Monday 27 November 2023

Walthamstow parkrun

Walthamstow is a town in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, in the east of London. It was first recorded as Wilcumestowe and subsequently appeared in the Domesday Book as Wilcumestou where it was a manor owned by Earl Waltheof of Huntingdon and Northumbria. According to Wikipedia, the name means 'the place of welcome'. It remained a small settlement with much of the surrounding area used as farmland. Towards the end of the 19th century, the railway arrived. This was the catalyst that led to the expansion of Walthamstow into the sprawling residential town we know today.

The oldest part of Walthamstow is centred around St Mary's Church. On the opposite side of the road is Walthamstow's oldest house, the wooden framed building 'The Ancient House' built in the 15th century. This part of the town is now known as Walthamstow Village. Modern-day Walthamstow is home to around 110,000 people and recent developments have seen the area become quite trendy. The High Street is notable for being home to Europe's longest open-air market; it features 500 stall holders and is 1 kilometre in length. Owing to the popularity of the 1990's boy band, Walthamstow has one the UK's most recognisable postcodes.

The area has some significant links to the development of transportation. John Kemp Starley, who is considered the inventor of the modern-day bicycle was born in Walthamstow. The UK's first four-wheeled motor car with an internal combustion engine was built in Walthamstow in 1892. The vehicle was donated to the Vestry House Museum in 1933 and is still on display (we were going to pop in to have a look, but couldn't find anywhere to park the car). The first mass-produced bus, the B-Type, was manufactured in Walthamstow. One of the B-Types became the first bus ever boarded by the British monarch, and that exact bus has been on display in the Imperial War Museum since 1970. The first British-built powered plane took off on its maiden flight from Walthamstow marshes in 1909.

In the northern part of Walthamstow was a farm called Wadham Lodge Farm and from 1867 this was run by a man called John Hitchman. He later went on to establish the Hitchman and Sons business which was a very well known local supplier of milk and other dairy products. This company was eventually bought by United Dairies in 1947, but the Hitchman name continued to be used locally until the 1990's. The land that was Wadham Lodge Farm is now a sports ground. The sports ground was acquired by the London Playing Fields Foundation in 1991. With funding from the Sports Lottery and the Peter May Memorial Appeal, the site was transformed with its updated sports centre opening in 2000. It is now known as the Peter May Sports Centre, taking its name from the famous 1950's cricketer.

The sports centre has facilities for sports and recreation activities including badminton, table tennis, soft play and has a hall for other private events, such as wedding receptions. However, the main sports catered for are football and cricket. It has a particular claim to fame as being the home of Ridgeway Rovers Football Club, who can name footballers David Beckham and Harry Kane as former players. It has also produced many successful cricketers including half of the 2019 double-winning Essex team. The grounds are also home to a free, weekly, timed 5k event called Walthamstow parkrun. This is open to all fitness abilities including those who wish to walk the course. I first visited the parkrun at its inaugural event in January 2013, and re-visited in November 2023.

On my first visit I travelled by train and alighted at the nearest station, Highams Park. This station is about 1 kilometre away from the sports ground. As of 2023 it is served exclusively by trains on the London Overground. The closest London Underground services run to Walthamstow Central which is the last station on the Victoria Line. This station is three kilometres away from the sports ground, but it does interchange with the Overground Line to Highams Park. Some local buses pass reasonably close to the venue, the closest are the W16 and 212, but the 97, 158, 34 and SL1 also seem to stop within walking distance.

The National Rail train network does not pass through this part of London, so if using National Rail, you'd have to alight and change to the Underground, Overground or bus networks to complete the journey. In 2023, I used the car and the venue has its own, free, on-site car park. There are spaces for somewhere in the region of 300 vehicles. If travelling by bicycle the sports ground has bicycle racks. Once within the grounds, the toilets and changing rooms can be found inside the sports centre (using the side door which faces the main vehicle/pedestrian entrance).

The meeting point for the parkrun is on the grass right in front of the south side of the Peter May Sports Centre building. Any bags or jackets etc can be left around the base of the large tree on the corner. I would note that as well as parkrun, the sports centre hosts junior football training sessions on a Saturday morning, so expect there to be various groups of people milling around. As far as the briefings are concerned, the first-timers briefing takes place at the meeting point and the main briefing takes place at the start line which is about 50 metres or so to the east.

The parkrun takes place over a three-and-a-bit lap anti-clockwise course. The surface underfoot is grass, and while this course is definitely not hilly, there is a slight rise in elevation through the first part of each lap. Shoe choice will depend on the course conditions, as the grass can hold onto quite a bit of water after periods of rain, and does get muddy. If in doubt, I would go with off-road shoes. The course is fine for buggy running, although some may prefer to avoid doing so in unfavourable conditions. Sadly I would say this course is not suitable for wheelchair athletes. Also, and this is very important, the sports ground is a private facility and not a public park. Dogs are not permitted on site.

At 9am the parkrun gets underway. From the start, the participants head west back past the meeting point where the course turns and runs adjacent to the entrance road. The course then simply follows the outer perimeter of the sports ground. There is soon a gentle incline that lasts around 200 metres and this leads into the long back straight on the eastern side. Most people probably won't notice (I didn't on my first visit), but if you look across the parkland to your left, in the far distance you can see Alexandra Palace (Ally Pally) perched right at the top of Alexandra Park.

The course then heads gently downhill as it approaches the north-east corner of the park. Turning again, the course the heads along the northern border. Just beyond the treeline and the fence is the River Ching, which forms the border between Walthamstow and Chingford. The route passes behind the football goals and can be single file at points. Towards the end of this section there is a small slope which leads through a tiny trail-like section of course, and this is followed by a 3/4 lap around the edge of a small football pitch which ends with a very short section cutting across the corner of the car park.

The course now follows the inside perimeter as it goes around the sports centre and the 3G football pitch (this is a third generation synthetic surface). The main points to note here are that if the football goals are in position, there are a couple of narrow sections to pass through, and if you visit on a sunny morning, the sun can give a strobe-like effect when passing the fencing. I had to put my hand next to my eye to block the flickering as this type of light can bring on migraines for me. This inner part of the course simply leads around to the original start point where the second and third laps start.

Once past the start area at the end of the third lap, there's just a little further to go before reaching the finish which is adjacent to the entrance road. There were some nice touches at this venue in the shape of bespoke signage, there was a 'Well Done', a 'Smile' and at the very end, a 'Sprint Finish Starts Here'. Once over the line, the barcode scanning takes place straight away. When we visited in 2023, we crossed the line with the tail walker and volunteer parkwalker, and the results were processed before we'd even left the finish area. So that was super fast!

I recorded the course with my Garmin and the data can be viewed on Strava. I used that data to create a Relive Course Fly-by Video that can be viewed on YouTube. In terms of numbers of participants, this venue tends to have around 120-150 participants each week. It does of course vary throughout the year, and it looks like the weekly attendance sometimes dips under 100, this is usually due to unfavourable weather conditions. On the day we visited, which was the 27th of November 2023, event number 480, there were 128 finishers.

I imagine that most people would class this course as fairly unmemorable or not particularly exciting (laps around sports fields). However, I found it very nice and the fact that I don't have to worry about loose dogs is a real bonus for me. I think the autumnal colours during my second visit really helped to bring it to life. Plus there are of course the lovely bunch of locals and volunteers that add that extra bit of magic to the weekly run or walk around the grounds.

Once the event has finished, there is a kiosk at the sports centre where you can pick up some light refreshments. I got a bit caught up doing an extra lap of the course and taking some extra photos, so ran out of time for that. This had been a lovely morning of parkrunning (mostly parkwalking, which is of course perfectly fine), and I'd like to extend a big thank you to the volunteer team for making us feel welcome.

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