Tuesday 26 December 2023

Hilly Fields parkrun

In the London Borough of Lewisham, is the open green space called Hilly Fields. It sits within the electoral ward of Ladywell, but has also been recorded as being part of the adjacent locality of Brockley. In fact, Hilly Fields is part of the Brockley Conservation Area. As with a lot of areas within London, the borders between localities can shift and become blurred over time, but as it is mostly noted as being within Ladywell, that's where I'll focus this write-up.

The name Ladywell has been in use since the 1400's and comes from 'Our Lady's Well' that is thought to have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was not the only well in the area, another nearby well was used for medicinal purposes as it was thought to have healing properties. The site of the Our Lady's Well is now under a road, but it is marked by a plaque on a nearby building. The town centre is also home to a distinctive Grade II Listed Victorian Bath House, the Ladywell Playtower, which is currently in a semi-derelict state, however there are plans to redevelop it into flats and a cinema. The Ravensbourne River runs through the area and Ladywell Fields is an open green space that extends along its banks, past Lewisham Hospital (birthplace of Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones) all the way down to Catford.

The area was largely fields and farms until the arrival of the railway in 1857, which was the catalyst for its growth into the residential area it is today. The areas of Ladywell, Brockley and the adjacent Crofton Park were expanding rapidly with most of the housing being quite respectable houses. To the north of the centre of Ladywell, building permission had been granted for houses on what is now Hilly Fields. Fortunately, a lady called Octavia Hill, who was a social reformer and one of the founding members of the National Trust, had a keen interest in preserving green spaces. She was instrumental in helping local people set up a campaign, which ultimately raised enough funds for London County Council to purchase the land. Hilly Fields was opened as a public park in 1896.

As its name suggests, the park comprises grass fields (each with its own name) and sits on a hill, which rises to a height of around 53 metres (175 ft.) above sea level. It covers an area of 39 acres and is bordered on all sides by detached and semi-detached houses. Within the park is the Prendegast 6th Form College, whose building dates back to the 1880's. The park is also home to a playground, cafe, a stone circle, tennis courts, football and cricket pitches, a basketball court, and a bowls club. The area that is now the cricket pitch was once the site of a brick field. There was once a bandstand on the grass opposite the tennis courts, but it sadly no longer exisits. On Saturday mornings it is the location of a free, weekly, timed 5km community event called Hilly Fields parkrun. Like all parkruns, it is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk.

I had been to Hilly Fields years before the parkrun existed, but visited to take part at the parkrun's inaugural event on 8 September 2012. I then visited again a couple of months later and took part in their 2012 Christmas Day event. Somehow, almost 11 years passed by before I turned up for my third parkrun visit, which was on 23 December 2023 (which also happened to be my 500th parkrun and my brother's 50th). I should note, that I have been back to Hilly Fields a few times in the interim, but for Hilly Fields junior parkrun, which takes place on Sundays. The thing I have always loved about this venue is its bohemian, arty, chilled out, family-focused, vibe. 

Being a London venue, public transport links are pretty good. There are numerous buses that pass close to the venue. The bus stops along the park's southern border are served by the 122, while the north and east borders are served by the 484. Additional bus services stop at various locations nearby. Travelling by mainline train also comes with a number of options. The closest train station is Ladywell, but Crofton Park and Brockley stations are also close by. All three of the stations are served by different train companies, and are not interconnected. Brockley is also on the London Overground line. Lewisham station is also not too far away; this is served by mainline trains and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). For those who wish to drive, the roads around the perimeter of the park allow restriction-free parking at all times. Cyclists can secure their bikes to the racks opposite the cafe. 

The parkrun meeting point is next to the playground and this is where the first timers' briefing takes place. Most participants tend to hang their jackets on the playground fence. The start area is at the highest point in the park, next to the cafe and the flagpole. There are toilet facilities at the rear of the cafe building. The parkrun has summer and winter courses which are both made up of three clockwise laps plus a central tail that is used for the start and finish sections. Underfoot is a combination of approximately 3.5km on tarmac paths and 1.5km on grass. If conditions are dry, regular road shoes will be fine, but in wet conditions, trail shoes are the way to go (see my Christmas Day 2012 blog). Buggy running is fine here, but the course doesn't seem to be overly suitable for wheelchair users. I've always loved how the park's name is totally honest about what to expect here; grass fields on a hill!

The start line is formed at the flag pole and this is where the main briefing takes place. At 9am the event gets underway. The initial start section heads to the west along the flat, tarmac, central path past the tennis courts and the playground. Some parts of the path have become damaged, so watch your footing along here. This path naturally leads around to the right and this marks the start of the three clockwise roller-coaster-style laps. Essentially the course drops downhill when heading away from the central path and rises when heading back towards the centre. The summer course has three down-then-up sections, so nine uphill sections to negotiate in total. The winter course has two down-then-up sections making six uphill sections in total. To be honest, there isn't that much difference between the two. The course is very well marshalled and there are cones in various places to help guide parkrunners around. 

In bad weather, the section along the northern border, which is on grass, can become very wet and maybe even waterlogged. Even if not waterlogged, it can at least get fairly muddy here. At certain times of the year you may also find a few bits of tree debris (twigs etc) scattered along the dirt path. The first uphill is on tarmac and is reasonably gentle - the course stays to the left when the path splits outside the bowling club.

If taking part on the winter course, the route continues to follow the tarmac path which joins directly onto the main central path. If using the summer course there is an additional hill section on grass in the south-east corner of the park, the subsequent climb is the longest on the summer course with an average of 7% incline over 200 metres. The top of this incline rejoins the main central path at the cafe.

What can be described as the course's main hill section (The Big Hill), can be found at the end of each lap. The course passes between the tennis courts and playground where it leads onto a steep downhill tarmac path which heads down towards the junction of Montague Avenue and Adelaide Avenue at the southwest tip of the park.

The summer course turns off of this path about half-way down and onto the grass for a shorter uphill climb (approx 150 metres) which completes the loop. However, the winter course actually heads all the way down to the lowest point of the park where it goes around the big tree (you'll know it when you see it) before heading back uphill on grass. The uphill section is largely around a 10% incline and on the winter course, is about 250 metres in length. The top of this hill marks the end of the full lap.

I couldn't write about Hilly Fields without mentioning the 360 degree views. To the south is the view of the residential areas stretching across this part of London where you can also see the Crystal Palace Transmitting Tower in the distance. Shooters Hill lies to the east, although the new tower blocks in the centre of Lewisham now fill the view. To the north, are views into London including a great view of Canary Wharf and to the north-west The Shard, Guys Hospital and the City of London can be seen. If you don't get the chance to take them in during the parkrun, it's worth spending some time wandering around to find the best viewpoints afterwards.

At the end of the third roller-coaster lap, when reaching the top of the big hill, the route breaks off of the loop and heads back in the opposite direction along the central path where the finish is found on the grass opposite the playground. I have GPS data from both courses. The summer course data is from my 2012 Christmas Day visit (back then there was only one course in use), while the winter course data is from my December 2023 visit. I have also taken both sets of GPS data and created course fly-by videos which can be viewed on YouTube (links below). The total elevation change (according to Strava) seems to be roughly the same for both courses at around 90-92 metres. The summer course achieves this in three shorter inclines per lap while the winter course uses two longer inclines.

Personal barcodes and finish tokens are scanned next to the finish line and once all of the participants and the tail walkers have crossed the line, the team relocate to the Pistachios in the Park cafe, which is pretty cool and quirky. It has indoor and outdoor seating, serves amazing coffee and has a selection of children's books to keep the younger visitors occupied. The breakfast food options are largely based around pastries and cakes, but they do have some hot food and baguettes available for anyone that requires something a little more substantial.

As of 2023 the average number of participants seems to be around 200-230 per week, but this tends to drop down into the high 100's when the conditions are not so good. Being high up, it can also get a bit windy up here. The results for my most recent visit in December 2023 were processed and published online shortly after and there were 235 participants at event 528. The event usually has a pre-planned cancellation each June (usually the last Saturday of the month) when the Hilly Fields Midsummer Fayre is held, so keep an eye out for that if planning a visit during that time. They also have a 100% record of holding extra events on both Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

So that concluded my third visit to a parkrun event that I really feel I should have visited more often by now. It is a really lovely spot to have a parkrun, and of course to simply hang out for a while. Just don't forget to take in the views! All that is left for me to say is a huge thank you to the volunteers and the rest of the Hilly Fields parkrun community for always making me feel welcome. I will endeavour to visit more often as I really do love it here.

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