Tuesday 27 June 2023

Margate parkrun

Margate is a town, and popular seaside resort, in the district of Thanet, in Kent. It sits in the north-eastern corner of the county and looks out over the point where the Thames Estuary meets the North Sea. It has a population of just over 60,000 people, rising considerably during the summer months when holiday-makers and day-trippers make this a very busy destination. The town was recorded as a settlement in the hundred of Thanet in the Domesday book, and subsequently also referred to as Meregate. The name is thought to be related to a gap, or pool gate, in rocks where water pooled. Possibly also related to the area's historic salt marsh, which was known as the Mere.

The town's location next to the sea has dominated its history, where it started out as a small fishing village. It was a limb of Dover in the confederation of Cinque Ports, a status which it still holds. In the 18th century, seaside resorts started to become popular, and Margate, with its relatively close proximity to London, was instantly one of the most popular. It has remained that way for the last 250 years. Those early patrons would have most likely arrived on a boat called a Hoy, before steamships took over the roll in later years. This all changed in the 19th century when the railway line to Margate was constructed, enabling easy access from London and other nearby towns. Its sandy beach, Margate Main Sands is of course one of the big reasons for visiting. There is also a lovely Old Town which features many historic buildings including the Tudor House which dates back to c.1525.

Margate's biggest and most famous attraction is its amusement park, which is situated on the site of the Mere salt marsh. The site first became used for entertainment during the 1870's. At that point in time it would have been home to a Pleasure Garden, possibly containing circus animals. The 1880's saw the introduction of some early amusement rides. In 1919 the name Dreamland was introduced and in 1920 the Scenic Railway opened. This is the oldest rollercoaster in the UK and despite partial destruction, multiple fires and a brief period of closure, is still going strong to this day. In fact in 2002 it became the first roller coaster to ever be given Grade II Listed status. Alongside Dreamland, and now bearing its name, is the stunning seafront Art Deco cinema built in 1923. This was used as the primary filming location for the 2022 film, Empire of Light.

Elsewhere in Margate there is a historic clocktower, built to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The town is also home to Theatre Royal; built in 1787, it is the UK's second oldest working theatre. In 1835, what is known as, the Shell Grotto, was accidentally discovered during renovation work to a house. The grotto is entirely underground and consists of a long passage with a rectangular room at the end. The walls and roof are covered in mosaics made of approximately 4.6 million seashells. Nobody knows exactly what it is, why it was built, who built it, or when it was built. It simply remains a mystery. It is open to the public where there is a small entry fee to access it. There is also another underground feature which can be visited, Margate Caves, these caves are the remains of chalk mines.

For fans of poetry, the famous poet T.S Elliot spent some time in Margate while recovering from a nervous breakdown. During this time he wrote part of The Waste Lands, which, according to Wikipedia is 'widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th Century'. There is a shelter on the seafront in which he is known to have sat, and where he would have spent time writing the poem. It is called Nayland Rock shelter and is Grade II Listed. In other arts, the painter J.M.W Turner was a regular visitor to Margate. He was drawn by the area's incredible skies and is known to have regarded them as the best in Europe. A large number of his paintings are of, or inspired, by the area. Margate now features the Turner Contemporary art gallery, built on the very spot of the guest house in which Turner stayed.

Over the years I have visited Margate many times. My last two visits have been as part of visiting the town's free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Margate parkrun. My first visit to the event was in December 2013 where I took part in event 33. My second visit to the parkrun was almost 10 years later, in June 2023, where I took part in event number 467. On both occasions I drove to the town, and on both occasions used the visit as part of a longer day out in the town. We included Chas and Dave's classic 1982 tune 'Margate' on our playlist to get us in the mood. The parkrun itself is about 2 kilometres to the east of the main touristy part of the seafront, and the bonus of this location is that the adjacent streets offer plenty of free parking. For the meeting point you need to get to the Cliftonville / Walpole Bay part of Margate. Fifth Avenue is the closest road, but B2051 Eastern Esplanade has a better selection of parking spaces.

Travel by public transport is possible by taking the train to Margate station, which is located in the centre of town. The onward walk is about 2.5km, mostly along the seafront path. There are some buses that run through Margate, but it's probably not worth attempting to use one for the onward journey as it would still involve a fair bit of walking anyway. For the record, it looks like the 8A Breeze, the Loop (runs between Ramsgate and Margate), and the 32 all stop between 600-1km away from the meeting point, which is at the Walpole Bay shelter located on the upper promenade right at the end of Fifth Avenue. If you arrive by bicycle, there are no bespoke cycle racks, but the shelter has some points that can be used to secure a bike.

As for toilets, officially there are none at the parkrun meeting point. The closest public toilet is located in the Harold Road car park which is 750 metres from the meeting point. There is also another option back on the main part of the Margate seafront near the beach, 2km away next to the Nayland Rock Shelter. However, the owners of the Walpole Bay Hotel, right next to the meeting point, allow parkrunners to use the hotel facilities. We popped in to use the toilets and had a lovely chat with the receptionist. Interestingly the hotel is quite a famous and historic place. It was originally built in 1914 and extended a few years later. Original internal features include the Edwardian restaurant, a snooker room, and the original Ballroom with original 1920s spring maple dance floor. It has also featured in numerous TV shows including two appearances on The Hotel Inspector. Needless to say, if you are looking for an overnight stay, this place ticks all the boxes.

Once all of that is sorted, the participants and volunteers assemble on the seafront path next to the shelter. The briefings both take place here and at 9am the parkrunners and parkwalkers embark on their 5km of exercise along the seafront. The course consists of two separate out-and-back sections. The surface underfoot is mostly very wide tarmac paths, but there is a short section of grass/gravel at the far end. For the most part, it is a flat course, but the route does include a long sweeping wave-like undulation. Road shoes should be ok all year round, and buggy runners will be absolutely fine on this course. Be aware that this is a seafront route and can suffer from strong winds blowing in from the sea.  I will point out that the official course map suggests that the route takes place on both the upper and lower proms, however the entire course stays on the upper prom at all times.

The start has the participants initially head off to the west along Queens Promenade, in the general direction heading towards the centre of town. The deal is that participants are to keep left at all times. A memorial fountain is passed shortly after the start, this is a war memorial, which is unusual in the fact that it is dedicated to one person rather than to the people of the town. After 500 metres the route enters The Oval Gardens where the participants complete a clockwise loop of The Oval Bandstand. The ornate iron bandstand dates from 1897 and hosts various musical performances, as you'd expect from a bandstand. During the 1960s and 70s it was also known to host wrestling matches, and these are set to make a comeback in 2023.

Once the loop of the bandstand is complete, the course heads back along Queens Promenade towards the original starting point where the first, and at 1.1km, the shortest, of the two out-and-backs is done. This point marks the start of the second out-and-back, which carries on along the seafront heading to the east and after passing Walpole Bay Lawns, a small bridge over a slipway is crossed and the path officially changes to Princes Walk. The path continues to meander gently as it passes Palm Bay Beach and the tennis courts and passes over another small bridge, crossing another slipway. The gentle wave-like undulation is around this point of the course. After a bit more meandering, the course reaches Foreness Point. This is a low headland (a point of land with a high drop into the water). It is also home to the Margate Wastewater Pumping Station.

It is worth noting that there are fine views all along the course, and at some points the cliffs provide a lovely addition to the scene. On a clear day it is possible to see the Thanet Off-shore Wind Farm. This lies about 12km off the coast and when completed in 2010 it was the largest offshore wind farm in the world. It no longer holds this title (Wikipedia says it had dropped to 14th in 2017). There are 100 wind turbines in the farm and together they generate enough electricity to supply around 240,000 homes (equivalent to 34% of all the homes in Kent). The course works its way around the coastal path until turning inland at the 3 kilometre point where the surface underfoot changes to grass/dirt/gravel paths for around 400 metres. It then re-joins tarmac paths which lead back around to Princes Walk and the route then heads back along the promenade all the way back to Walpole Bay Lawns, where the finish is found.

Barcode scanning takes place in the shelter and once all participants and the tailwalkers have completed the course, the post-event social gathering takes place. The official venue is listed as the Palm Bay Cafe, which is next to the Palm Bay tennis courts. However I understand that Taddy's Barn Tea Room, in Broadstairs, is currently the favoured destination. Being a seaside town, there are of course many other options to choose from.

I should add a special note that I was delighted to see a large contingent of walkers taking part in the parkrun. On the day we visited, over 10% of the total finishers crossed the line in over 50 minutes. I recorded the course using my Garmin and the data can be viewed on Strava. I also created a Relive course fly-by video, and that can be found on YouTube. The results for event 467 were published online later that day and 172 people had taken part. The official average attendance is 91.6, but this of course includes figures going back to the inaugural in April 2013, so does not represent the current average which is more likely to be in the 150-200 window.

We had already made plans to meet my parents, who happened to be in the middle of a seaside break in Margate, so we got changed and took a walk into the centre of town where we spent the rest of the day. We missed breakfast but ended up having lunch in Brewers Fayre, next door to the town's Premier Inn. We also visited most of the places mentioned above including the Shell Grotto, which really is quite bizarre. We did of course also spend a bit of time on the beach where it was much warmer (scorching) than our last visit in December 2013. By the time we left, it was 5pm and we were truly exhausted. However we had had a brilliant day in Margate, which all started with the amazing welcome we received at the parkrun, so a huge thanks to everyone involved.

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