Saturday 30 December 2023

Harrow parkrun

Harrow is a town that sits within the London Borough of Harrow, in the north west of London and has a population of around 150,000 people.

Historically, the town was centred on the Harrow-on-the-Hill area, which is the oldest and most ancient part of Harrow, and features a number of conservation areas. The earliest recorded version of the name is 'Harrowe atte Hille'. The name is said to come from the Old English word 'Hearg' which would indicate a heathen temple, probably on the site of the Grade I Listed St Mary's Church which stands at the top of the aforementioned hill. The summit of the hill is at 124m (408 feet) which is the thirteenth highest point (of land) in the whole of London. It is notable that within the list of 'highest points in London that are over 100 metres', it is the only isolated hill. The others are all part of escarpments/ridges. The church is noted as being the highest building in Middlesex.

The hilltop is also the location of the prestigious public school 'Harrow School'. It was founded in 1572 and is one of the leading independent schools in the country. It can count seven former British prime ministers amongst its former students, the most-famous of them being Sir Winston Churchill. It also has three nobel prize winners and members of various royal families amongst its alumni.

The areas around the hill were traditionally used largely for farming, but the arrival of the railways in the 19th century provided the catalyst for the town's expansion. Like many outer-London areas the farmland was bought and houses built. The expansion of north-west London (and beyond) along the Metropolitan railway was known as Metroland and Harrow was unofficially thought of as its capital.

In 1890, Harrow became home to the first Kodak photographic manufacturing plant to be built outside the United States, and it also had a research and development department. It was the largest Kodak factory in the UK and in its heyday employed around 6,00 people. Owing to the falling demand for traditional photography equipment including the film and photographic paper produced here, the factory was slowly wound down. In 2016 it closed completely, and the site has now been developed into a residential development called Eastman Village - named after George Eastman who was one of Kodak's founders. If you look around there are many other nods to the world of photography in the names of the roads.

With the expansion of the town rapidly taking place, it was deemed necessary to ensure some land was reserved for recreation and sports, so one of the assistant headmasters from Harrow School started a campaign to raise the funds required to purchase some land for that purpose. In 1885 Harrow Recreation Ground was opened to the public. The original park consisted of only the south field, but extra plots were acquired later which increased the park to its current size. During its early history it was home to many local sports clubs including 4 cricket clubs, 5 football clubs, 29 tennis clubs and a bowling club that largely carries through to this day.

The facilities in the park have evolved with the sports & recreation fashions and trends throughout the past 140-or-so years. Part of the park that is now football pitches once housed grass tennis courts, then became used for croquet. There is now a children's play area where there was once a putting green, and back in the 1960s a golf course was created but this has since been removed. On 9 May 2015, the park became home to a free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre event (open to all abilities including those who wish to walk) called Harrow parkrun and this of course is continuing the strong tradition of the park being home to sports, recreation and most importantly, community.

We first visited this venue on 12 December 2015 and took part in event number 32 where there were 91 finishers. On 30 December 2023 we revisited and took part in event number 380. We travelled to the venue in 2015 by taking the London Underground's Metropolitan Line to Harrow-on-the-Hill station, which is just a short walk from the park (check out the cool cycle lane which runs through the underpass underneath the main road). The station is also served by Chiltern Railways national rail trains running on the London to Aylesbury line. Harrow is also well served by buses and these include the numbers 114, 140, 183, 223, H19 and a few others that I have most-likely missed.

If travelling by car (as we did in 2023), there are two main options for parking. The first is to use the free-of-charge car park within Harrow Recreation Ground, which is accessed from Roxborough Road on the eastern side of the park. This car park has space for approximately 40 vehicles, so you'd need to arrive reasonably early to be guaranteed a space. Roxborough Road itself has parking restricted to permit holders only. The other option for parking in the vicinity of the park is to head over to the residential roads to the west of the park. The best spots are going to be in the Beresford Road area where the side streets are restriction free. Finally, there are a few bicycle racks within the car park.

The participants and volunteers gather in the south east corner of the park at the Harrow St Mary's pavilion, which is next to the entrance closest to the town centre. Changing rooms and toilets are available for use inside the pavilion building where you can also leave any personal belongings. The park also has some regular public toilets and these are located next to the Hindes Road entrance (not far from the playground), however these were not open before or after parkrun when we visited in December 2023. Both the first timers' and main briefings take place directly outside the pavilion, after which everybody moves around to the start line.

The parkrun takes place over three anti-clockwise laps, but note that lap 1 is slightly different to laps 2 and 3. It is almost flat, but does feature some relatively long and gentle changes in elevation which according to Strava adds up to 46 metres of elevation change over the full 5 kilometres. Underfoot is 100% tarmac paths, so road shoes are always the best footwear option. The course is absolutely fine for buggies and for wheelchair users. My GPS course data and the Relive course fly-by video can both be viewed if you require a more visual representation of the course. It seems to be quite a resilient course and I understand the event has only ever had to be cancelled once, which was due to ice on the paths.

The parkrun starts in the south east corner of the park and heads to the north through an avenue of lime trees which is unsurprisingly called Lime Avenue. The end of the avenue is where the course passes the car park and playground. On lap one only, once past the playground, the course takes a little detour where it breaks off from the perimeter path and does a loop around the central grass area which is home to the park's cafe and Harrow Bowls Club. It then rejoins the perimeter path outside the playground. If you happen to be towards the front or the back of the pack, there is a short stretch where you will mingle and have to cross each other's paths.

Once that section is out of the way, the rest of the parkrun course sticks to the park's perimeter paths. The lap continues by passing the toilet block and this is where the long, gentle incline starts. The steepest gradient my Garmin picked up was around 3% incline. This continues as you pass the sports fields to the left. There is a path which cuts across the park, which is lined with oaks; these are the Mayoral Oaks and since 1990 a new one has been planted by each successive Mayor. The parkrun goes straight past and onwards until reaching the park's north east corner. This is the highest point of the course and with a quick glance to the left you can see across to Harrow-on-the-Hill and St. Mary's Church spire. 

Following the perimeter path along the park's northern path, the course starts to ever-so-gently drop downhill, and this continues as the course turns onto the western perimeter path. It passes the tennis courts and the sensory garden, and then to the right is Harrow Cemetery. At this point the course starts to rise again, but it is so slight you may not even notice it. The final part of the lap goes past the Pinner Road entrance with its grand cast iron gates which were installed to commemorate the coronation of King George V.

[credit top right photo: harrow parkrun official photographer]

When reaching the end of this path, the course goes around the back of the pavilion building and rejoins Lime Avenue where the next lap begins. Remember the second and third laps do not do the detour section, instead once reaching the playground they head straight on past the toilets to continue the lap as before. A small mention here for the marshals - you can expect to find about five dotted at strategic positions around the course, mostly where the entrance paths meet the main path.

At the end of lap three, just before reaching the pavilion, the 5 kilometre point is reached and the finish funnel can be found straddling the adjacent grass. The scanning team will most likely be positioned directly in front of the pavilion. Light post-event refreshments are available at the pavilion, but should you fancy something else, the park's cafe and the local branch of Morrison both have further options. When we visited in 2015, we popped into a local branch of Costa Coffee.

The results for event 380 were published a short while later and there were 221 finishers. This number is in line with the expected number of attendees as of 2023. Most weeks generally have over 200, but the event sometimes drops into the high 100's, usually during unfavourable conditions or during the summer holidays. As always I recorded the course using my Garmin and the GPS data can be found on Strava, along with the Relive video which can be found on YouTube. For the record, the course is exactly the same as it was when we last visited in 2015.

So our second visit to Harrow was great, and I was very pleased to be able to introduce one of my friends from work to parkrun on this visit. The volunteers and locals were just as friendly as I remembered from the 2015 visit, so a huge thank you to you all for the very warm welcome and for the support on the day.

Related Links:

My GPS data of the course (30 December 2023)

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