Sunday 30 April 2023

Beckton parkrun

Historically the area that we now know as Beckton, East London, was known as East Ham Levels. It was for most of its history uninhabited marshland alongside the River Thames. The first development in the area came following an outbreak of cholera (1853) followed by the Great Stink (1858) in London. The city was growing and London's drains were not designed to cope with the increasingly popular 'flushing toilet'. So in 1864 the Northern Outfall Sewer was constructed. This used gravity to direct sewage from London through to Beckton where the sewage was deposited in the River Thames. This of course polluted the river, and from c.1889 the decision was made to treat the sewage before releasing it via Beckton Sewage Works. It is still in operation and the sewage works is currently the largest in the country and the 7th largest in Europe.

In 1868 the Gas Light and Coke Company began construction of a gas works on the land adjacent to the sewage works. This was built to extract gas from coal, and the plant also processed the waste products into a whole host of other products including fertilisers, dyes and creosote. The plant covered an area of around 500 acres and was given the name Beckton after the name of the company's governor Simon Adams Beck. An area to the west of the plant was developed into housing for workers and this became New Beckton. Much of the adjoining land was used as allotments for the local residents. During the Second World War, part of the marshland was used an a Prisoner of War camp. By 1949 it was the largest gas works in the world, and continued to operate until the mid-seventies when it could no longer compete with the cheaper North Sea Gas and closed down for good.

The now disused gas works was used on a few occasions as a filming set. Notably for Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, and Nineteen-Eighty-Four based on George Orwell's book. It was also used as a set for music videos including The Smiths' 'The Queen is Dead' and Oasis' 'D'you Know What I Mean?'. The next phase of Beckton's development came as part of the London Docklands project. Much of the land of the former gas works has been repurposed as large retail and business parks largely known as Gallions Reach, plus new housing has been built. Some of the gas containers are still standing.

The toxic waste material from the site was piled high and after closure this posed a health risk. The solution was to cover the huge slag pile with soil, around half a metre in depth, to seal the hazardous material inside. It is said that the soil used to achieve this came from the construction of the basement of the British Library's building over at St Pancras. In the mid-eighties the huge mountain of toxic waste (known locally as Beckton Alps) became home to a dry ski slope, and this was in operation through until the early-2000s when it closed for refurbishments, but never re-opened. Part of the site has now been designated as a site of nature conservation interest, while some parts remain closed for safety reasons.

Some of the former marshland and allotments in-between the new housing has now been developed into a series of parks in the west of Beckton and into the adjacent ward of Custom House. These open spaces consisted of King George V Playing Fields, Beckton City Farm, New Beckton Park, Beckton District Park (North) and Beckton District Park (South). Sadly Beckton City Farm closed during the Covid-19 lockdown and never re-opened, the final nail being a council vote in 2022 which confirmed its permanent closure. We were lucky enough to have visited the farm back in 2013 during our first visit to the area, which was of course the visit Beckton parkrun.

The parkrun takes place within the southern part of Beckton District Park (South) and the meeting point for the event is outside the Will Thorne Pavilion (very distinctive building with pyramid-shaped roof features). The pavilion is named after Will Thorne who was a local resident. He worked at Beckton gas works and eventually went on to become a Labour MP. He was one of the founding members of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers (now GMB). The adjacent car park also bears his name and this is accessed from Stanstead Road. If visiting on a weekend there is no charge to park here. There is a different arrangement between Monday and Friday.

Public transport travel options to reach the venue are limited but still sufficient. The best option is to use the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and alight at Royal Albert Station which is about 600 metres away from the meeting point. If you fancy a slightly longer walk, Beckton Park DLR Station can also be used and is about 1km away. The closest mainline and underground stations are too far away to be considered as viable options. The 376 bus stops on Stansfield Road, right next to the meeting point. There is also a number 300 service and this stops a little further away. There are toilets (not open to the general public) located in the pavilion which are opened when the run director arrives.

Beckton District Park (South) is split into two by the pavilion and the car park; on one side there is an undulating section featuring wildflower meadows and woodland which is used for nature conservation. The other part contains a a small pond, a playground, and some large open grass areas which are used for sports pitches (mostly football).The parkrun takes place over a flat, two lap, anti-clockwise, multi-terrain course. The surfaces underfoot are split between grass/mud and tarmac/brick paths. The course is fine for those wishing to take part with a running buggy, although the grass sections may be a little more challenging during wetter periods. You can see the course in more detail by looking at my GPS data or in this fly-by video.

The briefings, especially the first timers one, are the most intimate and detailed you will find at any parkrun. They take place just outside the pavilion, and the start is just on the main path next to the playground. The two laps are not identical, but the differences occur towards the end of each lap. The first part of the course is on the tarmac path that runs adjacent to Stansfield Road, but this changes to grass after a couple of hundred metres when the route passes around the perimeter of the first sports fields at the far southern end of the park. The off-road theme continues as it passes through a gap in the treeline and into a second, smaller, sports field where again the route again follows its perimeter. The grass sections are very well marked with arrows and small flags. The surface underfoot changes back to tarmac upon reaching the south eastern tip of the course.

The tarmac path, which sometimes has quite a pronounced camber, leads the participants around to an out-and-back section. This takes place on a perfectly straight pathway called the Beckton Corridor. It once formed part of the railway line that ran to the original Beckton railway station which was located within the Beckton Gas Works. In total the gas works apparently contained 77 miles of track within its boundaries. It operated as both freight and passenger line until 1940 when bombing from the blitz temporarily cut the Beckton branch off from the main line. Post-war the line reopened, but only to freight trains. It closed for good in 1970.

The turnaround point is at the tall black post about halfway along the path - it has a turnaround sign on it (see photo below). The end of the out-and-back is where the two laps differ. On the first lap the course goes around the edge of the pond area, partly on a woodland-style path, before joining another path which leads back towards the pavilion.

The second lap starts by passing the playground and then rejoins the original lap. When reaching the pond at the end of the out-and-back section on the second lap, the course continues straight on and passes through the park's central avenue of trees, which is very pleasant indeed. The very last thing to do is a sharp right hand turn at the end of the avenue onto the grass where a cone-lined zig-zag takes the participants into the finish, which is outside the playground and pavilion.

Barcodes and finish tokens are scanned back outside the pavilion. As there is no cafe at this venue, but the team actually organise their own tea, coffee and water. You may even find some biscuits or cakes on the table too.

Beckton parkrun is quite famous for being one of London's smallest events and I'm pretty sure that it may even be the capital's smallest. As of April 2023, the average number of attendees was 48.5. When I first visited in November 2013 (event 76) there were 19 participants and on our second visit in April 2023 (event 502) there were 65.

The run director pointed out to me that a large percentage of the participants each week are first-timers or tourists and out of the 65 present at event number 502, 25 were first-timers (38%). So on an average week, it is safe to expect somewhere in the region of 40-70 participants. However due to the event's close proximity to the ExCel Centre, the numbers do increase on the weekend of the London Marathon (but nothing like the increase seen by their neighbour Victoria Dock parkrun (blog7t write-up)).

So with the parkrun done and dusted we would have really liked to repeat our 2013 visit to Beckton City Farm, but sadly, as I mentioned above, it has now been permanently closed. Our post-parkrun activities this time consisted of some time exploring the pond area of the park which features lots of bird boxes, wooden benches and other quirky arty things. We also managed to see the pond's resident ducks and terrapins.

We then headed over to Royal Albert Dock where we spent a good hour watching planes land and take-off from London City Airport. Our morning out in Beckton had been brilliant, and a big part of that was the fantastic welcome we received from the amazing team at Beckton parkrun. It is often said that parkrun is a family and this event just captures the essence of that perfectly. Thank you so much for having us.

Related links:

The course GPS data (29 April 2023)
The course fly-by video (29 April 2023)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...