Monday 12 June 2023

Wendover Woods parkrun

Wendover is a town that sits within the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in Buckinghamshire. The town was first recorded as W├Žndofron, and by 1086 this had evolved into Wendovre. The name itself is said to mean whitewater, and this is assumed to be a reference to the chalky stream that runs through the town.

It is known as an extremely desirable place to live and features 113 listed buildings. A row of thatched cottages near the centre of town were once owned by Henry VIII, who gave them to Anne Boleyn as a wedding present. Just outside the town centre is RAF Halton, which is one of the UK's largest RAF stations in the country. It has been in use by the military since 1913, but is due to close in 2027.

To the south-west and the east of the town, the Chiltern Hills rise, creating the stunning landscape for which they are famous. The focus of attention for this blog are the hills to the east; Boddington Hill and Haddington Hill. These both sit in the 800 acre area that is known as Wendover Woods. The woods, of course, take their name from the town and are managed by Forestry England. Interestingly, the area is recorded as Halton Wood on old maps, and the name Wendover Woods doesn't seem to appear until after the second world war.

The modern-day visitor attraction contains many marked trails, picnic areas, cafe, a playground, Gruffalo trail, and the Go Ape Treetop Adventure. I hear the woods have a stunning display of Bluebells during the spring. In September 2018 the woods became home to their very own free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Wendover Woods parkrun. The parkrun, like all others, is open to all abilities including those who would like to participate by walking.

We visited on 10 June 2023 to take part in the parkrun's 176th event. Travel to the venue is easiest by car and the site features a large on-site car park for which a fee is payable. The system in place during my visit is one where a camera records the vehicle's number plate upon entry and the fee can be paid by card or by other contactless method, such as a smartphone, at one of the machines at the Pay Station. Simply enter the registration number just before leaving and it will calculate the correct amount due based on the time spent on-site. The current parking charges are available on the Forestry England website. I did have a little trouble when leaving as the camera hadn't picked up my number plate upon entry. However the machines had an option to manually enter details as a back-up. Their website mentions they are putting plans in place for RingGo to be a payment option, but as of my visit this option was not live. 

If travelling by public transport you'd need to head to Wendover Station, and from there you could attempt to walk to the woods via Upper Icknield Way or possibly Beechwood Lane, but the route doesn't look straightforward and would involve some very steep inclines. It is noted on the official course page that the number 50 bus stops on Upper Icknield Way, but all the timetables I've seen online suggest that it only runs on Sundays. If using a bicycle there are a large number of racks available adjacent to the cafe building. Once on-site you'll need to head to the main central hub which is adjacent to the car park. The toilets can be found in the Wendover Woods Cafe building.

The first-timers' briefing is held near this area and the participants then head along the main path to the start area, near the GoApe centre, where the main briefing is held. Wendover Woods parkrun takes place over a single-lap (point-to-point) clockwise course which takes in quite a large amount of the overall woods.

The forest trail surface underfoot varies between stony and dirt based paths, and it can at times be uneven. During the winter months can also get quite muddy. The best shoe choice in the winter would be trail shoes, while in the summer months it'll come down to personal preference. Those with an aversion to wearing trail shoes should find road shoes are fine, but my personal preference would be to stick with trail shoes as they give a little more protection and stability on the stony and uneven surfaces. Buggy running is possible here, but it will be tough - the official course page advises awareness of the fast downhills and tough uphills.

The start line is just off the main wide path where the briefing is held and the opening section sees the parkrunners passing underneath the treetop obstacles which make up the GoApe course. This area is pretty much at the highest point of the woods. It then passes around the cafe where the route picks up one of the main walking routes through the woods.

The course starts to head downhill (past the Gruffalo) from this point and I would note that this section of path contains a fair amount of loose stones (larger than gravel). The path is nice and wide, so there's plenty of space for everyone. Just before reaching the 1 kilometre point, there is a downhill switchback to negotiate, so that was a cool memorable feature of the course.

The course continues to head generally downhill through the beautiful woodland throughout the next kilometre, and the descent gets fairly steep for a while. My GPS data registered this section mostly in the -6% to -8% region, but it did get as steep as -10% at one point. I found myself checking out the view while also trying to keep an eye on the terrain as it remains off-road with both embedded and loose stones. Just after the 2 kilometre point, the course generally starts to head back uphill. This starts in a gentle manner, but a few hundred metres later there is a right hand turn and the steepest uphill section is found. My Garmin recorded this mostly in the 9% to 12% window, but with a very brief point where it recorded 22%. This was followed by another downhill where the maximum descent was recorded at -15.6%.

There were of course some wonderful marshals dotted around the course, and they were generally placed on corners or where the path splits, ensuring no parkrunners or parkwalkers would take a wrong turn. Every now and then, in between marshals, there was the reassuring sight of a parkrun direction arrow. It is possible that you may cross paths with horse riders on certain paths, so of course keep an eye out for them (I spotted 1). You may also find the odd cyclist (again, I spotted 1), but out on the far reaches of the course, I didn't bump into any dog walkers or other members of the public. They seemed to stay concentrated within the main central hub.

During the second half of the route I found the surface underfoot became less stony and more dirt path, but still relatively wide. From the looks of some of the vehicle rut marks in the ground, it looks like it could get pretty muddy in this section.

At this point the course was working its way around the southern side of Boddington Hill, which was once home to an Iron Age hill fort (Boddington Hill Fort). It would have had a defensive bank and ditch on its east, south and west sides. The evidence suggests the fort would have covered an area of 10 hectares upon the hill. From the 3.2 kilometre point onwards, the course is all uphill. Thankfully the incline gets less severe the closer it gets to the finish, and the last kilometre generally feels almost flat. The location of the original briefing is soon reached and the finish is found back near the main central hub area.

Barcode scanning takes place right after the finish funnel and it's only a few metres to walk to reach the Wendover Woods Cafe, which is where the post event social is held - they had a good selection of food for all preferences, including a number of vegetarian and vegan options. The results were published shortly after and there were 160 finishers at event number 176. The official average number of attendees at time of writing is 141.1, but the actual number of attendees seems to bounce around in the 130-210 window. As I have mentioned above, I recorded the course with my Garmin and that data is online should you wish to check out the course map and elevation profile. I also used the data to create a fly-by video using the Relive app and that can be found on YouTube.

Once we had had a drink and some food in the lovely cafe (10% discount for parkrunners - show your barcode), we headed off to explore the woods a little more. A particular feature I was keen to find was the summit of Haddington Hill, which doubles up as the highest point in the whole of the Chilterns. After a few attempts of searching we found the right path. The summit itself is hidden within the woods to the north of the cafe area, and there is a cairn made from a set of four stones marking the spot. We wandered around a bit more and found part of the remains of the Boddington Hill Fort defensive bank and ditch. There are also a few viewpoints which give fantastic views of the surrounding countryside, and there is a fitness trail with various wooden pieces of equipment installed. In the end we visited the cafe three times to refresh and refuel before finally hitting the road home at around 4.30pm.

Wendover Woods is a beautiful place to visit, and it is such a brilliant location for a parkrun. The hills had made me nervous as I'm not quite as fit as I used to be, but I'm so glad I finally visited. Yes, the hills are hard work (I mostly walked the uphill parts) and this venue falls within the toughest 10% of parkruns in the United Kingdom, but it is also extremely brilliant. At the time of writing this is one of four parkruns that sit within the Chilterns Area of Natural Beauty. The others are Dunstable Downs parkrun, Church Mead parkrun and Henley on Thames parkrun. I have now visited three of them and they have all been stunning. 

The volunteers were fantastic, so I'd like to add a huge thank you to them for making the event happen.

Related Links:

Dunstable Downs parkrun (blog7t write-up)
Church Mead parkrun (blog7t write-up)

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