Sunday, 10 September 2023

Wanstead Flats parkrun

Wanstead Flats is located in the far south-western corner of the London Borough of Redbridge, adjacent to the London Borough of Newham, to the south, and the London Borough of Waltham Forest, to the west. It is bordered by the residential areas of Leytonstone, Forest Gate, Manor Park, and Wanstead. It is also part of a larger green space which includes the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, Wanstead Park, and Wanstead Golf Club. The name Wanstead was first recorded in 1065 as Wenstede and may also have been known as Waynsted later on, during the 15th century.

The area the flats occupies forms the southernmost section of Epping Forest, which stretches from Epping, in Essex all the way down to Forest Gate. At 5,900 acres, it is the largest forest within London. For much of its history it has been common land. However, it was also designated as a Royal Forest which meant only the monarch had the right to hunt deer. The commoners in the Wanstead Flats area continued to exercise their right to graze their animals, and it is thought this practice has helped to shape the landscape of the flats, which is largely open space.

Eventually most of the forest lands were sold off to private individuals, and at the southern end, the new landowners made several attempts to enclose the flats. These actions were protested by the local people keen to protect their ancient grazing rights. The Corporation of London purchased land adjacent to the forest in order to create a cemetery, and in doing so they obtained certain rights over the use of the flats. The Corporation was now able to take the Lords of the Manor to court over the attempted enclosures. Happily the Corporation won the court case, and subsequently bought land from 19 separate land owners. This led to the Epping Forest Act 1878. This act removed its Royal Forest status and gave it protection from development and enclosure. It would now forever more be a public place of recreation and enjoyment.

The First World War saw a searchlight and anti-aircraft guns installed on Wanstead Flats. It was also hit by a barrage of bombs, dropped from a German Zeppelin L10. During the Second World War, the space again became a site for anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, but these were now coupled with rocket launchers and barrage balloons. It also housed a camp for troops preparing for the Normandy Landings, and for a time it was home to a prisoner of war camp. There were also some prefabs installed. largely by the POWs, to house those that had been bombed out of their homes in the East End of London. Following the war, with new housing desperately needed, a proposal was put forward to develop part of the area into new housing and schools, however following a public enquiry, the plans were rejected.

Along with the rest of Epping Forest, the modern-day Wanstead Flats is still managed by the Corporation of London, but since 2006 has been known as the City of London Corporation. It covers an area of around 334 acres and consists of a combination of grassland, woodland, copses and ponds. It contains an area where model aircraft can be flown, but the most popular activity is football. The City of London's website mentions there are up to 60 football pitches available for use, but other sources suggest it is 13. Either way the quality of the grass playing surface felt really good to me. Sadly there are no further amenities such as a playground. Since May 2011 it has also been home to a free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Wanstead Flats parkrun. It is of course open to all abilities including those who wish to walk. I first visited the event in August 2013 (original blog), but this write-up is from my visit in September 2023.

The first thing to note about travelling to this venue is that Wanstead Flats covers quite a large area, and the natural areas are intersected by a number of roads, leaving the Flats divided into smaller islands (similar to Dartford Heath). The place you need to head for is right over on the west side of the area just off Harrow Road, Leytonstone. If using public transport, the closest station is Leytonstone High Road and this is served by the London Overground. Leytonstone is the nearest underground station, and is served by the Central Line. If you happened to be using National Rail or the Elizabeth Line then you could alight at Forest Gate, which is further away, but still within a reasonable walkable distance. As far as buses are concerned, there seems to be a nearby bus stop that is served by the 58 and 308.

If driving, there is a small onsite car park right next to the parkrun meeting area called Harrow Road Car Park. As of September 2023 the car parking fees are £1.50 for up to an hour, and £2.50 for up to two hours, up to four hours is £4, and up to six is £6. Payment must be made via the RingGo app or by phoning the number listed on the board - There are no payment machines. There is a second car park, a short walk away called Jubilee Pond Car Park - the same charges apply. When I first visited, in 2013, I was able to park on Harrow Road itself, but the road is now covered by a Controlled Parking Zone which only allows residential parking and is active Monday to Saturday, the same applies to most of the adjacent side roads. If you were looking for free on-street parking, there are some options towards Leytonstone High Road with no weekend restrictions. For the record, we parked on Acacia Road.

For cyclists, there are some racks outside the Harrow Road Changing Pavilion, which is right next to the car park and the parkrun meeting point. If they fill up, there is a metal fence around the pavilion that will do the job. It's not written in the facilities section on the Wanstead Flats parkrun course page, but the pavilion does have toilets, and they become accessible once the parkrun event team has arrived and opened the building (likely to be no later than 8.30am). The parkrun meeting point, start, and finish are all adjacent to the pavilion. The first-timers' and the main briefings are both held here, after which everyone simply turns around and forms a start line. 

The venue has a two lap clockwise course which follows the same route as the Lime Trail. It is way-marked with permanent signage, but additional arrows are put out to ensure nobody gets lost. There are no marshals out on the course. Underfoot is grass and dirt paths, with tree roots in places, so while road shoes are fine during the summer, it would be sensible to wear trail shoes in the winter as it can get very muddy (the word quagmire was used in a post-run conversation I had). It's basically flat but there's a very gentle incline to negotiate at the northern end of the course. As for buggy running, it is possible but I would note a few narrow and cambered paths, again at the northern end of the course. A local I spoke to said she found it impossible to buggy run here during the muddy season. I would say this venue is not naturally suited to wheelchair athletes. 

From the start, the participants head away from the pavilion and bear to the left, heading towards the two blocks of flats which dominate the immediate skyline. These are identical buildings, built in the 1960's, called the John Walsh and Fred Wigg towers. During the 2012 London Olympics, the roof of Fred Wigg was one of six London sites where troops and missiles, including Rapier surface-to-air missiles, and High Velocity Missiles (HVM), were deployed. They may look a bit unsightly to some people, I think they create quite a unique backdrop. The parkrunners continue past the buildings and along the western edge of the open grass playing fields until reaching some trees where the course leaves the playing fields.

The next section takes place within a long straight tree-lined stretch called The Avenues, which would have originally led towards Wanstead Hall / Wanstead House. This was a stunning mansion situated in, what is now, Wanstead Golf Club and Wanstead Park. This stretch heads in a north-east direction and into the ancient woodland of Bush Wood. The course features a relatively short loop within the woods, and this is where most of the more-challenging underfoot sections and the very gentle incline are found. Notably there are some tree roots, some uneven paths, and a bit of a cambered section as the course loops around the perimeter of a dried-up pond. I'd also note that the path through the woods has a few sections where holly grows, so watch out for the sharp leaves.

Upon exiting the woods, the course heads back along the very end of the avenue, so there is a short, sociable stretch of two-way parkrunners. The paths used are separated by a strip of grass with each stream of people using their own dirt path. The course then bears to the left and follows the dirt path along the eastern edge of the football fields. This section is slightly different to the course used during my first visit, in 2013. Glancing across the open grass, the two towers can be seen, and Canary Wharf's 'One Canada Square', can be seen in the far distance. Once at the end of this path, the course returns to the grass where the perimeter is followed back around towards the pavilion. At the end of the first lap, it's a case of continuing onwards onto lap 2.

Once both laps are complete, the participants simply turn left off of the main football field area and head into the finish funnel, which is right in front of the pavilion. Barcode scanning takes place in this area, and once that is done, it may be possible to grab a quick drink from the pavilion. Plus, if you think you've got yourself a new personal best, you can give the PB Bell a ring! There is no on-site cafe, so the parkrun team have facilities to make their own teas and coffees. If visiting and looking for some breakfast, I'd imagine the closest place with a reasonable number of options would be on the High Road in Leytonstone.

Should you fancy a bit of exploring afterwards, the adjacent City of London Cemetery has some notable burials, including Mary Ann Nichols (one of Jack the Ripper's victims), Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man - apparently soft tissue only) and the ashes of footballing legend and 1966 world cup winner, Bobby Moore. Also, on the border of Bush Wood is a Quaker House with its own cemetery. Buried there is Elizabeth Fry, social reformer. She was notably the first non-royal woman to appear on a British banknote (the £5 note issued between 2001-2016). Wanstead is also not too far from the Olympic Park, which is pretty cool to visit. Also if you have kids with you that would like to visit a playground, there is one just outside the Flats, on Acacia Road.

The results were processed and published shortly after, and there were 266 finishers at event number 584. Generally on a day with good conditions, attendees will be in the mid-200's. The attendance figures seem to drop down into the 100's in the winter, probably due to the unfavourable course conditions. However, owing to the off-road nature of the course, it is very unlikely to be cancelled during periods of snow or ice, so on those days attendance figures can shoot up if nearby events have to cancel.

I recorded the course with my Garmin and you can see the GPS data on Strava. I also uploaded that data into the Relive app and created a course fly-by video which can be viewed on YouTube. A final thanks must go to the day's Run Director Mike Bristow and his fantastic team of volunteers who looked after us and made us feel very much at home.

Related Links:

My GPS data (9 September 2023)
Relive Course Fly-by Video (9 September 2023)

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