Sunday, 28 May 2023

Church Mead parkrun

Amersham is a town which sits within the Chiltern Hills, in Buckinghamshire with a population of around 15,000 people. The earliest records of a settlement here go back to at least Anglo-Saxon times when it would have been known as Agmodesham. Other versions of the town's name have been Elmodesham, Agmondysham, Amytysham and Hagmondesham. The name is said to derive from the Old English term meaning Ealhmunds Village. The early settlement was located within the valley of the River Misbourne and this is the part of the town which is now referred to as being Old Amersham or Amersham Old Town. The modern expansion is based around the railway line which arrived at the end of the 19th century and is known as Amersham-on-the-Hill.

amersham old town

The newer part of town has grown steadily since the turn of the 20th century thanks to its direct rail link into London which has made this a popular commuter town. As the name suggests, this part of town is up on the hill, and most of the buildings date from the 1920's onwards. Some of the houses were created as part of the Metro-Land project which saw surplus land owned by the Metropolitan Railway used for house buildings projects. A few notable buildings are the High & Over House, which is a grade II Listed building which was complete in the 1920's. There was also once an Art Deco theatre/cinema called The Regent, but sadly this was closed in 1962 and demolished to make way for a supermarket soon after.

Old Amersham is centred around its historic High Street, and this part of town contains over 150 Listed Buildings from various periods from pre-Tudor times onwards. It is said that the high street looks very similar to how it would have during the 1700's. The town was once owned by relatives of Sir Francis Drake, and the family still have links to the town. St. Mary's Church, which is the town's oldest building, was founded in 1140AD. The current building was built in the 13th century and it was further enlarged during the 14th and 15th centuries. The church occupies the site of an earlier Norman building of which a few sections still remain. The north side of the church contains the Drake family chapel and their family tomb is located in a vault directly below.

st mary's church / cemetery / church mead

The churchyard is home to some extremely rare tombstones called 'body stones' which have an unusual shape to them. Apparently the only other tombstones of this design can be found in Westerham, Kent. Next to the churchyard is a beautiful remembrance garden containing a war memorial and St Mary's Cemetery is located just beyond this. A notable burial in the cemetery is that of Ruth Ellis. She was convicted of murder and in 1955 became the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom. Additionally Church Mead (meadow) is a small, grassy area adjacent to the church and this lends its name to the town's free, weekly, timed 5km event called Church Mead parkrun.

The parkrun has been a feature of the town since 9 April 2022 when the inaugural event was held. I visited the town on 27 May 2023 and took part in event number 59. As I have alluded to above, the town has a train station and this is simply called Amersham Station. It is located within the Amersham-on-the-Hill part of town and is served by national rail trains running on the Chiltern Railways between London's Marylebone Station and Aylesbury, and also by the London Underground's Metropolitan Line. The station actually falls within the London Underground's zone 9, so it is possible to travel using an Oyster card despite being outside London. Once arriving at Amersham the last leg of the journey involves heading down either Station Road towards the Old Town (just over 1 kilometre).


There are also buses that pass through the old town, with the closest bus stops being on the main road near the large Tesco. Driving to the town is of course possible, and the closest car parking option is Amersham Old Town car park which is right next to Church Mead. The car park requires a fee to be paid and this can be done via the payment machine or by using the RingGo app. As an alternative, the High Street to the west of Old Amersham Market Hall is completely free of restrictions, so you can park for free for as long as you like only a few hundred metres away. For cyclists, I don't remember seeing any bicycle racks anywhere in Old Amersham, so it may be a case of looking around for a suitable place to park up. Finally there are public toilet facilities available within Amersham Old Town car park.

The meeting point for the parkrun is on Church Mead, just in front of the cemetery and adjacent to the river. The official course page advises parkrunners not to enter Church Mead via the Memorial Gardens, but instead enter from the car park, but access is also possible via the church yard. Both the first-timers and the main briefings take place here, but a special mention should go to the creative and theatrical presentation of the first-timers briefing on the day I visited. I hear this is a regular feature and it was certainly an interesting way to present it.

barley fields

The main bulk of the course is nestled into a large triangular patch of land which sits in-between the old and new sections of the town, and consists of two mostly-off-road, anti-clockwise laps. I understand it can get pretty muddy at times, so it is predominantly a trail shoe course. It is also hilly and has quite narrow paths. With all that in mind, it's not the most buggy running friendly course, so there is a note for buggy runners to contact the team for advice before visiting. Once the briefings are done, the parkrunners move onto the grassy area on the very edge of the car park to form the start line.

The opening section of the parkrun is likely to be quite congested so it is wise to self-seed appropriately. After weaving along the narrow path through Church Mead, the course crosses the river via the small stone bridge and then follows the cemetery's boundary wall around until reaching the wide open barley fields behind. This point marks the start of the lap. The route continues to follow the boundary of the cemetery, the elevation rising and falling gently until the end of the wall where the path continues alongside the River Misbourne for a short stretch. At the south-eastern tip of the course there's a left-hand turn and the route begins its long journey uphill.

photos of the the amersham martyrs memorial courtesy of richard gower

The off-road path underfoot is embedded with chunks of flint, so care is required at all times. As the path works its way up the hill, there's a moment where the top section of a memorial stone can be seen behind the bushes. The stone is the Amersham Martyrs Memorial and it commemorates the seven residents of Amersham that were burned at the stake in the 1500's. They were Lollards who wanted to reform the Catholic Church, their main demand was to be able to read the bible and worship in English. The uphill slog continues up along this side of the fields until reaching a marshal at the entrance to a wooded area called Parsonage Wood.

The section in the woods begins with a slight dip in elevation, but the uphill theme is resumed shortly after. The surface underfoot continues to be precarious, as along with chunks of flint, there are also tree roots (and over the winter months a fair amount of mud) to deal with. On the day I visited I found that the lighting in the woods made it quite difficult to identify any potential trip hazards up ahead. In fact there was a lady who tripped and fell. The woods are quite beautiful and clearly very old. The highest point of the course is reached at the northern end of the course where it meets the adjacent road, Rectory Hill. After about 200 metres of some flat terrain, the course begins its descent.

parsonage wood

As the course descends there is a gully which runs along the path, which could also be a trip hazard, so watch out for that. The downhill section is shorter than the uphill, which of course means it is steeper. As the course exits the woods, parkrunners are treated to a fantastic view across the valley and onwards towards the hills and fields beyond. The path downhill is part tarmac so it is a sensible idea to stick to the smoother surface and avoid any potential trip hazards. At the bottom of the hill the course reaches the corner with the cemetery and a second, identical, lap begins.

At the end of the second lap, the course follows the cemetery boundary back around towards Church Mead where the finish is found in-between the cemetery and the river. After the finish line there is a small wooden bridge which can be used to cross back onto the main Church Mead grassy area where the barcode scanning takes place. Once all the parkrunners have completed the course and all the signage and marshals have returned, the team heads over to Seasons Cafe for the post-parkrun refreshments and social. They have a wonderful selection of breakfasts, cakes, pastries and drinks.

the view

I recorded the course using my Garmin and the course data can be viewed on Strava. The data was used to create a course fly-by video using the Relive app, and that can be viewed on YouTube.

The results for event 59 were published later that morning and 117 people took part. That is a little higher than the average, which is currently 100.5, but it's also not unusual for the turn out to be in double figures. It's a really nice, scenic, challenging course. I'd like to extend my thanks to all of the volunteers involved in putting the event on and making my visit a very enjoyable one.

finish / church mead

I continued the rest of my morning by exploring the Old Town. St Mary's Church, Old Amersham Market Hall, and The Kings Arms pub are notable buildings which I made sure to see. The Crown Hotel was used as a filming location for a scene in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. While on the subject of filming, the town was also used in Midsomer Murders, Sky TV's Midwich Cuckoos, the 1973 Metro-Land documentary and the 1997 Metroland film. Then there was this from Taskmaster which was filmed on Church Mead. Lastly the BBC sitcom Cuckoo has many scenes filmed in town, and there's even a choreographed umbrella dance scene in the Memorial Garden. 

While wandering around I couldn't believe how many locals stopped to talk to me. I think this may be the friendliest town I have ever visited!

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