Sunday 11 February 2024

Kingston parkrun

Kingston Upon Thames (or simply Kingston) is a town in the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames with a population of around 43,000 people (the wider borough is home to 163,000). It historically sat in the county of Surrey, but became part of Greater London in 1965. The earliest written record of the name is from Saxon times (838) when it was recorded as 'Cyninges Tun'. Over the next few centuries the name evolved where it was recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as Chingestune, before becoming Kingeston, and then Kyngeston super Tamisiam (Tamisiam is a 13th century name for the River Thames). By 1589 was known as Kingestowne upon Thames.

The town's name means King's Manor or King's Farmstead, and it was a place of residence for Saxon kings. In fact, so important was the town that it was the location of at least seven Anglo-Saxon coronations including Edward the Elder in 900, Æthelstan in 925, who was the first king to rule the whole of England, and Ethelred the Unready in 978. An important artefact in the town is the Coronation Stone which was recovered from the rubble of St Mary's Church, which had collapsed in 1730. It symbolises Kingston's important role in the history of England.

Kingston's prosperity was partly thanks to its market which had been granted by Royal Charter which forbade any other markets for 7 miles around. The fact that it had a bridge spanning the River Thames, assisted with the town's prosperity and also made it a key strategic place, vulnerable to attack during times of war. The first Kingston Bridge would have been wooden; the exact date of construction is unknown, but it is likely to have been around a thousand years ago. Until 1729 it was the first bridged crossing point to be reached west of London Bridge, so it would have been a busy place. The current bridge dates from 1828 and is Grade II listed. In 1838 the railway arrived in the town and provided the catalyst for the expansion of the town we see today.

In 1912 the government introduced a National Factory Scheme in order to increase the production of aircraft in the lead up to the First World War. A 38 acre site at the northern end of Kingston was developed into one of these factories and the Sopwith Aviation Company occupied the premises where they produced the Sopwith Pup and Camel. The company soon became HG Hawker Engineering Company (later Hawker Aircraft Limited) who produced many famous aircraft at the Kingston factory including the Hurricane and the Harrier Jump Jet. The factory was at one point leased by Leyland Motors who built vehicles. The factory, which was demolished in 1993, had its very own sports club right next door called Hawker's Sports Ground, and this remains in use where it is now called the Hawker Centre.

Since March 2010 Kingston Upon Thames has had its very own free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre event called Kingston parkrun, which takes place along the bank of the River Thames, and the Hawker Centre's facilities have been central to the success of the event. Firstly it provides toilet facilities for attendees of the parkrun, secondly it has a cafe which is used for the post-parkrun social gathering. Also, just in front of the centre itself are around 15 cycle racks which can hold about 30 bicycles. The final element was the free-of-charge parking facilities, which I used on both of my visits. However, it was announced in March 2024 that the centre's parking facilities will not be available to parkrunners from 6 April 2024 onwards. The alternative is to use the nearby restriction-free residential side streets. Some of these are closer to the start than the Hawker Centre, but as these spots may be snapped up early, you may have to find a space a little further away.

For those travelling by public transport, the best way to get close to the venue is by bus, and the K5, 65, and 371 all stop fairly close by. If travelling by train, the closest station is Kingston which is about 2 kilometres away, where the connecting walk is a rather pleasant stroll along the riverside path. Once at the Hawker Centre the initial parkrun meeting point and bag drop can be found on the grass on the river side of the sports centre building. The start point and briefing area can be found a couple of hundred metres further along the path on the open grassed area which is called Burnell Avenue Play Space.

The first timers' and the main briefings are held on the open grass area and the parkrun gets underway at 9am. This is a flat out-and-back style course along the Thames Path. The surface underfoot is mostly tarmac or other hard surfaces, but there are also a couple of sections on grass and dirt. Choice of shoes will depend on conditions, during the winter or other periods of wet weather trail shoes may be beneficial to help navigate the non-tarmac sections, but when it is dry standard road shoes are fine. Participants pushing buggies will have no trouble on this course, and I would expect wheelchair users could also get around, but obviously be aware of the presence of the off-road sections. An important thing to note is that dogs are not permitted at this event, although there is an exception for assistance dogs.

The course starts with a 500 metre-long loop around the open grass area. This is quite a clever way to start as it helps to thin the parkrunners out before joining the Thames Path, which is mostly just a standard footpath width and can be busy with non-parkrunner such as cyclists and people having a pleasant morning stroll. Shortly after joining the path, it passes a white stone - this marks the boundary between The Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames and the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Interestingly, only around 500 metres of the course actually sits within Kingston, the remaining 4.5km (90%) is entirely within Ham, in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. The path meanders along nicely as it heads to the north-west.

The next notable features are Teddington Weir and the Teddington Lock footbridge. Upon reaching the footbridge, the course passes underneath and changes slightly. The footpath ends and is replaced with a private road which is slightly wider where it passes Teddington Lock and a couple of houses. Please note that there may be some parked vehicles in this section. The first lock to be built here was the 'pound lock' in 1810. However when the old London Bridge was dismantled it caused problems with the river level and a newer lock was built, this is called the 'launch lock'. Finally a third lock was built, called the 'barge lock'. It was completed in 1905 and at 198 metres in length is the largest lock on the River Thames.

Once past Teddington Lock, the course returns to a more natural setting with trees on both sides. There is at times a fairly steep bank down into the Thames, so stay clear of the edge. A short while later there is a stone structure adjacent to the path. This is the Teddington Obelisk, and it marks the formal boundary of the responsibility of the river. The upstream section is managed by the Environment Agency while the downstream section is governed by the Port of London.

Continuing along the path there is a point where it opens up and crosses a bridge over a small channel. This channel (canal) was constructed in the 1920s in order to create a loading lagoon where sand and ballast excavated from the adjacent area called 'Ham Lands' could be transferred onto barges. The excavations ceased many years ago and the lake is now home to the Thames Young Mariners centre where they offer many kinds of water-based activities.

Once over this crossing the course continues following the Thames Path until a marshal directs the participants onto Ham Lands for a short off-road section. It creates a loop and the parkrunners soon return to the Thames Path just next to the lagoon bridge. However Ham Lands contains natural flood-meadows, which naturally hold onto water when the levels rise. If that happens the ground can become waterlogged or boggy, so a slight adjustment to the course can be made where the route stays on the Thames Path and a standard turn-around point is set up a bit further along. Once the far end of the course has been negotiated, the route simply follows the same path all the way back along the river.

Upon passing the borough boundary stone and re-entering Kingston Upon Thames, the course passes the original start area, and continues along the Thames Path for about another 200 metres until it reaches the small grass area outside the Hawker Centre, and this is where the finish can be found. Barcode scanning takes place on this small patch of grass and once all the participants and the tail walker have crossed the line, the kit is packed away (I was called into action to assist dismantling the finish funnel, which I was very happy to do) and the team move into the Hawker Centre's cafe for some refreshments. The cafe has both indoor and outdoor seating, and there is also a small children's play area.

The results were published a bit later that day and there were 336 finishers at event number 648. This number was quite representative of a normal week, where around 300 participants would usually be expected. As far as GPS data goes, the course used during my 2024 visit was the alternative course, and this was because Ham Lands was a little too boggy to send over 300 people through. So the course data from this visit is the alternative course. I have obtained some GPS data of the standard course and that can also be found on my Strava account. I also have my GPS data from my 2013 visit when the course used to start near the Hawker Centre, this can be viewed for historical purposes. All three versions of the course have their own accompanying Relive course fly-by videos, which can be viewed via the links at the bottom of the page. 

After parkrun we decided to go for a walk along the river towards Kingston town centre (we used to visit regularly between 2007 and 2010 when we lived in Putney) where we identified the crossing point for the old wooden bridge, had a wander around Kingston's historic market place complete with its central building The Market House. We saw the coronation stone and the Guildhall. We had a walk around the All Saint's Churchyard, had some lunch, and saw the 'Out of Order' telephone boxes sculpture which has been in place since 1989. There is also a museum, but we ran out of time to visit.

The parkrun itself was of course the highlight of the morning and we had a great time visiting. A huge thank you goes to all the volunteers for putting the event on and for making us feel so welcome.

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