Monday 4 December 2023

Wormwood Scrubs parkrun

Wormwood Scrubs (known locally as The Scrubs) is a 200 acre open green space which sits in the northmost part of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, in west London. The area was first known as Wormeholt or Wormholt Scrubs and this continued until the present-day version became commonplace during the 19th century. The Old English 'holt' part of the original name also means 'wood'. The most common theory of the name's origin is that the worm element comes from the Old English 'wurm' or 'wyrm' which means snake. When coupled with 'holt' it would have signified a wooded area infested with snakes. The area was once completely wooded, but this was cleared and subsequently used as pasture for livestock. 

The story of the modern-day Wormwood Scrubs began in 1801 when the Paddington branch of the Grand Union Canal was built through the scrubs and the land to the north became lost to development. Shortly after that a railway line took another slice of the remaining northern section, this is now home to the Old Oak Common Depot and to the North Pole Depot. Another railway line was constructed along the eastern border and for many years Wormwood Scrubs had its own station here. This also resulted in a small area of the scrubs being isolated and it was renamed Little Wormwood Scrubs. 1812 saw the government take out a lease on the area and it became a military training ground. It was then bought outright by the Government in 1878.

The south west corner of the scrubs became home to a small prison in 1874. Work then began on the construction of a permanent brick prison building, which was completed in 1891. This building is the infamous HMP Wormwood Scrubs, one of the country's most well-known prisons. Over the years it has housed high-profile notorious prisoners such as Ian Brady, Charles Bronson, and Dennis Nilsen. It was also used to incarcerate celebrities such as Mark Morrison, Pete Doherty, Leslie Grantham and Keith Richards. It housed conscientious objectors during the First World War and was home to the Security Service (MI5) for a year at the start of the Second World War. The road outside it is named after its designer Sir Edmund Frederick Du Cane and the exterior at its main entrance was used in a scene from the classic 1969 film, The Italian Job.

The world-renowned Hammersmith Hospital, which was first established in 1902, is located next to the prison. The hospital campus is also home to Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital which is one of Europe's oldest maternity hospitals. It was based elsewhere in Hammersmith from 1739 until 2000 when it was moved to its present site.

The Wormwood Scrubs Act was passed in 1879, and this formalised the use of the area. The scrubs were now technically owned by the British Army, but the Act ensured that it was still accessible to the general public for exercise and recreation. The Act also contained conditions which prevented the Army from building any permanent structures on the land. In the early 20th century, the scrubs became home to airships and a hangar was constructed (presumably this was always intended to be temporary). This remained in use throughout the First World War. A few years later, during the Second World War, anti-aircraft guns were installed. The scrubs also apparently hosted football matches between the British and German prisoners of war.

In 1967 the West London Stadium was constructed near the south east corner of the scrubs, just north of the hospital. It is home to Thames Valley Harriers athletics club, whose most famous member is Linford Christie. The stadium was renamed The Linford Christie Stadium in 1993 after his victory in the men's 100 metre event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The parkland is also home to the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre and has an area reserved for model aircraft flying.

A large section of the park is marked out with sports pitches, mostly for football but other sports are also catered for such as baseball. Incidentally, the scrubs were home to Queen's Park Rangers Football Club between 1893-1896. It was also part of the route of the 1908 Olympics Marathon. The exact distance of this course, 26.219 miles (42.195 km), was later formally recognised as the official length of the modern marathon. There are also a couple of children's play areas. There are various patches of scrubland and woodland that remain and parts of the area have been designated as a Local Nature Reserve.

In June 2011 the scrubs became home to a free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre event called Wormwood Scrubs parkrun. It is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk. I first visited the event in June 2013, and revisited in December 2023. On my first visit I cycled to the venue and left my bike on the grass at the meeting point. As far as I could see, there were still no official cycle racks anywhere near the meeting point although there may be some over near the entrance to the pony centre. There are a few fences dotted around which could possibly be used as an alternative. The closest other racks I spotted were outside the community centre on Braybrook Street or outside the hospital main entrance on Du Cane Road.

If driving there are a couple of parking options. The closest to the parkrun meeting point is the main Wormwood Scrubs car park which can be accessed via the small road in-between the hospital and the prison. The fee to use it as of December 2023 was £2.20 per hour. There were payment machines present and they appeared to be card only. Payment by phone was an option (full details on the signs), and despite not seeing any signage, I gather RingGo can also be used. The other parking option is to park on a side street at the south west corner of the scrubs (the Braybrook Street area). A fee applies during the week, but as of December 2023 there was no charge at the weekend.

If using public transport, the natural station to head for is East Acton which is served by the Central Line on the London Undergound. There are other stations dotted around the local area, but they are significantly further away, so if the Central Line is out of action, you may need to alight at Wood Lane which is served by Circle Line and the Hammersmith & City Line. Alternatively Willesden Junction is served by the Bakerloo Line and the London Overground. The closest mainline rail station seems to be Shepherds Bush. There are of course London bus services that pass close by; The 7, 70, 72, 272, and 283 services all stop on Du Cane Road while the 220 stops on Scrubs Lane.

Once at Wormwood Scrubs you will need to head to the parkrun meeting point, which can be found close to the Linford Christie Stadium and the car park. Just head onto the open grass football pitch area where the parkrun flag and pop-up banner identify the exact spot. This area is also where the event's finish line is located. Should you require toilet facilities, you may need to address this before arriving. The official line is that there are no toilets, however if the Thames Valley Harriers club house, within the stadium complex, is open there are some in there. If you would prefer to avoid playing 'toilet roulette', I have heard that there are some toilets just inside the main entrance of the adjacent hospital (I didn't go in, so cannot verify this).

The first-timers briefing takes place at the meeting point and just before 9am, the parkrunners and volunteers walk over to the parkrun start line. At this point I would note that as of my December 2023 visit the official course page showed a slightly different course and start point to the one that was used. With that in mind I would recommend initially heading to the meeting point rather than going straight to the start point shown on the course map. The main briefing was then held at the start line, which was on the grass path that runs adjacent to the prison.

The course is made up of two-and-a-bit anti-clockwise laps which largely stick to the western section of the scrubs. It is generally flat, but you may notice a slight rise in elevation early on in the lap. This is a 100% off-road cross-country style course with the surface underfoot being grass and dirt, which in the winter turns into grass and mud. It is also quite uneven in places, so care must be taken to avoid twisting an ankle. Shoe choice, as you'd expect, leans heavily towards off-road footwear. In fact in unfavourable conditions, I wouldn't even consider trying to take part without trail shoes or spikes. In the dry months buggy running is fine, but when the mud emerges I would imagine only the hardiest of buggy runners will want to participate here. I would say that overall it is not naturally a wheelchair friendly course.

From the start, the course, with the prison walls looming to the right, heads to the east, before turning to the north and passing the meeting area. It continues towards and then passes the central woodland copse. The course then goes around the edges of what I believe was a baseball field, before turning to the west and heading through the scrub-land part of the park. The far west end of the course features a marshalled turn-around point where the participants are sent back using the tree-lined path which runs adjacent to Braybrook Road. This then passes the playground and the path feeds back into the central area. Here the course heads directly towards the prison where the path turns and with the prison walls to the right, joins up with the original start area to complete the first lap.

The course is marshalled in a few key places (I think there were 4 on this occasion) and there were cones in various locations to guide the way. Once the two laps (approx 2.35km each) are complete, the course simply retraces the opening part of the lap (approx 300 metres) and turns into the finish area and across the line. Barcode scanning takes place right here on the grass. I recorded the course with my Garmin and the December 2023 GPS data can be found on Strava. I used that data to create a course fly-by video using the Relive app on my phone. I should also mention that there have been a number of variations of the course over the years, and the current course is different from the one used when I visited in 2013.

Once the tail walker has crossed the line and the marshals and cones have returned, the team heads over to the Thames Valley Harriers club house for refreshments. I joined the extremely welcoming team on both of my visits and while the clubhouse does not have a huge selection of options, it does have its famous 'legendary flapjack'. The prices are extremely reasonable with a cup of tea costing 70p, the hot chocolate £1.20, and the legendary flapjack was 80p per slice. The other food options are in the form of sweets, chocolate and crisps. If you are in need of something more substantial, you'll need to head elsewhere.

In terms of attendance figures, this is one of the smallest London parkrun venues. As of 2023, the summer sees the highest weekly turnouts where the finishers usually number over one hundred, but not usually more than 150 (186 is currently the highest-ever attendance). When the conditions worsen the impact on attendance figures is noticeable, and it is quite normal for attendances to be in the 40-90 window when the really muddy conditions set in. Although we visited in the winter, we picked a frosty day and the mud was mostly frozen (that of course made the risk of twisting an ankle a bit higher). The results were published a little later that morning and there were 87 participants and 15 volunteers present at event 573, which was held on 2 December 2023.

We had a cold but very enjoyable morning on the scrubs, and I would like to end by thanking the whole Wormwood Scrubs parkrun community for the warm welcome we received during our visit.

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