Wednesday 20 December 2023

Great Lines parkrun

Gillingham is a town in the county of Kent with a population of around 110.000 people. It sits within the unitary authority of Medway, which is also home to the towns of Strood, Rochester, Chatham, and Rainham. It was recorded in the Domesday Book where it had a population of 69 households. The name is thought to come from the name of a warlord called Gyllingas who was famed for leading his men into battle while shouting. This links in with the Old English word 'Gyllan' which means 'to make a loud cry or screech'.

The town is the birthplace of William Adams who served under Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada in 1588. He subsequently sailed to Japan where he became the first Western Samurai. The north of Gillingham reaches the bank of the River Medway, where part of Gillingham (known as Grange) was a limb of the Cinque Port of Hastings. The link to the sea continued when Chatham's Royal Naval Dockyard was established in the 16th century. By the time the dockyard had expanded to its full size, two thirds of it were actually located within Gillingham. One of the dockyard's most famous ships is the HMS Victory, which was launched in 1765 and is currently the world's oldest naval vessel still in commission. The dockyard was once the workplace of Horatio Nelson.

The naval dockyard required protection from the landward threat from any potential invading forces, and it just so happens that the North Downs chalk escarpment runs through Gillingham, just south of the dockyard. The line of open spaces along the ridge provided a perfect strategic defensive position. At the beginning of the 18th century work began fortifying the area and a fort, Fort Amehurst was later constructed which overlooked the River Medway. There were various sections of the defences such as, Chatham Lines, the Lower Lines, the Inner Lines and the Field of Fire. The combined system of defences became known as The Great Lines.

Over the years, Great Lines has been used by the military for sport, training exercises and explosives testing. There are also some underground shelters and tunnels built about 30 metres below the surface. In 1924 Great Lines became home to the Chatham Naval Memorial obelisk. The initial memorial contained the names of 8,515 Royal Navy servicemen who lost their lives during the First World War, but had no known grave. The memorial was then enlarged following the end of the Second World War where a further 10,098 names were added. It is part of the story in the 1996 novel 'Last Orders' which was made into a film in 2001, and some scenes were filmed in the park around the memorial (it's on Disney+).

In 1989, the area was acquired by Gillingham Borough Council (the council was abolished in 1998 when Medway Council was created). In 2008 funding was granted for improvement works to be undertaken across the 70 acres of land, this included new pathways, signage and lighting. The park is now known as Great Lines Heritage Park and is largely open space with some areas of woodland, some football pitches and a section which is a Site of Nature Conservation Interest. On 28 September 2013 the park became home to Great Lines parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre event open to all abilities. I first visited the park to take part at the inaugural event in September 2013, and have now taken part in this parkrun on four occasions, with the latest being in December 2023.

On all of those occasions I used the car to reach the venue, and there are multiple parking options. Firstly it is possible to park for free for up to two hours, right next to the parkrun meeting point, on Marlborough Road, however the bays are also used by local residents so spaces can be hard to come by. There is further on-street parking on Brompton Road, but the bays here require payment to use. Then there is the car park at the Medway Park Sports Centre, which also requires a fee to be paid. This can be done via contactless payment at the machine in the car park or by using the RingGo app. If cycling there are some racks at the sports centre, or there is a short section of fencing that can be used alongside Marlborough Road.

Travel by public transport is also possible. There is a train station in the centre of Gillingham and this is less than 1 kilometre from Great Lines Heritage Park and the parkrun meeting area. It is primarily served by Southeastern trains from London Charing Cross and London Victoria. Plus there is also a Thameslink train from Luton via London St. Pancras although the direct service does not appear to run early enough to reach the parkrun in time. From the Kent side, there are direct services commencing at both Ramsgate and Dover Priory stations. As far as buses go, the following services are listed as stopping right outside the park, on Brompton Road; 101 Sapphire, 116, 121, 182, 326 and 327.

To find the parkrun meeting point, you need to go to the northern end of the park - this is the part closest to the town centre. As mentioned above it is adjacent to Marlborough Road, but also quite near to Brompton Road. Before you arrive at the park, it should be noted that there are no toilet facilities on-site. The Medway Park Sports Centre is just across the road and has toilets, but they are for members only so expect to be turned away if you ask to use those. There are some public toilets on the High Street, in-between the train station and the park - these are located on a pedestrianised street called Sappers Walk. The information I can find via Google Maps suggests they open at 8am on Saturdays.

Great Lines parkrun takes place over a two-lap anti-clockwise course which I would describe as being gently undulating with the total elevation change at around 50 metres. Underfoot contains a mixture of surfaces including granite resin, grass and gravel paths. My preference for footwear at this venue leans towards trail shoes, but they would only be essential when the conditions are particularly bad. It is fine for buggy running (I buggy ran there on my second visit to the venue), and in favourable conditions you could also get a wheelchair around the course. I will also note here that the course as of 2023 is not exactly the same as the original course.

The briefings take place at the meeting point and, following these, the participants shuffle along the path to the start line. It is worth bearing in mind that as the venue is at a decent elevation, certain parts of the course can be exposed to the weather. In terms of numbers, this parkrun generally attracts around 300-350 participants each week, but the numbers do bounce around quite a bit. The course is very well marshalled by Medway's finest volunteers so there's no chance of getting lost. 

The parkrun starts on the central granite resin path where the course initially heads towards the north before turning onto grass and circumnavigating the three marked football fields. Rejoining the resin path, the route now climbs ever-so-gently uphill across the Field of Fire as it heads to the south. Upon reaching the one kilometre point, the course reaches an X-shaped cross-roads, where the participants turn to the right and head directly towards the stunning Chatham Naval Memorial. Approaching and then passing around the side of the memorial, the surface underfoot takes on a gravelly nature. The course then drops down slighty before a sharp turn to the left takes the course along the southern border of the memorial. Be extra careful here as the sharp turn combined with the downhill and gravel raises the risk of loosing traction and falling.

[lower right photo: official photographer will]

Now at the southern end of the Great Lines Heritage Park, the high vantage point gives the most incredible view over the town of Chatham. The grassy areas in this area of the park are left to grow naturally rather than being mown, and form part of the park's conservation area. There is a point at this part of the course where the two laps differ. Lap one takes a slightly longer route than lap two, but they both end up on the main resin path now heading back towards the X-shaped cross-roads, where the right hand path is taken. At the end of the path the course transfers onto a second grass section, this one is slightly downhill. The end of the grass section links back onto the main central resin path and this completes the lap.

At the end of the second lap, the course leaves the main path and enters the finish funnel which is on the grass adjacent to the meeting area. Finishing tokens are given out at the end of the funnel and scanning takes place right after that. My understanding is that the team then head across the road to The Falcon Cafe for post event refreshments. The results were processed and available online shortly after and there were 293 participants at event 449. I recorded the course using my Garmin and the GPS data from 16 December 2023 can be found on Strava. That data was used to create a course fly-by video and that is available to view on YouTube.

[left photo: official photographer will]

I have previously visited Great Lines Heritage Park outside of the parkrun event, and that was in March 2015 when I, with assistance from my wife, created a video of the course as it was back then. You can view it on YouTube via the link on this page, but please note that the current course is not 100% identical to the one depicted in the video. I'd also give a mention to one of the unofficial parkrun challenges that incorporates this venue. It may have a few different names, including 'The Great parkruns' and 'They're Great!'. To complete the challenge you must take part in all of the UK 5k parkruns with the word 'Great' in their name. At the time of writing in December 2023 there are eight events in the challenge.

After thoroughly enjoying my fourth visit to this venue, we headed back across to the sports centre to collect the car and drove back home. I'd like to extend my thanks to everyone who was involved in putting on the event and who made us feel extremely welcome.
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