Sunday 19 March 2023

Brockwell parkrun

The London Borough of Lambeth occupies an area of 10.36 square miles just to the south of the River Thames. It has a population of just over 300,000 people. In the 12th century, the area was in the Manor of Lambeth, which was owned by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury. Lambeth Palace, is still the Arch Bishop's official London residence whose library contains the largest collection of religious books outside of the Vatican. There are two districts within the borough that are important to this blog post, these are Herne Hill and Tulse Hill.

The area which is now home to Brockwell Park was formerly part of the large area belonging to the Tulse family, their name is of course immortalised in the district of Tulse Hill. However, the association with the family has a darker side as they were heavily involved in the West African slave trade. The area has a link to astrophysics, as astronomer Sir William Huggins lived and worked in his private observatory (at 90 Tulse Hill Road) where he did pioneering work in the area of astrophysics. He was the first person to distinguish the differences between nebulas and galaxies.

In the early 1800's the parkland was acquired by a glass merchant named John Blades. He had a mansion built at the highest point of the park and this was named Brockwell Hall, replacing an earlier building of the same name (also previously referred to as Brockalle and Brockholds), but in a slightly different location. The grounds, which had been fields, were now laid out as a private park. When the estate was put up for sale in the 1880's a local MP, Thomas Lynn Bristowe, led a campaign for it to be purchased for the benefit of the public, which it was.

The site was opened as a public park on 6 June 1892. Tragically Thomas Lynn Bristowe died from a heart attack on the steps of Brockwell Hall during the opening ceremony. The park was subsequently expanded and landscape architect Lt. Col. JJ Sexby was hired to create many of the park's features. He added formal flower beds, ponds, trees, paths, a bandstand and an 'Old English' walled garden. In celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897), Sir Charles Ernest Tritton MP, Bristowe's successor, donated a clocktower to the park. It is known as Brockwell Park Clock Tower, or sometimes the Tritton Clock. It still stands in the park, and was fully restored in 2014.

In 1937 the Brockwell Lido was opened. Its design is of the Moderne Style (apparently closely related to Art Deco, but not quite the same). The lido had a brief period of closure in the 1990s but is now fully open. It was given Grade II listed status in 2003. The Second World War saw the park transformed. Parts were used as an army training ground, air raid shelters were installed, some of the ground was used for allotments, and buildings were constructed where research into vaccines was carried out. Once the war ended, it returned to being a public park and since in 1970 it has been under the care of Lambeth Council.

The 1980's saw Lambeth Council put forward plans to create a 1,000-seat athletics stadium in the park. This led to the formation of the Friends of Brockwell Park, who successfully campaigned against its creation. They have been a voice for the local residents ever since.

The modern-day park covers an area of 126 acres and has been given Grade II status on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It sits within the boundaries of the Herne Hill district. Most of the original features mentioned above still exist, however the bandstand was demolished during the second world war. The park also now has a playground, tennis and basketball courts, BMX track (home to Brixton BMX Club) and a 7 1/4 inch miniature railway. The park also hosts the Lambeth Country Show every summer. Over the years it has also hosted a number of festivals, with many well-known musical artists such as Elvis Costello, Aswad, Pete Townshend, Stiff Little Fingers, The Style Council, Madness, The Damned, The Manic Street Preachers, The Levellers, Four Tet, Erikah Badu, Grace Jones, Yoko Ono and Boy George, all performing here over the years.

In December 2010 the park became home to a free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Brockwell parkrun. We first visited in 2013 where I took part with my daughter in the running buggy. We did actually visit the park again in 2014, but for Brockwell junior parkrun where my daughter ran and I volunteered as the official photographer. After re-reading my original 2013 Brockwell parkrun write-up, I realised it needed to be re-written, so in order to give it the full treatment, we revisited the park on Saturday 18 March 2023 and took part in Brockwell parkrun's 537th event.

Being in London, public transport options are generally pretty good. There are a number of buses that pass close to the park, the numbers 3, 37, 196 and 690 all stop right outside the Lido, while a whole host of other services stop on Norwood Road, to the south of the park. As far as trains are concerned, Herne Hill is the station to head for. There isn't an overground or underground service directly to the park, however, the closest option for the underground would be Brixton via the Victoria Line. That would leave around 1 mile to complete the rest of the journey. For any cyclists, there is a large bank of cycle racks right outside the lido.

If driving, the obvious place to park is outside the lido on Dulwich Road which allows free on-street parking at weekends. If that doesn't work out, the side roads off Dulwich Road appear to have the same arrangement. Once in the park, the parkrun meeting point can be found in the area adjacent to the lido. However if you need to use the facilities, you'll need to take a short walk over to one of the two public toilet blocks in the park. The closest is next to the BMX track (500 metres walk from the lido), while the other option is next to the walled garden (about 700 metres walk from the lido). Just before 9am, the briefings take place within the gravelly area adjacent to the footpath.

The course is two anti-clockwise laps of the park, but the laps are not identical. The surface underfoot is tarmac so road shoes are the go-to option at all times. If you were reading carefully beforehand, you may have already figured out that the park isn't flat. The park is fine for a spot of buggy running. I'd imagine that surface-wise wheelchair athletes would be fine, you'd just need good strength in your arms for the inclines. Attendance figures seem to hover around the 300 mark, so it's well attended and you should find a diverse range of abilities from super-fast all the way through to the walkers.

The start can be found on the path just to the north-west of the lido. The first lap is the longer of the two and the first section is not repeated on the second lap. It is asked that parkrunners keep to the left hand side of the paths where possible. It starts by first heading to the north where there's a sharp but wide and smooth turn where the course follows the perimeter path. The first kilometre consists of a long, slow incline all the way to one of the park's high points at the south-west corner of the park. Along here there's a glimpse of the ponds and it is also possible to see Crystal Palace Tower (Crystal Palace parkrun write-up) in the distance.

Once at the highest point of the course (reached at 1.1km and 3.5km), the participants have earned the right to a bit of downhill, and that's what happens all the way from the south-west corner along the south and eastern sides where you can get a glimpse of Brockwell Hall. The undulating nature of the park really helps to make it very scenic and picturesque. When approaching the park's Herne Hill entrance, the scenic parkland is briefly overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of the busy road junction at Herne Hill station just outside the park, but the peaceful park scene is restored quite quickly after passing the gate.

Towards the end of the loop the course passes the miniature train line, followed by the lido, and the next section of path leads towards the original start point. However the course doesn't go all the way back to the start. On the first lap, the course takes a left-hand turn and heads uphill past the gravelly briefing area and the BMX track. This mini-summit is soon reached and the course immediately heads downhill where the path rejoins the perimeter path near the ponds. The course now continues on the familiar sections of perimeter path right the way around past the lido where the finish funnel can be found.

There were marshals dotted around the course in many useful places, but I will note that there were some sections where the paths split with no marshals or signs to guide the way. Most participants will be fortunate enough to just follow the crowd, but if someone happened to be in a place within the field where there is no-one to follow, it would be possible for a wrong turn to be made. Anyway, once through the finish funnel, the participants head back into the open gravelly area to have their barcode and finish token scanned.

The official post-parkrun social venue listed on the course page is the Brockwell Park Cafe located in Brockwell Hall, which is over in the centre of the park right on top of the hill. There is another on-site option, which is the Four Hundred Rabbits cafe/restaurant which is located within the lido building, and I suspect that if any parkrunners stayed for refreshments may have gone there as it is closer to the finish. We had already decided to explore the park, so we wandered up to the Brockwell Hall Cafe for our breakfast and they had a brilliant selection of food, drinks and cakes. Inside the main doorway is a bust of Thomas Lynn Bristowe, so it was nice to see that he is remembered, as it is possible that the park would not be here if not for his efforts.

I really have to say that this park must be one of London's finest. Our post-parkrun explorations led us into the walled garden, which was brilliant (it must be stunning when in full bloom). There is also a folly called the Temple Building, they say it is about 200 years old so it would have been built at around the same time as the main house. There are a few model village houses outside the walled garden which were cool to see, they were originally part of a much larger set which was gifted to the park in 1947 (subsequently restored in 2002). I believe some of the others have been relocated to Vauxhall Park which is a few kilometres to the north of Brockwell Park. One of the buildings is a replica of the Brixton Ritzy which is a Grade II listed cinema in Brixton.

We spent some time around the ponds where there were swans. One of them was occupying a very impressive nest, which contained their eggs. There is also quite a nicely landscaped children's water play area. It was closed when we visited (March, so a bit cold for outdoor paddling), but it looked very nice. I bet it gets very busy in the summer.

We also took in the view towards central London from the top of the park, where you can see the Shard and most of the other skyscrapers in the city of London. I mentioned that Crystal Palace Tower can be seen, but if you look carefully you can also see the chimneys of Battersea Power Station and the London Eye. We would have liked to have had a ride on the Brockwell Park Miniature Railway, however it only operates on Sundays between March and October.

While all that was happening, the parkrun results for event 537 had been processed and published online. The number of participants was slightly lower than what would usually be expected, which may have been down to the rain early that morning. In total there were 227 participants and 19 volunteers on this occasion. Should you wish to view the course in a little more detail, please feel free to take a look at the GPS data I gathered via my Garmin or take a look at the course fly-by video which was made from that data. Lastly, a big thank you goes out to all of the volunteers that made it all possible.

Related links:

My GPS data (18 March 2023 / Event 537)
The Relive course fly-by video (18 March 2023 / Event 537)

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