Monday 17 April 2023

Wimbledon Common parkrun

Wimbledon is a district in the London Borough of Merton, with a population of around 70,000 people. It was recorded as Wimbedounyng in 967 when the original settlement centered on the area that is now Wimbledon Village. The name is said to mean Wynnman's Hill. The area is most well known for its tennis championships which are the oldest and most prestigious in the world. The competition, which has been held since 1877, takes place every July and brings around half-a-million visitors into Wimbledon over its two-week duration.

Elsewhere in sports, Wimbledon Football Club enjoyed huge success in the 1980s when they went from the old English fourth division through the the old English 1st division in 4 years. They also won the FA Cup in 1986 (I saw them play at Wembley in the 1986 Charity Shield against Liverpool). Wimbledon Stadium was a greyhound racing venue, which also hosted Speedway events and Stock Car Racing. The stadium was also used for the music video for Queen's 1978 song Bicycle Race. It is also home to a couple of theatres. New Wimbledon Theatre opened in 1910 and is unique in that it is the only theatre in Britain to have a Victorian-style Turkish Bath in its basement. It has hosted performances by many well known people including Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and, Laurel and Hardy. The second is called Polka, and it is the UK's first theatre dedicated to children. 

Wimbledon was part of the Manor of Mortlake at the time of the Domesday Book, but went on to become a manor in its own right. There have been a number of houses associated with the Manor of Wimbledon, but the first was The Old Rectory which was built in the early 1500's and over the years has been owned by King Henry VIII who gave it to Catherine Parr, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I. In more recent times it was owned by Brian May, lead guitarist in the rock band Queen. It is the oldest inhabited building in Wimbledon which, from what I can see, was last sold for £17.5 million in 2013. It is apparently the area's most expensive house.

Wimbledon also once had a palace which was said to rival the grandeur of Henry VIII's Nonsuch Palace. It stood near to The Old Rectory, but dwarfed it in size. It had large terraces with grand staircases leading up to the palace itself. It survived until around 1720 when it was demolished. The immediate area is now Wimbledon Village which I understand is the most desirable part of Wimbledon to live in. It has a quaint village feel with a selection of boutique shops. The houses, cottages, and mansions are generally valued between £2 million and £10 million.

The earliest known settlement in Wimbledon was an iron age hill fort (the second largest in London), and this was located on what is now Wimbledon Common. The location of the hill fort is marked on maps as Caesar's Camp and is located towards the south of the common, near (or within) the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club. Just to the north of the fort is Caesar's Well, this is a natural spring which is thought may have been in use since the Neolithic period. Wimbledon Common is part of a larger expanse of common land which also includes Putney Heath / Common and, further to the north, Putney Lower Common. They are managed under the joint name of Wimbledon and Putney Commons.

The common has a feature which many would not expect to see in London, a windmill. It is simply known as Wimbledon Windmill. It was constructed in c.1816. In 1864 the Lord of the Manor, Earl Spencer, attempted to gain permission to enclose the common to build a new house and grounds in one part, and to sell off another part for other developments. At the same time, the miller was evicted from the windmill as this was the site the Earl had in mind for his new manor house. The miller stripped the windmill of its working parts when he left. Fortunately permission to enclose the land was refused and the land was preserved. The windmill was repurposed as residential accommodation. It has been restored several times over the years, and became a museum in 1975.

Wimbledon and Putney Commons are one of the largest areas of common land in London and cover 1,140 acres. The commons are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. They contain particularly important areas of bog land and mature woodland. It also provides ideal conditions for wildlife including the Stag Beetle. By far the most famous of Wimbledon Common's wildlife are the Wombles. These are furry creatures with a pointy nose that live in burrows. They are known for collecting and recycling things that the everyday folks leave behind. They are also organised, work as a team, tidy and clean.

In January 2007 Wimbledon Common became home to a free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Wimbledon Common Time Trial. In 2008 the Time Trial suffix was dropped and replaced with the much more inclusive name of parkrun, where it of course became Wimbledon Common parkrun. At the time of its inaugural the only other parkrun event in existence was the one and only Bushy parkrun (blog) (then known as Bushy Park Time Trial), so the creation of this event marked the first step in parkrun's expansion outside of its original home.

My first visit to this event was in August 2013 and I travelled by bicycle from Westminster. There are plenty of bicycle racks in the main car parking area, which is next to the windmill. However due to the large number of people using bicycles, the racks do tend to end up used to their full capacity. Driving to the event is generally discouraged as the Windmill car park can become overwhelmed (for the record, it isn't tiny. At a rough count it must be able to hold a couple of hundred vehicles). If you have to drive, there are three other official car parks on the commons, but they are a bit further away. The car park has a voluntary car park donation scheme in operation, so there is no fixed fee for parking here.

If travelling by public transport, the closest train station is Wimbledon (served by mainline rail and the District Line) but please be aware that it is almost 3 kilometres away. Other options are to use the District Line on the underground and alight at Southfields or Wimbledon Park. However neither of those actually make the walk to the common much shorter. As far as buses are concerned, the service that gets the closest to the parkrun is the 93 which runs between Putney and Sutton. There are other buses that stop a little further away, such as the 85, 265 and 969 which all stop outside Putney Vale Cemetery, which is adjacent to the common.

The parkrun meeting point is just next to the Windmill car park, and there are also toilets here which are advertised as being open from 7am. The briefings take place on the adjacent grass area and the participants then make their way over to the start area, which is a few hundred metres away. An interesting detail is that the entire parkrun appears to take place in the Putney Heath section of the commons rather than on Wimbledon Common, also this part of the commons sits within the adjacent London Borough of Wandsworth. However it does make sense to call it Wimbledon Common as Putney Heath also extends to another area across the main road and could possibly cause confusion as to the exact location.

The route takes place over two-and-a-bit anti-clockwise loops around the northern section of the commons. It is completely flat and features dirt paths underfoot, these dirt paths can turn into a real puddle and mud-fest during the winter and wetter parts of the year, so trail shoes are advisable on this course. There are also areas with protruding stones and tree roots. The course is perfectly fine for those participating with buggies. When I first visited I noted that flour was used to mark the start line and create directional arrows throughout the course, and I was pleased to see that this tradition is still alive. Please note there are no regular directional arrows or other parkrun signage at the venue. I would also note that the official course map is slightly different to the actual course.

The general landscape visible during the parkrun is mostly wooded, but there are a couple of more open heath areas visible at certain points. From the start the course heads back along the path until it reaches the briefing area where a left hand turn means the route joins the Capital Ring path which passes through the common. At the end of this path the course again turns left and follows the path which runs alongside the A219 road which is also known as Wimbledon Park Side. If visiting at wetter times of the year, this is where the first sections of proper mud are found. One of the common's many ponds can be found adjacent to this path - this one is called '7 Post Pond'. The pond was dug to extract gravel and was subsequently used to dip wooden cart wheels to swell and secure them to their rims.

Another left hand turn takes the route towards and past Wimbledon Common's largest lake. This one is called 'Kingsmere'. It is rich in wildlife including fish and features a small island (created from the spoil from dredging) which provides a safe nesting area for many of the water birds that reside here. The paths along here hold onto a lot of water so this is where most of the very large and deep puddles can be found. The course continues with another left hand turn which brings the route back round to the original start area. The lap is then repeated and the finish is found next to the original briefing area.

The course had three marshals during our 2023 visit and they were positioned at the left hand turns. I will note that two of the marshal points had been stood down by the time we went around the second lap, I'm not sure if this was a one-off or if it happens every week. So if you happen to be further back in the field, it is worth being prepared for this. As always I had recorded the GPS data of the course and also converted this into a fly-by video, so they are both available online for information.

The finish token and barcodes are scanned right next to the finish line and the post-event refreshments can be had at the Windmill Tearooms. We didn't go in to sample what they had, but they are an independent business serving tea, coffee, cakes, breakfast and some homemade food dishes that sound delicious. It has been run by the same family since 1969. There are many more areas to explore on the commons plus there are a few war memorials and loads more hidden areas to discover. However my son had made me run through every single puddle so our feet were soaked through. We didn't fancy wandering around with wet feet, so we decided to head off home. If we hadn't headed straight off, I would have liked to have popped into the Wimbledon Windmill Museum, which is free-of-charge but sadly doesn't open until 2pm on Saturdays.

The results were published later that morning and 367 people had taken part in event number 786. Attendances generally hover around the 400 mark so it was around the expected figure.

A final thank you goes to all of the volunteers that put the event on and made us feel welcome.

Related links:

GPS data of the course (15 April 2023)

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