Sunday 4 February 2024

Mile End parkun

Mile End is a district in the London borough of Tower Hamlets with a population of just under 30,000 people. Its name was recorded as 'La Mile Ende' in 1288 and it refers to a hamlet or settlement which is located a mile away. A mile away from what? Well, it seems that it refers to it being a mile away from Aldgate in the City of London, which sat at the eastern boundary of London while it was still a walled town. So it was a mile away from the boundary of London. It was largely open fields with no significant buildings before the 14th century.

The area is known to have been the place where around 100,000 rebels camped during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381, and it is where King Richard II met with them to discuss their demands, which he initially agreed to. He later rescinded the agreement and at least 1,500 of the rebels were subsequently killed. In 1841 The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery opened in the east of Mile End. It is now called Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and is one of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries. In 1866 Dr Barnardo moved to London and he opened Mile End's Copperfield Road Ragged School in 1877, which gave the poorest children a basic education.

The first housing started to be developed from the 16th century, but it was at the beginning of the 19th century that the two-story terraced houses, built to house the working and lower class began to be constructed. It was also a popular residential area for immigrants to settle. The Regent's Canal was constructed through Mile End in the early 19th century and the adjacent areas of land became a popular location for factories. The area became part of the London Underground network in 1902 when Mile End Station opened.

At this point in time the area had become dense with terraced housing. The East End of London was hit very hard during the Second World War, and Mile End was the first place in London to be hit by a V1 flying bomb, more commonly known as a 'Doodlebug'. This one bomb caused the deaths of 8 people, injured 30, and made 200 people homeless. The location it hit is now marked with a blue plaque. Mile End's canal-side factories, and the canal itself, were specifically targeted by the Germans as they were involved in the production and distribution of items to assist in the war effort. By the end of the war the large area of industrial land alongside the Regent's Canal and the adjacent housing had been left in ruins.

Immediately following the war, a plan was put in place to transform the bomb-damaged land into a park. In 1952 the first section of park was opened as part of the King George V Memorial Fields scheme. The original Portland stone entrance containing the Heraldic Panels which portray a lion on the left and a unicorn on the right still exists. It wasn't until the 1990's that the park was landscaped into the place it is today. Amongst the devastation, some houses had survived. Sadly some families lost their homes through compulsory purchase orders in order to make way for the park's creation. In 1999 it was finally finished and opened to the public as Mile End Park. The newly created space features meandering pathways and different zones, each with its own theme. Throughout the 32 hectare linear park you will find an ecology park and pavilion, art park and pavilion, a terrace garden, children's play area, climbing wall, a sports stadium and leisure centre.

On 4 February 2012, the park became home to its very own free, weekly, timed 5k event called Mile End parkrun. It is open to all abilities including wheelchair users and those who wish to walk. I first visited the park to take part in the parkrun in September 2013, revisited in April 2022 and again in February 2024.

On all three occasions I travelled by car. There is a car park at the southern end of the park, just off Rhodeswell Road which holds around 40 vehicles, plus there is the main leisure centre car park off Burdett Road. The current cost is £1.50 for two hours. There are also some side streets that allow parking at the weekends, notably the roads just to the south-west of the park including parts of Copperfield Road and others on the opposite side of the canal, just remember to check the signage closely. If using Google Maps for directions please note that using Rhodeswell Road as a destination may not get you to exactly the right spot as the road has been split in two since the end of the Second World War.

Being in London, the area is well connected in terms of public transport. If travelling by bus, the 309 stops on Rhodeswell Road, which is the closest bus stop to the parkrun meeting point. The 277 and the D6 both stop outside the leisure centre. The 339 stops just on the other side of the canal. There are also some bus stops on Mile End Road which are served by the 25, 205, 425 and probably some others that I have missed. Mile End Road is also the location of Mile End Underground Station which is served by the Hammersmith & City, District, and Central lines. The closest National Rail station is Limehouse which is served by c2c trains between London Fenchurch Street and southern Essex including Southend. This same station is also served by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).

The parkrun meeting point, start and finish are all located at the southern end of the park just off Rhodeswell Road, right next to Mile End stadium. Cyclists will find some bicycle racks outside the main entrance to the stadium, but if they fill up there is a section of the boundary fence that was used as an alternative. Upon arriving at the meeting point, Barnardo's old Ragged School building, which is now a museum is clearly visible. The words 'Ragged School Museum' are in large letters along the top of the building. The stadium has toilets and showering facilities, although do bear in mind that the parkrun course page advises that they cannot guarantee access. For the record, the toilets have been available pre-parkrun every time I have visited.

Interestingly the course has been different on all three of my visits. It has always taken place over two laps, and in 2013 it was an anti-clockwise route including a section alongside the canal. In 2022 it was the same course, but negotiated in a clockwise direction. However at the end of 2023 the course was changed to remove the canal section from the course, which makes sense because the towpath is pretty busy and the risk of an incident was probably pretty high, especially as the number of attendees continues to grow. The current course as of my 2024 visit is now effectively a double out-and-back along the park's meandering and gently undulating paths.

Underfoot is entirely hard paths, so standard road shoes are always the correct choice. It is perfectly fine for participants who wish to take part with a buggy and also for wheelchair users. As for those undulations, my GPS data on Strava reports that it adds up to 35 metres of elevation gain over the full 5k course. The first timers' briefing takes place shortly before 9am and the main briefing is held once everyone is lined up at the start. In terms of numbers of participants, the event is currently attracting around 400 people each week. It was slightly elevated during my 2024 visit as the new year's resolutionists were still out in force, plus it was the event's 12th birthday.

From the start, the parkrunners, parkwalkers and everybody in-between follow the main path which heads north. A really useful feature of this park is that the main path is divided into two separate paths by a central section of planting. Technically one is supposed to be for pedestrians and the other for cyclists, however for the purpose of parkrun, the left hand side is the 'out' path, while the right hand side is the 'back' path. It gently meanders as it progresses through the park, and every now and then there are a couple of rows of bricks set in the ground which I believe are probably there as a speed calming measure for cyclists.

There are marshals posted at key points along the course - notably at places where other paths intersect with the parkrun course. There are also some sections with cones to help guide the way. The park also has great views towards Canary Wharf and there are even a couple of spots where The Shard can be seen. There are a few notable features to the left and right of the path such as a small woodland walk, open children's play area, and a dog training area (it has the types of obstacles you would see at a dog show). Being a linear park, it's a fairly slim piece of parkland which covers the area running north-south on the eastern side of the Regent's Canal.

Given that the park used to be home to hundreds of terraced houses and intersected by many roads, it is no surprise that there is still an element of fragmentation here, and the full length of the park is split into a number of sections. At one point the main thoroughfare Mile End Road cuts right across the park. In order to create a seamless connection across the road an innovative idea was put forward by a local resident and architect. The result was the creation of the 'Green Bridge'. The parkrun course course goes over this bridge, and it is totally possible that you could take part and not even realise you have just crossed the busy road beneath.

The main road also marks the boundary between Mile End and the neighbouring ward of West Bow. The path continues to meander with long sweeping curves as it works its way through the next section of the park. This contains the Arts Park and Pavilion, and if you take a quick glance over the hedge there is a beautifully laid out garden area with a bridge and a lovely lake. Just after this, the course reaches its turnaround point. Please note that there are posts in the ground which can be a bit tricky to negotiate, especially if you are within a large pack of parkrunners or being lapped. The return section takes place on the adjacent path, but it follows the exact same route all the way back to the start area. Once back at the start area, there's another turnaround point and the out-and-back is completed a second time.

At the end of the second out-and-back, continuing on at the end of the path leads straight into the finish, and the funnel snakes around on the grass until reaching the point where position tokens are given out. Barcode scanning takes place immediately. Once all of the participants, marshals and tail walkers have returned to the meeting point and all the kit is packed away, the team move on to their post-event social venue. This is listed on the course page as being in the Ragged School Cafe (the entry point is on the canal side of the building), but after our 2024 visit, the team headed to another venue whose name I can't quite remember.

After the event, it is worth exploring the park further as the parkrun doesn't cover the entire park. Of course you could take a walk along the canal or explore the nearby cemetery. There is also a go-kart track next to the park, but if you fancy visiting you may need to book in advance. On this occasion we took a walk over the Stepney City Farm, which I thought was very nice. Entry is free and they have an on-site cafe. The parkrun results were published a short time later and there were 522 finishers at event number 552. I'm a big fan of this venue and I love the park's back story, which is quite similar to Burgess Park's, in south east London (you can read that write-up here: Burgess parkrun). A final thanks goes to all the locals and volunteers who made us feel so welcome.

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