Sunday 22 October 2023

Beckenham Place parkrun

Beckenham is a town located in South East London. It was historically part of Kent but became part of the London Borough of Bromley in 1965. The population of Beckenham is around 46,000 people. Its name was first recorded in the Saxon charter of 862 where it appeared as Biohhahema mearc. It was subsequently recorded in the Domesday Book as Bacheham and in the Textus Roffensis as Becceham. Beckenham Manor had been held by various people throughout time, but in 1773 was acquired by John Cator. He had already previously purchased the adjacent land where he built a fine mansion called Beckenham Place, complete with various outbuildings such as a stable block. The grounds of the mansion were landscaped and featured many exotic trees, a pleasure garden, and a lake.

The mansion and its grounds remained under the ownership of the Cator family for over 150 years. They eventually no longer resided there, but it was used for a number of purposes including a boys school and a sanatorium. A golf course was established within the grounds in 1907. The estate was purchased by London County Council in 1927 and opened as a Beckenham Place Park in 1929. At the same time, the golf course became the first municipally-owned golf course in England. During the Second World War a prisoner of war camp was set up and anti-aircraft measures were installed.

Beckenham and its park have a link to David Bowie, who lived in multiple houses in the vicinity of the park in the 1960's and 1970's. There is an information board in the park that gives some further details, but it does note that one of the houses had a secret gate at its rear which led directly into the park. He was known to have used it to avoid crowds of fans gathered at the front, he was then picked up by his driver at the Beckenham Place Park gate. The information board also notes that he was known to have used the park to rehearse scenes from Lord of the Rings, which he would later perform at the Beckenham Arts Lab.

The boundaries of ownership on the land the park sits on has been quite complex over its entire history, and the theme continues right up to the modern day. Historically much of the land of the park was part of the adjacent Foxgrove Manor rather than in Beckenham itself. In more recent times the boundaries of the London boroughs of Bromley and Lewisham ran through the park (boundary markers can still be found if you know where to look). In 1995 the borders changed meaning that the park now sits wholly within the London Borough of Lewisham.

Like many public parks, there wasn't much investment towards the end of the 20th century and this led to both the mansion and the grounds falling into a poor state of repair. The mansion and other historic buildings were noted as being in a serious state of disrepair, and the lake had dried up. In 2016 Lewisham Council was awarded a grant of £4.7m for the purpose of regenerating the park and its historic features. At time of writing, the projects are still in progress, with the old stable block having been remodelled into a cafe and education centre, and the lake reinstated. Further works including a full redesign of the eastern side of the park are also planned.

At 98 hectares, the modern-day park is the largest green space in the London Borough of Lewisham. Its landscape is quite natural and features open grass meadows along with various plantings of trees as well as large areas of ancient woodland, plus the Ravensbourne River runs along the park's eastern edge. A train line constructed near the end of the 18th century passes directly through the park, effectively cutting it into east and west sections. Facilities for kids are located in the far northeast corner of the park where there is a playground and a BMX track, and there is also a fairly new play area near the mansion. A big change has been the closure of the golf course in 2017 and this has allowed the park to become more accessible to the public. Some of the formal pleasure garden areas have also been reinstated.

In November 2016 the park became home to its very own free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre community event called Beckenham Place parkrun. It is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk the course. The original route, which was in use when I first visited in December 2016, exclusively used the western side of the park and featured a two lap course, however while parkrun had its enforced closure during 2020 and 2021, the course was completely changed. In fact since I last visited, absolutely everything, from the start and finish areas, best parking location, cafe, and the course, is totally different. It is like visiting a brand new parkrun venue. If you are interested you can read the original blog7t write-up, but remember that this updated version supersedes it. I revisited the event on 21 October 2023 and took part in event number 293. 

An important thing to note before travelling to the venue is that the park is large and some of the entrances are a long way from the parkrun meeting point, which is at the mansion. If travelling by public transport there are numerous bus stops in the vicinity of the park, however the best one to alight at is the Highland Croft bus stop which is served by the 54 bus. Other bus services that stop further away are the 354, 208, 320, 135, 181, 336 and 354 (all listed on the official course page). If travelling by train the closest station is Beckenham Hill which is served by Thameslink trains and the ongoing walk to the meeting point is about 700 metres. Cyclists can secure their bikes at the bike racks located next to the mansion or at other racks located near the Homestead Cafe.

If travelling by vehicle the park has a car park which can hold 108 vehicles - the car park can only be accessed from the vehicle entrance on Beckenham Hill Road. Lewisham Council have introduced a new payment system for all of their car parks, one that I have not encountered before. The fee for parking your vehicle is determined not only by the length of stay, but also by the vehicle's emissions. The cost ranges from £1.50 to £4 per hour depending on which emissions category the vehicle falls within.

All payments must be made through a cashless system using either the PayByPhone app or website, or via a phone call. Payment by cash or card at a machine is not possible, however there may be an option to pay in local shops (check the information board or Lewisham Council's webpage). Blue badge holders can park for free for up to four hours. There is also some free on-street parking on some streets outside the park, the closest of which seems to be Foxgrove Road, but Crab Hill, Westgate Road and Bromley Road are the recommended options.

The toilets are located within the old stable buildings called The Homestead which can be found opposite the car park - they are right under the clock tower. As mentioned above, the parkrun meeting point is outside the mansion which features a large portico and is just a little further along the park's internal road. The briefings take place here and at 9am the event gets underway. There are some marshals around the course, but the route itself is marked with bespoke parkrun markers. If when taking part you lose contact with other parkrunners, you will need to rely on these for much of the navigation around the course.

The course is usually described as being a one lap route, but a more accurate description would be to say it is a point-to-point course as the finish is in a different place to the start. If you have any items such as a jacket that you don't wish to run with, you can put it in the wagon which is taken over to the finish area by the volunteers. The course covers almost the entire park, including a section that uses part of the original course and can be described as undulating. The surface underfoot is a mixture of tarmac, gravel, grass, woodland paths, with some sections featuring uneven sections and tree roots. I'd describe it as being best suited to trail shoes. Participants with running buggies are of course welcome, but the style of course does not seem to be suited to wheelchair athletes.

From the start the route heads along the tarmac road where the elevation drops steadily. The condition of the road is not great and there are some old speed bumps that are in a very poor state of repair, so watch your footing. The initial section features open grass fields to the sides with views across the former golf course. The path itself changes to a light gravel as it gently meanders from left to right before starting to rise ever-so-slightly as it heads into Summerhouse Hill Wood.

Summerhouse Hill Wood is an area of ancient woodland where some of the trees may be up to 400 years old. The surface underfoot changes to woodland paths that weave around and eventually the course reaches its highest point which is just outside the southern end of the wood. It may get a little splashy and muddy here in the winter, but it wasn't too bad when we visited in October 2023. Continuing back into the woodland, the elevation now drops down until exiting the wood next to the restored lake. This is 'Carol's Corner' and it marks the 2 kilometre point.

From this point onwards the route is almost entirely flat. The third kilometre begins with almost a full loop around the lake, which is used by open water swimmers and there's also a boat hire available. After the loop of the lake, and a very sharp turn, there is a man-made mound - this feature is a fairly recent addition to the park and forms part of one of the park's new garden areas. Those who climb the mound are apparently rewarded with views across the park. The parkrun course doesn't climb the mound, instead it simply passes by before crossing the bridge across the railway line and entering the east side of the park. Anybody that visited this venue before the lockdown may recognise this section as it was part of the original course.

After a 1.5km loop around the northeast corner, where the course follows the clearly defined dirt path, hoggin path, a tarmac path, and then a final dirt path, the course returns to the west side via the same footbridge over the railway line. Another interesting point to note is that the Meridian Line passes just past the eastern border of the park. At this point there are only 500 metres left of the course, and this is simply a case of following the path until reaching the finish area. There is a slight sting in the tail as the last 200 metres feature one last incline. It's not super steep, but being at the very end means you'll certainly feel it.

Barcode scanning takes place right next to the finish area, and the post-event social is held in either the park's Homestead Cafe or in the new cafe in the basement of the mansion. We grabbed a couple of treats from the Homestead Cafe, where there is also some covered outdoor seating in the courtyard. From what I hear, the cafe in the mansion itself has fewer options. The gardens and the new playground are in this vicinity, so are easy to find if they are to be part of your visit. On this occasion, autumn had started to set in and we were a little too late to see the garden at its best.

There are plans to totally re-landscape the eastern side of the park, and once complete will feature new pathways, bridges, wetlands and a new play area. These works commenced a couple of days after this write-up was published.

Update: From 28 October 2023, there will be a revised course in place which avoids the eastern side of the park. The revised and temporary course map has been published on the event's Facebook page: Beckenham Place parkrun revised course notification post. I have also obtained some GPS data for the temporary course: Beckenham Place 2023-2024 temporary course. It features a two-lap section in the woods, so this version of the course works out as being more undulating than the standard course.

The results for event 293 were published later that morning and there were 221 participants, which was slightly lower than average due to the early morning rain. The current expected weekly attendance figure in good conditions is somewhere around the 300 mark. If you'd like to see the GPS data of the course please feel free to have a look at my Strava data which I recorded with my Garmin. For another view of the course, I also made that data into a course fly-by video using the Relive app on my phone; this can be viewed on YouTube. The course appears to be fairly resilient to cancellations, but watch out for the occasional summer cancellation when the park hosts a festival during August.

It was nice to re-visit the park and try out the new course. As well as previously visiting Beckenham Place Park for parkrun, I have also taken part in the Beckenham Trail 10k and the Beckenham Team Relay, so I recognised some areas of the park during the new route. The new parkrun course is definitely an improvement on the original 5k route, and as it is an entirely different route, it is like taking part in a brand new event. With that in mind, I would definitely recommend a re-visit to anybody that has not taken part on the new course.

Lastly, I'd like to thank all of the volunteers who enabled the event to go ahead.

Related Links:

The course GPS data (October 2023)

Winter 2023-2024 Temporary Course Map (Beckenham Place parkrun's Facebook page)
2023-2024 Temporary course GPS data (From 4 November 2023 - original data not mine)

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