Sunday 8 October 2023

Somerdale Pavilion parkrun

About halfway between the City of Bristol and City of Bath lies the town of Keynsham. The site of the town has been occupied since prehistoric times and has a current population of approximately 20,000 people. The earliest written record of the town is from c.980 when it was recorded as Cægineshamme. It was subsequently recorded in the Domesday book as Cainesham and the modern town retains the same pronunciation. The original source of the name is not certain, but the most popular theory seems to be that it takes its name from Saint Keyne (or Keyna) who apparently lived locally in, what was then, an uninhabitable serpent infested area. Her prayers are said to have turned the serpents to stone, thus making the area habitable.

A settlement existed here during Roman times and it is thought to be the site of the lost Roman town of Trajectus. This theory is supported by the large number of Roman houses and artifacts found in the town. One of the most significant is a villa on the site of Keynsham Cemetery which is thought to be one of the grandest Roman villas in Britain. The foundations of a Roman building can be viewed near the town's train station, however this is not the original site of the house, they were excavated during the construction of a factory in the 1920's and relocated here for display. Also, the town's library has displays of Roman pottery and some of the mosaic floors that were removed during excavations. A further 15 buildings and a Roman road were discovered in 2012.

Around 1166, the Earl of Gloucester founded the monastic Keynsham Abbey, in the town. It operated until 1539 when King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries saw it closed and slowly stripped of all of its materials. Many of the stones were reused in buildings, bridges and walls around the town. A small section of the ruins of the abbey remains. What little there is left is now Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The town is situated at the confluence of the River Avon and the River Chew, and this historically led to regular floods. While this problem has largely been resolved, the northern part of the town, called Keynsham Hams, is still a flood plain.

In the 1920s, the Fry's chocolate company (J.S Fry & Sons), which had recently merged with Cadbury's, built a factory (the one mentioned above), housing, a social club, and sports facilities in the Keynsham Hams part of town. Following a national competition, the development was named Somerdale Garden City. Somerdale Factory initially produced Fry's chocolate products such as Fry's Chocolate Cream, which was the world's first mass-produced chocolate bar. During the Second World War, chocolate production was reduced due to rationing and, according to Wikipedia, part of the factory was used by Rolls-Royce to manufacture their Merlin engines. These were used in many famous war aircraft including the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

Somerdale Factory went on to produce many of Cadbury's most well-known and loved chocolate products including Dairy Milk, Crunchie, Buttons, Creme Eggs, Cadbury's Fudge, Double Decker, and most importantly for the subject of this write-up, the Curly Wurly. It continued to produce chocolate until it was closed down in 2011. The site has since been redeveloped with many new homes, but importantly, the area still retains the same ethos that was installed previously with social facilities and community at its heart. Some of the original chocolate factory buildings have been refurbished and, together with some newly built blocks, are called The Chocolate Quarter retirement village. This comprises assisted-living apartments, cafes, restaurants, bars, entertainment facilities, community garden and workshops. Many of these facilities are open to the wider community.

There is also a brand new sports, health and leisure centre called Somerdale Pavilion. Keynsham Hams (also now known as Somerfield Meadows) is nestled into an area adjacent to the River Avon and is now the location of many sports including golf, rugby, football and baseball. Adjacent to the sports fields is the volunteer run ShamXcross cyclo-cross track. By kind permission, their track is used on Saturday mornings for the town's free, weekly, timed 5k community event called Somerdale Pavilion parkrun which had its inaugural event in November 2018. Like ShamXcross it is also run by volunteers and is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk. We visited the town to take part in the parkrun on 7 October 2023 which was their event number 154.

As this venue is quite far away from home for us, we stayed overnight in a Premier Inn. The closest one is Bristol South (7 miles away), but as they had run out of family rooms, we stayed in the Bristol East Premier Inn (Emersons Green). Although further away (8 miles) it was actually a quicker drive due to the nature of the roads used. Once in Keynsham there are a few parking options. The option recommended on the parkrun's course page, is to park in Somerdale Pavilion's Lower Car Park. The current (2023) fee for the car park is 60p per hour and payment can be made by cash or by using the RingGo app.

The main Somerdale Pavilion car park has the same payment arrangement, but it is requested that parkrunners do not use it unless the lower car park fills up. I would add that if paying by RingGo the two car parks have separate location codes, so make sure you use the one that matches the car park you are in. The letters on some of the spaces indicate areas that are reserved for permit holders between Monday and Friday only. Some people may prefer to park for free, and this can be achieved by using the train station's overspill car park, leaving a 900 metre walk to the pavilion via a footpath which follows the route of the Chocolate factory's former branch line. Visitors to the parkrun should refrain from using any free on-street parking within the new housing development as this is likely to result in complaints to the parkrun volunteer team.

Anybody arriving by public transport from outside the town can use the train and alight at Keynsham station which is served by Great Western Railway trains from Bristol to the north-west and from Bath to the South-east. If travelling by train from London there is no direct train, but you can easily change at Bath Spa. Similarly anyone arriving by bus would alight at the bus stop outside the station (some buses may go a bit closer and stop outside the Chocolate Quarter buildings). The onward walk to the pavilion is about 750 metres. For cyclists, there is a bike rack just outside the pavilion, next to the main car park.

Should toilet facilities be required, the pavilion has some and these are advertised as being open from 8.30am, I wouldn't expect to have access before that time as the building was locked completely locked until the first member of staff turned up at about 8.25am. The actual start area for the parkrun is a further 300 metres to the north of the pavilion, just follow the grass along the side of the main enclosed football pitch. The briefings take place over at the start area.

The Somerdale Pavilion parkrun course is wholly within the cyclo-cross track area, which is private land and not accessible to parkrunners outside of the agreed Saturday morning arrangement - this means that you can not turn up and freedom run the course at other times. Also, the sports ground and cyclo-cross area do not allow dogs, and that rule extends to parkrun. To be clear, it's a no dogs on-site policy, so best leave any four-legged friends elsewhere.

The parkrun takes place on a flat, two-and-a-bit lap course. This is a 100% off-road course and underfoot is grass, which can get quite muddy during the winter. Please note that the area is a flood plain and can easily become waterlogged (see this news post for some photos). If planning a visit during the winter or any other time where groundwater levels could be high, keep a very close eye on the event's social media pages as cancellations are likely. The highest cancellation risk appears to be during December, January and February.

As far as footwear choice is concerned, trail shoes would be my preference all year round. Despite there being virtually no rain for at least the last week, the ground had still held onto some water, and I found my feet were completely soaked through before the parkrun had even started. I'd read beforehand that the surface underfoot is quite bumpy, but I wouldn't describe it as being any more bumpy than any other grass course. Buggy runners are welcome, and while I'm sure wheelchair users would also be welcome, the event's stats seem to suggest that there has never been a wheelchair athlete participating here.

At 9am the event gets underway when the participants are sent on their way around one of parkrun's most incredibly bonkers courses! I'd usually attempt to give a more detailed course description at this point in a write-up, but with this particular venue, it would be impossible for me to do so. It really needs to be experienced! The course starts near the track's main entrance and weaves and curves around all over the place, very little time is spent moving in a straight line. The cyclo-cross paths are mown grass and the non-path grasses are usually left to grow a little longer, so it is easy to see where the paths are. There are plenty of arrows, cones, stanchions and marshals around the course to make sure everyone follows the right route through the maze of mown cyclo-cross paths.

The highlight of the course is the now-very-famous section called the Curly Wurly. For anyone not familiar with it, it is a spiral which you enter going in a clockwise direction and at the centre you switch and come back out in an anti-clockwise direction. The Curly Wurly is negotiated three times throughout the five kilometre course, so you get to enjoy it multiple times. For some it may feel a bit dizzying, but seeing a couple of hundred people going round it at the same time is an incredible sight. The Curly Wurly name, although specific to this particular section of the course, is also a very good description of the entire 5k route, as well as tying in nicely with the area's chocolate-making heritage.

The rest of the course, while not quite as tight and twisty as its famous spiral, turns from left to right, right to left, has 180-degree turns, weaves in and out, and round and round, but never crosses itself. To the non-parkrunning bystanders, the sight of two-hundred-or-so people running all over the place in different directions must look totally barmy. To the initiated, it is simply a wonderful experience on a totally unique course where it is difficult to not spend the whole time smiling. I can say without doubt that it is one of the most memorable and fun parkruns out there.

The finish is found just after the third time around the Curly Wurly, where you can simply head across the line, collect a finish token and have it scanned, along with your personal barcode, right after the finish line. I recorded the course using my Garmin and you can view the course GPS data on the Strava website. That same data was used to create a Relive course fly-by video that can be viewed on YouTube. I will note that the current course is negotiated in a clockwise direction, whereas the original course was anti-clockwise. There are a couple of minor differences with the exact paths used, but the underlying essence of the course remains the same.

The results for event 154 were processed and published online a short while later, and 155 people took part. The number of attendees tends to hover in the mid-high 100's, occasionally breaking into the 200's, during good conditions, and generally falls down to the low 100's during the winter. Even when the course is not flooded, it can still have a wetness about it, so I would recommend having a spare pair of shoes and socks to change into post parkrun. Talking about post-parkrun, the official social refreshments venue is the Somerdale Pavilion Sports Bar, which we visited. It's pretty nice, and they do ask that muddy shoes are not worn inside (there is a shoe cleaning station outside). They serve all kinds of breakfast options from cereals to full English breakfasts, including the largest selection of vegetarian and vegan options (breakfast and lunch) I've ever seen in a regular cafe.

After the parkrun, we explored the town a little where we found some of the Roman history noted above, as well as finding the remains of Keynsham Abbey. We also found the War Memorial, Joseph Fry memorial statue and a statue of Peter Pan, which was presented to the factory owners by the employees in 1928 to mark the company's bicentenary. We also had a wander around Keynsham Memorial Park and saw the Roman mosaic floor in the town's library. We left the town around midday and started our journey back home to Kent via Stonehenge where we added another 7km to the day's activities.

It had been a great morning at Somerdale Pavilion and I was happy to have visited another one of parkrun's famous venues. It really is so unique, and I would add it to your must-do list. A huge thank you goes to all the volunteers that helped to make the event happen.

Related links:

My GPS course data (7 October 2023)
The Relive course fly-by (7 October 2023)

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