Sunday 3 September 2023

Southwark parkrun

Southwark [suh-thuhk or suh-vuhk] is a district in London which sits within the larger London Borough of Southwark. The historic centre of Southwark is just to the south of London Bridge where it grew thanks to the positioning of the bridge linking the south side of the Thames to the Roman settlement of Londinium on the northern bank. The settlement was almost entirely abandoned in the years after the Roman's left. It wasn't until the 9th century, when King Alfred the Great established it as a defensive position, that the area began to grow again. Southwark is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Sudweca, which means, something along the lines of, 'southern defensive work' or 'fort of the men of Surrey'. It is the oldest part of South London.

The modern day London Borough of Southwark is split into eight main districts. This includes Bermondsey, where you will find the former slum of Jacob's Island, made famous in Charles Dickens' novel, Oliver Twist. It has a long history in manufacturing, with the world's first ever food canning business based here and the famous Peek Freans biscuit factory just around the corner (my mum worked there briefly when I was very young, but it is now closed). To the immediate east of Bermondsey is Rotherhithe, which historically contained many shipyards and The Surrey Commercial Docks. Rotherhithe's St Olaves Hospital was the birth place of Maurice Micklewhite (better known as Michael Caine) in 1933 (my grandmother worked there before it closed down in the 1980s).

In the late 1850's, plans were drawn up to create a park in the area. Several locations were put forward as options, but the chosen location used land which was owned by Sir William Gomm, a British Army officer who served in the Napoleonic Wars and also took part in the Battle of Waterloo. At the time, the land included parts of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, and it was purchased from him for around £57,000 (well over £3 million today). In 1864, Southwark Park was opened, named after the parliamentary constituency in which it sat at the time.

The park covers an area of 63 acres and although the shape and border have remained identical, the interior has gone through a few changes. There is an access road which runs through the centre of the park effectively creating north and south sections. In 1908 a lake was added to the park. This was followed by the addition of a paddling pool and a lido in the 1920's. The park's location meant that it suffered some damage during the Second World War. The paddling pool was filled in following bomb damage. The lido, which I remember visiting as a child in the 1980's, was permanently closed in 1992 and demolished about 10 years later.

In 1936 a formal garden was opened adjacent to the lake. It was designed by Ada Salter, the first woman mayor in London. who along with her husband, the MP for West Bermondsey, Alfred Salter, worked tirelessly to improve the lives and health of the lower class residents who lived in appalling conditions in Bermondsey's slums. The garden was informally called the Ada Salter Garden by local residents and this was formally adopted a few years later. The park also has a bandstand. Numerous versions seem to have existed over the years, but the current structure was erected in 1999. The bandstand area was definitely an open space during the 1980's and I remember being present here at a banger racing event in the early 1980's.

The modern-day park, which now sits wholly within Rotherhithe, features a children's playground on the site of the former lido, an athletics track, bowling green, tennis courts, the Jabez West memorial fountain (notable as it is a memorial to a working-class person), and the Caryatides of Rotherhithe Town Hall (moved to the park in 2011). The large playground on the north side of the park, that I remember playing in as a child, is now a nature area. The park features a large number of mature trees in the central and northern sections, but is more open towards the south. In September 2013 the park became home to its very own free, weekly, timed, 5k event called Southwark parkrun. It is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk and wheelchair users. I attended the test event and event number 1 back in 2013, this updated write-up is from my 5th visit (4th visit if you don't include the test event), which was at the 10 year anniversary event, held on 2 September 2023.

The parkrun meeting point is in the south side of the park on the edge of the large open grass area, not far from the cafe and the gallery. Being in London, this event is very well connected from a travel point of view. Firstly there are plenty of bus services that stop nearby including the 1, 199, 381, 47, 188 and a few more. The closest station to the meeting point is Surrey Quays Overground, but Canada Water (Overground and Jubilee line) and Bermondsey (Jubilee line only) stations are also nearby. For mainline train services, South Bermondsey is technically the closest station. However, if your journey passes through London Bridge it would make sense to alight there and transfer to the Jubilee line.

For anyone driving to the event, there are two parking options within the park. The first is to use the road which separates the two halves of the park, called Carriage Drive. Vehicles can only access this road via Southwark Park Road, using Jamaica Gate, where free parking is available for up to four hours. The other option would be to use the Hawkstone Gate car park, which can be accessed from Hawkstone Road. There is a charge to use this car park. An additional parking option would be to use Surrey Quays shopping centre's car park which has free parking for up-to three hours, and is just across the road. For the record, most of the side streets in the local area have parking restrictions in place which operate 7 days per week, so are not an option.

If arriving by pedal-power there are some bicycle racks near the meeting point, just next to the children's play area and the cafe building. However, a lot of people use the fence which protects a Chestnut Tree which was planted to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The park's toilets can be found in the same building as the cafe and they should be open well before the parkrun starts. There are additional toilet facilities located within the Seven Islands Leisure Centre (they don't mind parkrunners popping in), which is just outside the park. Further toilets can be found in Surrey Quays shopping centre.

The first-timers' briefing takes place at the meeting point and the main briefing takes place once everyone has lined up at the start line, on the grass near the cricket nets. The route is made up of three anti-clockwise laps of the southern half of the park (the first is ever-so-slightly different to the second and third). The course is flat and the surface underfoot is tarmac with the exception of the start and the finish which are both on the central grass area. With that in mind, this is definitely a course for regular road shoes. All of this combines to make a fast course which is suitable for everyone including those participating with buggies and for wheelchair users.

From the start on the grass, the parkrunners head away from the cricket nets in a north-westerly direction until joining the main path. It then heads past the park's Lake Gallery where it loops around the outer edge of the playground before reaching the lake. Glancing over into the lake, it is just possible to see the 'Family of Dolphins' sculpture which used to be on display inside Surrey Quays shopping centre. It was relocated to the park's lake during its restoration in 2001. The route continues with the lake to the participant's right, heading 'onwards' and passing the cafe in the process.

It is worth noting that this is a very well attended event whose growth still seems to be on an upward trend, even 10 years after its first event. As a result, the first lap in particular is likely to be extremely congested. Continuing around the lake there is a very brief moment where the course becomes two-way for about 40-50 metres. There are a lot of people to accommodate so it's important to be aware at this point, and keep to the right. The course passes one of the entrances to the Ada Salter Garden, you can't see much during the parkrun, but it is definitely worth taking a quick peek afterwards.

The next section of the lap is the long, straight section that makes up the south-west path. It passes the park's other art gallery, called the Dilston Gallery, before gently curving around and past a nursery school building (it was known as the One O'Clock Club when I was a child) and then past the Hawkstone Road car park. On the approach to the athletics track, the course has a fun dip to negotiate. It is just a very quick down-then-up section. Once through that the course runs parallel to the athletics track.

On the first lap only, at the end of the athletics track, the course takes the long route around the corner. On laps two and three, the course uses the shorter, more direct, route. The path is then simply followed until reaching the end of the lap. It's safe to say to almost everyone that takes part will either lap people or be lapped themselves, so it is important to keep an eye out at all times. Given that it is a very popular event, it is even more important to look out for other park users and to make space or give way where appropriate. There are usually a fair number of cyclists passing through.

At the end of lap 3, the finish funnel can be found just off of the path on the grass. Barcode scanning takes place on the grass at the end of the finish funnel. Once all the participants have finished and the course signage is packed away, the official post-event refreshments are held in the Southwark Park Pavillion Cafe. The cafe serves the usual selection of drinks plus cakes, pastries and also cooked breakfasts. They also have vegetarian and vegan options. There is also The Surrey Docks Wetherspoons pub just across the road, plus further options within Surrey Quays shopping centre.

As always I recorded the GPS data of the course and that can be found on Strava. I also created a Relive fly-by video of the course using the data. Anyone that visited the event in its early days will notice that the start and finish areas have been moved. However, the rest of the course is still exactly the same as the original version. The results were processed a short while later and there were 579 participants at event 436. This was a bit higher than usual, probably as a result of the birthday celebrations and The Big Half race which was taking place the following day. Attendance figures can also be a bit higher on the weekend of the London Marathon. A normal week would tend to attract above 400 participants.

With the parkrun finished, I can definitely recommend heading across to the northern side of the park to have a wander around. Also there is a boat hire hut next to the lake. It is open every weekend from 11am - 6pm (although it might be worth double checking that in the winter). You could of course visit the art galleries. I'd also note that if you head out of the northern side of the park and cross Jamaica Road, there is another, smaller, park called King's Stairs Gardens where you may be able to find the statues of Ada and Alfred Salter, their daughter and their cat, next to the Thames. Next to this is the remains of King Edward III's moated Manor House. If you head a bit further to the west, the 'Fishing Child' Banksy artwork can be found.

Heading to the east, is The Mayflower Pub, which is one of the oldest pubs on the River Thames. Definitely worth checking out. It used to be called the Spread Eagle but was renamed to reflect the Rotherhite's link to the Mayflower, which sailed from the area on the first stage of its voyage to America in 1620. The ship's captain, Christopher Jones, was from Rotherhithe. It is almost directly opposite the Brunel Museum, which of course links in with the Thames Tunnel (not to be confused with Rotherhithe Tunnel), built by Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The tunnel was the first to be constructed underneath a navigable river and was mainly used as a pedestrian crossing. It was purchased by the East London Rail Company in 1865 and now forms part of the London Overground line. On this occasion we headed around to Surrey Docks Farm, which is one of London's 12 city farms.

An interesting event takes place each year, usually in September - The four parkruns in the London Borough of Southwark have an event called the 'Southwark Slam'. This is where people are invited to visit all four of Southwark's parkruns (BurgessSouthwarkPeckham Rye, and Dulwich) during the month. A brilliant idea which I'd imagine really helps to maintain a great community between the four venues. A huge thank you goes to the volunteers who enabled the event to go ahead, and for making us feel very welcome. Finally, a huge congratulations to Southwark parkrun on reaching this significant milestone. It is so wonderful to see the event thriving.

Related Links:

The Relive course fly-by video (from my 2022 visit)

Test event (blog7t 2013)
Original 2013 write-up (blog7t event 1)

Other Southwark Slam venue write-ups:

Other Related links from 2013:

The parkrun show - Episode 105 (2013)
Abradypus - Southwark parkrun (2013)
Go Feet - Running London (3): Southwark Park (2013)
Zoecakes - My 50th parkrun (aka the inaugural Southwark parkrun) (2013)

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