkruns, the barcode scanners are placed just after the finish line. It is worth noting that the signage and marshalling was brilliant all the way around the course.

As it was the event's 10th birthday, some stones had been painted and scattered around the course for participants to find. One very kind marshal pointed us in the direction of one of them, so we have that as a souvenir of our visit. We'll keep it next to the parkrun stone that I painted a few years ago.

I recorded the course with my Garmin, and the course data can be viewed on my Strava page. That data was also used to create a course fly-by video using the Relive app on my phone. The course was not completely identical to the one on the map on the official course page, so bear that in mind if visiting.

The results were processed a short while later and there had been 121 participants at event 456. This figure was slightly elevated due to the event's 10th birthday celebrations. On a regular week, there would usually be less than 100 finishers. Don't let those modest attendance figures fool you, this is a lovely country park. The forest sections were stunning and the mausoleum adds an extra unique element to the venue.

The post event refreshments are at the onsite cafe, The Copper Beech Cafe. Once we had finished refuelling, we explored the walled garden, which has a 23-metre-deep well as its centrepiece. The playground seemed pretty cool, but the kids were happier exploring the garden so we didn't end up spending any real time there.

At around midday, we'd reached the point where we had to head off, so headed back over to Thetford to continue our mini-break. I'd like to add a huge thanks to the whole team that put the event on and made us feel so welcome.

Related links:

My GPS data (11 March 2023 / Event 456)
The Relive course fly-by Video (11 March 2023 / Event 456)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...