Monday 25 September 2023

Felixstowe parkrun

Felixstowe is a town in the East Anglian county of Suffolk with a population of around 25,000 people. The earliest records of its name are from 1254 where it is written as Filchestou, and then in 1291 when it was recorded as Filchestowe. The origin of the name is unclear, but the two main theories are that it could be named after Felix of Burgundy who may have been the person who introduced Christianity to East Anglia. The other is that it takes its name from 'the stow of Filica', so a place that belonged to someone called Filica. The town grew from its original location which is in the northern part of modern-day Felixstowe, now known as Old Felixstowe.

The town sits on the coast of the North Sea, and is nestled in between the estuary at the mouths of the River Stour and River Orwell to its south, which is the approach to Harwich Harbour, and the mouth of the River Deben to the north. Prior to the growth of Felixstowe, the significant settlement was Walton, where the Romans built a Saxon Shore Fort called known as Walton Castle. This building was later used by the Saxons and the Normans. Coastal erosion eventually led to the demise of the castle, however the remaining sections can still be seen at very low tide.

Felixstowe was an important defensive location, and a fort, originally called Langer Fort, was established at the southern end of the town, in 1540, to protect the approach to Harwich Harbour. It later became Landguard Fort. The fort grew over time and in 1667 successfully defended against an attempted invasion by the Dutch. It also played a role in the Second World War where it was used in multiple capacities including as a launching site for Operation Outward. This was an operation where free-flying hydrogen balloons were released towards Nazi-occupied areas with the intent to damage power lines and generally cause disruption. The army left the fort in 1957 and it is now under the care of English Heritage. Continuing the defensive theme, seven Martello Towers were constructed along the seafront during 1810-11. Four of these remain. 

Probably the most famous feature of the town is The Port of Felixstowe. It was founded in 1875 and became a container port in 1967. Almost half of the country's container trade now passes through Felixstowe, making it the UK's largest container port. Around 2,000 ships visit the port every year including the largest container ships ever built. Members of the public cannot enter the port itself, but there is a viewpoint near the Landguard Fort. The Port of Felixstowe publishes their shipping schedule on their webpage, so that is really useful if planning a visit. 

During Victoria times, the town's seafront area started to become a popular seaside resort and a pier was constructed in 1905. Originally 800m long, it was the 3rd longest pier in the country and had a T-shaped head where passengers on the Belle paddle steamers from London and Great Yarmouth disembarked. It once had an electric tramway which transferred the passengers and their luggage along the pier. Like many other piers it was sectioned during the Second World War due to the fear of it being used in a German invasion. The land side section was redeveloped in 2017 and this structure currently claims the crown as Britain's newest pier building. The pier decking, which is now only 140m long and was not part of the redevelopment, is no longer accessible due to safety concerns.

The seafront has a promenade and several garden areas as well as numerous beach huts, amusement arcades, ice cream parlours and fish & chip shops. The town also now has its own free, weekly, timed 5km event called Felixstowe parkrun which had its inaugural event on 7 April 2018. We visited on 23 September 2023 and took part in event number 213. The event takes place along the promenade and the main meeting point is at the Felixstowe Leisure Centre which is right next to the pier. Our journey on the morning was super easy as we had stayed overnight in the local Premier Inn which is less than a five minute walk away.

If arriving by car, the closest parking is in the leisure centre car park but you will have to pay. However, from what I could see, the streets to the south of the leisure centre seemed to be restriction-free, so it would make sense to just park on Sea Road. North of the leisure centre, the road changes to Undercliffe Road W, and this does have parking restrictions. There are some sections that allow visitor parking but a fee applies. For cyclists there are some racks outside the main entrance to the leisure centre. The town has a train station and this is just under 1 mile away from the meeting area. There is a bus stop right outside the leisure centre and this appears to be served by the number 77 bus. The parkrun course page says the number 75 stops here, but this conflicts with the information I can find online, which says it stops a little further away, near the Premier Inn.

There are public toilets dotted all along the promenade, but the closest ones to the parkrun are just a few minutes away, across the road within one of the tiered garden areas next to Felixstowe Town Hall. The first-timers briefing takes place on the grass outside the leisure centre, while the main briefing takes place at the start line which is on the promenade itself. The parkrun takes place on a 100% tarmac course along the promenade which is pancake flat. It is described as a single lap course on the event's course page, and consists of two separate out-and-back sections. Road shoes are suitable for this course all year round. The course is also perfectly fine for buggy runners and for anyone using a wheelchair.

The start area is cordoned off and takes up about three quarters of the width of the promenade, to allow enough space for any other members of the public to continue to pass. After the main briefing, the parkrun gets underway. As a rule, those taking part in the event should generally try to keep to the right at all times. The first of the two out-and-backs sees the participants heading south-west along the promenade, passing some gardens, beach huts, and the 35-metre-tall 'The View' ferris wheel which was opened in August 2023. At the 1 kilometre mark, the course reaches Martello Park which is home to a playground and Martello Tower P. The tower has had many uses over the years, including as a signal interception post during World War I. It is currently used as a National Coastwatch Institution station.

The first turnaround point is at the 1.2 kilometre point and is roughly in line with Martello Tower P. This point is marked by a cone and a marshal. This end of the course is likely to be sociable as the entire field will pass itself. Just remember to keep to the right. At 2.4 kilometres into the course, the participants reach the original start point, which they pass and now head over the small bump in the course which passes directly in front of the pier entrance. There was some scaffolding here when we visited which took up a bit of the path, but there were two wonderful marshals stationed here just to keep everything in order. Continuing to head northeast, this part of the course soon passes the Felixstowe War Memorial.

Felixstowe is believed to be the first seaside resort in the country to have had beach huts, and some of the ones here are still the original Victorian huts, dating back around 130 years. The northern end of the course is also home to the Spa Pavilion building which was originally built in 1909. It has suffered wartime bomb damage and has sustained periods of closure over the years. Next to the pavillion are the Spa Gardens, another set of Felixstowe's very well kept garden areas. The parkrun course passes these before reaching the turnaround point in front of the shelter at the 3.7 kilometre point.

The view on the return journey features the Port of Felixstowe cranes that dominate the skyline. You may also be lucky enough to see some of the huge container ships approaching the port, and on a really clear day you can just about see the Greater Gabbard Wind Farm, which is 23 kilometres off the coast. The final stretch of the course simply involves returning along the promenade to the original start point, which is now the finish.

Barcode scanning takes place within the grass area at the leisure centre, and once all of the participants and tail walkers have crossed the line, the official post-event refreshments are listed as being in The Boardwalk Cafe. This is within the pier building where there is plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. Being a seaside resort, there are plenty of other options dotted along the sea front.

The results were processed and online a few hours later and 304 people had taken part in event number 213. This number was a typical reflection of the current attendance figures, which tend to hover in the high 200's. I recorded the course with my Garmin and that data can be viewed on Strava. The accompanying Relive course fly-by video can be found on YouTube.

On this particular day, we didn't hang around for refreshments as we had other plans. I would note that if visiting and looking for more substantial vegan or vegetarian food options, the seafront has a Hank's Dirty, we ate in their Ipswich branch in 2022 and it was fantastic. Also, if you fancy something a bit more seaside-y, the fish & chip shop called Saltwater has a vegan menu. We had already visited Landguard Fort, Landguard Nature Reserve, The Port of Felixstowe and wandered around the seafront the day before, so after parkrun we headed a few miles north to visit Orford Castle. We had a brilliant trip to Felixstowe, and the parkrun was of course the headlining act. Many thanks to all the volunteers!

Related links:

My GPS course data (September 2023)

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