Sunday 14 May 2023

Old Deer Park parkrun

Old Deer Park is an area of green space beside the River Thames in Richmond, in the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames. It forms part of a chain of separate green spaces which include the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and the grounds of Syon House which sits on the opposite bank of the river. The total area of Old Deer Park covers 360 acres of which 220 acres are leased for private sports use and the remaining 140 acres are open to the public.

The area that is now Richmond was previously called Shene and this came from the Royal Manor of Shene, which itself used to be part of the Royal Manor of Kingston. There has been a manor at Shene since about 1125. Please note that the Shene mentioned here is not the same as the modern day district of Sheen which is just to the east. Various royals lived in the manor house throughout the years, and in around 1360 the manor house was improved by Edward III and became Shene Palace. The English poet and author, Geoffrey Chaucer served in the palace as a yeoman at this time.

1383 saw Richard II became the first monarch to make the palace his main residence. However his wife, Anne of Bohemia died from plague at the palace a few years later. It seems that the distraught King then abandoned the palace where it was defaced and became a ruin or was demolished (information varies). Henry V was the next monarch to become involved in the palace. He had it rebuilt in 1414. In the same year Henry V also founded a Carthusian Monastery, called Shene Priory, and this stood within what is now one of the private sports areas of Old Deer Park.

The next big change came in 1497 when Shene Palace was destroyed by fire. The palace was occupied by a large number of the royal family at the time and most, including the 6-year-old future King Henry VIII, only just made it out alive. This led to Henry VII building a brand new palace, and the king decided to name it after his former title, Earl of Richmond, whose seat was Richmond Castle in Yorkshire. This of course meant that the area became the Royal Manor of Richmond. The palace would eventually be given to Anne of Cleves as part of her marriage annulment settlement with Henry VIII. In 1539 the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act meant that Shene Priory was closed down.

To the north of the palace, Old Deer Park was originally known as Newe Parke of Shene and during the 16th century was a favoured deer hunting spot for Queen Elizabeth I. Incidentally, Elizabeth I's godson, John Harington, invented the flushing lavatory, and the palace was one of the first buildings to have one installed. Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace in 1603 and the parkland was formally made a Royal hunting ground by her succesor James I. King Charles I, who also enjoyed hunting deer, created a larger hunting ground, called King's New Park, in 1637 and this led to the original Newe Parke being renamed as the Old Deer Park. The King's New Park is now called Richmond Park, the largest of London's royal parks. After Charles I was executed, Richmond Palace was slowly demolished with the stones being used as building materials elsewhere. It was never rebuilt.

The royal connection with the land remained strong and a house within the boundaries of Old Deer Park called Richmond Lodge became the summer countryside residence of King George II. It then passed to King George III who had an interest in astronomy. He had an observatory (The King's Observatory) built in the park and this building went on to become a centre where scientific instruments, watches, barometers, thermometers etc, were tested for accuracy. This function passed to National Physical Laboratory (in Bushy Park) in 1910. It was also used to set Standard London Time before the responsibility passed over the Greenwich. The building is now Grade I Listed and is currently a private residence.

The parkland is still owned by the Crown and has been split-up into areas with different uses. Since 1892 the largest portion has been occupied by Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, which has two 18-hole golf courses. The foundations of Shene Priory are apparently located under the fairway of the 14th hole of the outer golf course. The rest of the park consists of various sports clubs (rugby, cricket, tennis, archery) which are based within another private area. The far southern area contains the 140 acres that are open to the public. This space is quite open and is used for sports and other community related activities. It is bordered by the Thames, the golf club, and the busy Twickenham Road. It is also the home to a Grade II Listed swimming pool, originally known as Richmond Baths but now called Pools on the Park.

In August 2010 the parkland became home to Old Deer Park parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed, 5km event open to all abilities. I first visited Old Deer Park in January 2013 to take part in the event, and it turned out to be a very cold and wintery experience with the course covered in snow. I did however receive the warmest welcome I could hope for and I was even being cheered on by name throughout the event despite it being my first visit. Fast-forward to May 2023 and I finally returned to see what the park looked like without its winter coat on.

Travel options to reach the venue are pretty good. In 2013 I took the main nation rail train from Waterloo to Richmond Station, this station is also served by the London Overground and the London Underground. The onward walk is only around 500 metres. There are also a number of buses that serve the area. Cyclists can secure their bikes to the cycle racks in the park near the playground or at the swimming pool, or just use the wooden fence near the meeting point.

Please note that drivers are asked to not use the swimming pool car park, but to instead use the park's official parking area just on the other side of Twickenham Road. It is connected to the park by a footbridge and holds 285 cars. Parking fees are on the high side (Richmond Council's information page), but won't break the bank unless you're staying for an extended period. Payment can be made at the machine, by phone or via the RingGo app. An option for some free parking that has been brought to my attention is to park on the opposite side of the the River Thames (Ranelagh Drive) and use the pedestrian crossing over Richmond Lock and Weir to reach the park, which can be accessed from the Thames Path. Toilet facilities are available to parkrunners inside the swimming pool building (just tell the staff at the counter that you are taking part in the parkrun and they'll let you through).

The parkrun meeting point can be found just behind the swimming pool on the grass at the eastern side of Old Deer Park. The briefings take place in this area and everybody then walks across to the start area which is next to the tennis courts. The course is almost completely flat and takes place over a clockwise three-and-a-bit lap course which almost exclusively features grass underfoot. There is just one short section on a tarmac path each lap. It is worth bearing in mind that the park is used as a flood plain due to it being low lying and adjacent to the river, so its not uncommon for it to hold onto some water. Shoe choice will come down to personal preference, but I would go for trails in the winter or after wet weather. Buggy running is fine here, but please note that dogs are not permitted at this event.

The parkrun starts at 9am and the route is very simple to follow, as signage is present all around the course. The signage is made up of arrows at some points and elsewhere you will find permanent, wooden course marker posts. It is broadly speaking rectangular in shape with each lap being almost exactly one mile in length. The only real features to look out for around the course are the three obelisks that stand on the western side of the park. These were put in place as meridian markers to assist with King George III's observation of the 1769 transit of Venus from The King's Observatory. There is apparently an intentional gap in the trees, which has been created to maintain the observatory's historic sight lines. I tried to spot the observatory, but I just couldn't see it.

At the end of the three laps, there is of course a finish funnel to enter and this is located back at the original meeting/briefing point. Barcode scanning takes place at the end of the funnel. The post-event refreshments are held in the swimming pool cafe.

After the parkrun and a visit to the playground, we went off to explore the centre of Richmond. The famous and iconic Richmond Green and the adjoining quaint streets are only a stone's throw away. This spot is a must-visit location for fans of the TV show Ted Lasso, as many of its scenes are filmed around the green. Richmond Green has also been used in The Sandman Netflix series. Richmond itself has also been a filming location for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Finding Neverland, A Fish Called Wanda, The Young Victoria, Bedazzled, and many other films.

There are also some sections of the Richmond Palace complex which have survived, so that's also another place we visited. The foundations of the palace are buried under the garden of Trumpeter's House and there was an episode of Time Team (series 5, episode 1) in which these were investigated. Richmond has a museum in the Old Town Hall (free entry) which contains a model of Henry VII's rebuilt palace, however on the day we visited the museum was closed as the staff were manning a stall at an event. so I sadly didn't get to see it. The Thames Path also provided us with a beautiful location for a walk along the river.

While we were exploring, our parkrun results had been processed and published online. There had been 158 participants at event number 580. The current average number for this event is around 140 or so during the good weather, but it can drop down to under a hundred during the winter. It's also worth noting that there is an alternative course (3 laps) which is sometimes used. My understanding is that the main reason for switching is usually when a circus or fairground is in town. When the alternative course is being used, the meeting point and finish shift over to the start area. The GPS data and Relive course fly-by videos of both courses can be viewed via the links below.

The volunteers and other regulars had made us feel so welcome, so a very big thank you goes out to everyone involved with the event for that.

Related Links:

My GPS data (May 2023)

The London parkruns (blog7t page)

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