Sunday 2 July 2023

Nonsuch parkrun

Over a thousand years ago, a village called Codintone (which would later become Cuddington) stood in part of the area which is now Nonsuch Park, Surrey. In the 1086 Domesday Book, the village was recorded as having a total of 28 households. There was also a mansion, a church and farmland. Then along came King Henry VIII, who, in 1538, bought the Manor and demolished the entire village to make way for his brand new royal palace.

The palace was designed to be a celebration of power and it is said that it was the grandest of all of his 55 palaces. In fact it was built to rival France's Francis I's Chateux de Chambord, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A quote in Old English, attributed to King Henry himself, says 'there is nonsuch place to rival its beauty and magnificence' and so it was named Nonsuch Palace to emphasise just how grand it was. The word Nonsuch is variant of Nonesuch, meaning 'a place or thing without equal'. My understanding is that it should be pronounced 'none such' (nŭn′sŭch′).

King Henry visited the unfinished palace three times before he died, so never got to see it fully completed. It was subsequently sold by the royal family, but returned to the crown a few years later where it remained a royal residence until 1670. Baroness Nonsuch (Barbara Villiers) was the final owner of the palace, but by 1682 the once magnificent palace had been demolished with the fixtures and fittings, stone, and lead roof sold off to pay off her gambling debts.

In 1731 a new house called Nonsuch Mansion was built a few hundred metres to the north-east of where the palace once stood, possibly on the site of an old Keeper's Lodge. From what I hear, the mansion wasn't particularly pleasing to the eye, so in the early 1800s it was rebuilt in a Tudor Gothic style which mimics elements of the King's palace. There is even a stone from Henry's palace built into the north porch. This mansion and the surrounding land was sold to the local authorities in 1937 to protect it from development. The mansion still stands and is now used for events such as weddings and can also be hired for filming and photography shoots.

The surrounding 120 hectares of parkland were officially opened as Nonsuch Park on Wednesday 29 September 1937. Even after this opening, part of the park continued to be used for grazing animals and growing crops. In 1959 excavations of the old palace (Pathe News video) took place and the layout of the building is now marked by three stone obelisks. The modern-day park is rich in wildlife and is managed by the Nonsuch Park Joint Management Committee, which is comprised of both Epsom and Ewell Borough Council, and Sutton Council.

On 17 September 2011, the park became home to Nonsuch parkrun. We first visited this venue on Tuesday 5th June 2012 (event 40) which was actually a special event in celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. We revisited on 1 July 2023 to take part in event number 539. If travelling by public transport Cheam looks to be the closest train station and this is served by Southern trains. However if travelling on South Western Railways, West Ewell can be used as an alternative. There are also buses that pass close to the venue, options include numbers 293 and 668 which stop to the west of the park, or the 470 which stops near Cheam.

If driving, there are multiple free-of-charge car parks within the grounds that can be used. There are two which are accessed from London Road (A24) and another two which can be accessed from Ewell Road (A232) - all of these are located on the park's boundary. The main point to note regarding car parks is that parkrunners must not park in the main car park in the centre of the park, this is for visitors to the mansion only. It is also worth noting that this venue attracts a high number of parkrunners, so there is quite a high demand for parking spaces. If travelling by bicycle there are permanent bicycle racks located in some of the car parks, and one next to the cafe at the mansion. However, on parkrunday a temporary rack is assembled at the parkrun meeting point.

There are toilets located on the north side of the mansion building. The main assembly point is to the north-west of the mansion. The first timers briefing takes place here (it was done twice during our visit), and the main briefing took place at the start line which is about 200 metres along the path to the south. Nonsuch parkrun has traditionally used its regular 2-lap course during the summer months and a 3-lap course during the winter months. However, as of 27 May 2023 a new course has been introduced, and it is hoped that this will remain in place all year round, negating the need to change during the winter. I have GPS data and Relive videos for all three courses, please see links at the bottom of the page. There is more information regarding the course change on this Nonsuch parkrun News report.

The new course is just under two laps, which are run in a clockwise direction and the terrain is flat. The surface underfoot contains an almost 50-50 split of hard paths and grass/dirt paths. The course is fine for road shoes in the summer, but I'd imagine it would be beneficial to go for trail shoes in the winter. For the record buggy runners are fine on this course. I'll also mention that Nonsuch parkrun has a pacing event on the last Saturday of each month. Plus, and this was even more interesting, they also have monthly Jeffing pacers on the first Saturday of each month. If you haven't heard of it, Jeffing is a technique named after running coach Jeff Galloway, and is essentially a run/walk method of training. Check out this Nonsuch parkrun news article for some detailed info.

The start is on a tarmac path just to the south-west of the mansion. The path itself is just a regular width and it is bordered by strips of short grass followed by longer grass and trees. Nonsuch parkrun is quite regularly the fourth largest attended venue in the UK (sixth largest on the day we visited), with attendance figures generally falling within the 600-800 window. With that in mind, many participants will spread onto the grass either side of the path, so expect some congestion to start off with. This initial path heads south until it reaches the southern border where a right hand turn takes the route onto The Avenue. Once the participants spread out the general rule is to stay to the left and anyone overtaking or lapping can do so on the right-hand-side.

Once on The Avenue, the course continues on a hard surface path, but is within a line of trees so provides shade on hot days. Along this section of the course are two drain covers on the right hand side of the path which are raised to a significant height out of the ground, so care must be taken to avoid tripping on these. At the south-west corner of the course, the route follows the natural bend around to the right and the course passes right through the centre of where Nonsuch Palace (and before it Cuddington Church) would have stood. On the right hand side are three stone obelisks which mark where the walls would have been, including those of the Inner Gatehouse and Outer Gatehouse. Just after the last of the obelisks a marshal marks the spot where the course leaves the hard path and the surface changes to grass.

The grass section follows well trodden walkways. To the sides the landscape is open, containing longer grasses and various rows and copses of trees. There are one or two marshals in place to guide the way so navigating shouldn't be a problem. A feature of the new course is a section which doubles back on itself and passes around a feature called round pond, which you probably won't even notice as it is surrounded by trees. At around this point there is a big tree in the middle of the path - on the first lap the participants pass to the left and continue until reaching the hard path, which meanders around to the start of the second lap. At the end of the second lap everyone keeps to the right, and this leads onwards to the finish line which is located on the grass in the same location as the meeting point.

Being a large event, once crossing the finish line there is a very long, winding finish funnel to assist with keeping everything under control. The finishing tokens are given out at the very end of the funnel and the barcode scanners can be found lined up on the adjacent grass. The post-parkrun refreshments are in the park's cafe which is located back over at the mansion. The cafe has some indoor seating but the majority of seats are outside. The food options are largely based around sweet pastries, cakes and sausage rolls (meat and vegan), and they had the usual selection of cafe drinks available.

I had recorded the course using my Garmin and the data can be viewed on my Strava account. I also made a Relive course fly-by video from the GPS data which can be viewed on YouTube. The results were published shortly after and 652 people took part in event 539. This was towards the lower end of the current expected number of attendees, which as mentioned above is usually between 600 and 800.

Post event we spent some time exploring the formal garden area of the park which is very nice. Inside the mansion is a model of King Henry's palace, but sadly it is only open for viewing on Sundays, so we didn't get to see it (there are some photos on the Friends of Nonsuch website). Once we had finished looking around the garden, it was time to head home. Revisiting Nonsuch parkrun had been a great experience, so a big thanks goes to all those involved in putting it on.

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