Sunday 25 February 2024

Pegwell Bay parkrun

The Isle of Thanet is the area in the far north east corner of Kent, home to the very well-known seaside resorts Margate and Ramsgate. Although now part of the mainland, it was historically cut off from the rest of Kent by a strait called the Wantsum Channel, which is thought to have formed somewhere between 5000BC and 2000BC. The channel started to silt up during the 12th and 13th centuries, by the 16th century the channel had completely dried up and the Isle became fully connected to the rest of Kent. Part of the area at the southern end of the former channel is now known as Pegwell Bay.

Pegwell Bay is a shallow, sandy inlet that sits at the southern end of Thanet District on the east coast of Kent. The villages of Pegwell and Ebbsfleet are adjacent but the bay itself is within the Civil Parish of Cliffsend (Cliffs End). The bay contains seashore habitats such as mudflats and salt marsh which are essential to migrating waders and wildfowl. Some of the land that overlooks the bay was used during the 20th century as a landfill site. In the 1980's the landfill was capped and 29 acres was landscaped into a park, which is now called Pegwell Bay Country Park.

The Wantsum Channel existed at the time of the Roman conquest of Britain and the immediate vicinity is home to a couple of places with notable connections to this period. The Roman's full scale invasion of 43AD is believed to have landed at Rutupiae (now called Richborough), on the mainland side of the Wantsum Channel. Rutupiae became a supply base for the Roman army before evolving into quite a large civilian town. A large triumphal arch (it was the largest in the entire Roman Empire) was constructed here and this effectively marked the entry point into Roman Britain. It also marked the starting point of Watling Street, the main road towards Londinium.

Almost a hundred years earlier Julius Caesar had landed his exploratory fleet on two occasions, first in 55BC and again in 54BC. The exact location of his landings had been a mystery until in 2017 archaeologists found evidence of a large Roman fort near the hamlet of Ebbsfleet in Thanet. This has led many to believe that the area around Ebbsfleet / Pegwell Bay is the location of Caesar's 54BC landing. This may cause some upset over in Deal as they have a stone plaque on the beach claiming the landing point.

The same area is also thought to be the landing point for Hengist and Horsa, the Germanic brothers who led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes when they arrived in Britain in the years following the Romans' withdrawal. Hengist went on to become the first Jutish King of Kent in 455. To commemorate the 1500th anniversary of their arrival, a Scandinavian longship called 'Hugin' was built and sailed across the sea where it was presented to the people of Thanet by the King of Denmark. The ship now stands on the clifftop overlooking the bay.

In 597 a monk called Augustine arrived via the same route after the Pope sent him to Britain in order to lead the 'Gregorian mission' to convert Britain's Anglo Saxons to Christianity starting with the monarch of Kent. He was ultimately successful and Æthelberht became the first Christian King of Kent. Augustine went on to become the very first Archbishop of Canterbury and is known as one of the founders of the Church of England. There is a Celtic Cross near the village of Cliffsend which marks the spot where Augustine first met King Æthelberht. After his death he was canonised and is known as Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

In Victorian times it was quite fashionable for the well-to-do to visit coastal resorts in order to escape the dirty city and take in the sea air. An effort was made to turn Pegwell Bay into a resort similar to its neighbour Ramsgate. A pier was constructed, but this venture failed and the pier dismantled just a few years later. An area of the bay contains a large concrete structure which used to be Ramsgate International Hoverport. Four hovercraft provided services between Pegwell Bay and Calais from the port which operated between 1969 and 1987. Although the site remains, it is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

On 11 May 2013 Pegwell Bay Country Park became home to a free, weekly, timed event called Pegwell Bay parkrun. I first took part in the event on 22 February 2014 which was event number 39, I returned 10 years later to take part in event number 492 which was held on 24 February 2024. On both occasions I travelled by car and parked in the on-site car park. As of 2024 the cost to park here at the weekend is a flat charge of £3 and this covers the entire day. Payment can be made by cash or card at the payment machine, but I could not get it to process my payment. Fortunately payment can also be made by using Park Buddy, PayByPhone or Ringo apps (the apps may cost slightly more as they will include a booking fee - Ringo cost £3.20). Holders of a Kent Country Parks season ticket do not have to pay to park. The parkrun page mentions the car park at the Viking Ship Cafe (1.2km along the coast) as an alternative, but this was closed when we visited in February 2024 (probably a seasonal thing).

Travel by public transport is possible and the closest train station is Thanet Parkway (in Cliffsend), which opened in July 2023. Off-peak services are fairly limited with the only Saturday trains running from London being High Speed services from St. Pancras. There is a better selection of trains which run to Ramsgate and Sandwich but those stations are further away. The 45 bus seems to run from both of these stations through Cliffsend where you can alight. The parkrun course page also mentions that the Stagecoach East Kent 87 and 88 buses stop close to the venue. Finally, if cycling, the park is well connected via the local cycle paths and there are bicycle racks next to the car park. The venue's toilets and the parkrun meeting point can also be found here.

When I first visited in 2014 the start was located on the sea-facing side of the park and the full 5 kilometre course ran for two-and-a-bit laps. However, in 2017 work began on the installation of the 1,000 megawatt HVDC sub-marine Nemo Link cable which connects the nearby Richborough Energy Park to Belgium and allows for high voltage electricity to flow between the two countries' electrical grids. The decision was made to run the cable right through Pegwell Bay Country Park. It was supposed to be laid underground, but there was some worry that doing so could disturb the materials in the landfill which could then contaminate the surface. With that in mind the cable was laid on the surface and covered with a 'chalk bund' which resulted in the creation of a berm (an artificial ridge) which goes right through the parkrun's original start area. 

In order for the parkrun to continue the course had to be modified, but owing to the layout of the park and limitations of the paths there was only one option - to move the start, but keep the finish in the same place. This would mean a slightly shorter course, which I understand is parkrun HQ approved. The revised course became active on 27 May 2017.

The parkrun now takes place over a two lap anti-clockwise triangular-shaped course and the surface underfoot is a mixture of tarmac and gravel (the tarmac has been added since my first visit). The route is almost completely flat and it is perfectly fine for those taking part with a buggy. I would imagine that wheelchair users would most likely be fine on the course, but the gravel may make things a little more difficult. As for footwear, I'd say regular road shoes would be fine most of the time, but those of us who like to be cautious may prefer to stick on trail shoes in the winter or after wet weather. The briefings, the toilets, the start and the finish are all condensed into the same grassy area adjacent to the car park. The actual start line is located at the northern section of the grass area.

The start area is wide enough to accommodate a fairly wide start line, but this narrows down into the regular-width tarmac path very soon after. Almost immediately after this, the course has to cross the park's vehicle entrance. This is of course quite rare at a parkrun, but rest assured, this spot is very heavily marshalled and if any vehicles are present, they will be stopped to allow the participants to cross. The course continues to head along the tarmac path until it reaches the south-west corner of the park. Please note that the tarmac path forms part of the Sustrans route 15 cycle path, so watch out for cyclists.

At the corner the course turns to the left and the surface underfoot changes to the gravelly, stony, off-road style path. Now heading in an easterly direction, the surroundings start to open up a little. To the right is the Stonelees Nature Reserve, the salt marsh and the mouth of the River Stour. To the left is the inner park and there are fields that are home to cattle including highland cows (I didn't manage to see any). When the path reaches its next change of direction, the stunning view of Pegwell Bay itself with the backdrop of the white cliffs at Cliffsend comes into view. If there has been rain, it may be a little splashy at points along here as quite large puddles can form across the path. The course continues along the sea-front with the vast mudflats stretching across the entire bay.

The final 200 metres of this sea-front section narrows down into a single file path, so participants towards the back of the field may find that those at the front are lapping them during this section. It's very difficult to pass along here, so it's a case of trying to work together to ensure everyone has a nice experience. If you look to the left of this path you can see the berm running alongside it. I'm guessing it must be made out of, or topped with chalk as it stands out due to being white. Also if you look at the satellite view on Google maps you can see the white scar making its way across the whole park. At the end of this path, there is another marshal and a left hand turn back onto the open grass start area.

The second lap is identical to the first, and once both laps have been completed the finish funnel can be found on the grass where the briefing took place. Barcode scanning takes place in the area just outside the toilets. A really nice touch at this venue was a table set up with facilities to make tea, coffee and hot chocolate, with boiling water provided in urns by one of the volunteers. If you are lucky they may even have some biscuits. I found this set up really encouraged a larger group of participants to linger post-parkrun, which no doubt works wonders for the community side of this event. Anybody that is on the look-out for a more substantial breakfast can simply walk around to the park's on-site refreshments facility, the Salty Seal Cafe. There's also an on-site playground which should keep any children entertained. 

After having a quick drink at the refreshments table we headed off to see the Scandinavian longboat 'Hugin' - sadly because it was winter it was partially covered in order to protect it from the cold weather. We then went and found St. Augustine's cross in Cliffsend. The highlight of our post-parkrun activities was our visit to see Richborough Roman Fort which I can thoroughly recommend.

The results for event 492 were published a short while later and there were 184 finishers which was representative of the current (2024) expected attendance figures. On both of my visits, I recorded the course with my Garmin and you can see the data on my Strava account. The original course came in at the full 5 kilometres for me when I visited in 2014, and the new revised course (May 2017 onwards) measured 4.82km according to my data (I have seen variations from 4.77 - 4.84 km). There are also Relive course fly-by videos for both of my visits and they can be found on YouTube via the links below.

I am aware that the short course could be quite frustrating for many parkrunners, especially if a personal best is recorded that then proves to be out-of-reach in terms of bettering on a full 5km course. However the event still retains everything else you could want from a parkrun, so the short course is a small price to pay in order to retain the wonderful community they have here at Pegwell Bay parkrun. If you are keen to visit but do not want to record an unbreakable personal best, I would recommend just taking your foot off the gas a little and focus on enjoying the park and the views rather than going for a time. Finally I would like to add a huge thank you to all of the volunteers that welcomed us into their community for the morning.

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