Sunday 3 March 2024

Richmond parkrun

Richmond is a town in the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames. The borough is notable as the only one in London to encompass both sides of the River Thames and is home to just under 200,000 people with around 21,000 living within the town of Richmond itself. It is often regarded as London's greenest borough with approximately 50% of the land made up of natural green spaces. The town was previously known as Shene and the monarch had a residence called Shene Palace. The original building was purposefully destroyed by a distraught Richard II after his wife Anne of Bohemia died. The rebuilt palace was destroyed by a fire in 1497. The palace was occupied by a large number of the royal family at the time of the blaze, and most, including the 6-year-old future King Henry VIII only just made it out alive.

richmond park

King Henry VII had a replacement built and decided to name it, and by extension the local area, after his former title the 'Earl of Richmond', whose seat was at Richmond Castle, in Yorkshire. Thus creating the Royal Manor of Richmond. A number of monarchs resided in the palace over the years and they had a deer park just next door called Newe Parke of Shene, which was formally declared a Royal hunting ground by King James I. When Charles I ascended to the throne, he decided to create a much grander enclosed deer park. After buying a lot of land and in the process upsetting a lot of the locals, it was finally completed in 1637. It was initially called the King's New Park. To avoid confusion, the original Newe Park (of Shene) was renamed Old Deer Park and the King's New Park eventually became Richmond Park. The name it retains to this day.

Covering an area of approximately 2,500 acres, Richmond Park is the largest of London's eight Royal Parks. Full access for the public was secured by an Act of Parliament in 1872. The park features ancient woods with over 1,200 veteran oak trees (some of which would have been standing during Charles I's reign), open grass and scrub land, as well as a number of streams and around 30 ponds, the newest of which is the Attenborough Pond - named after Sir David Attenborough who is a local resident. There are many gardens including the famous Isabella Plantation. It is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a Special Area of Conservation. It appears as a Grade I listing on Historic England's 'Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England'. It is said to be the quietest and, at night, the darkest place in London.

meeting point and briefing

It also provides habitats for a large variety of wildlife. The descendants of Charles I's herds of red and fallow deer are the most well-known of the park's natural residents, they once numbered 2,000 but are now managed to around 600. There are at least 60 species of breeding birds including woodpeckers and Ring-necked Parakeets, there are also squirrels, rabbits, frogs, toads and snakes. There are 9 species of bat and 160 species of spider, plus 400 species of fungi. One of the park's most fascinating creatures is the Stag Beetle, which thrives here due to the presence of decaying ancient timber, thus providing the larvae with perfect conditions to develop into their glorious adult form.

There are many structures and buildings within the park. The boundary wall is 8 miles (13 kilometres) long and most sections have been Grade II Listed by Historic England. There are a further 10 buildings within the park that are Grade II Listed, including some of the gates and Pembroke Lodge, which is a former residential building that now hosts functions and has a restaurant and a cafe. Another is Thatched House Lodge which was General Dwight D. Eisenhower's home during the second world war, and is the residence of Princess Alexandra, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. There is also a Grade I Listed building within the park; White Lodge. Built in 1730, it was the birthplace of Edward VIII and the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) lived there in the 1920s. It is now home to the Royal Ballet School.

start area

I've visited the park a few times and also used cut through when cycling home from volunteering at Bushy junior parkrun, but the last couple of visits were to take part in the park's free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre event called Richmond parkrun. When it had its inaugural event on 20 October 2007, the name 'parkrun' had not been introduced, so it was first called Richmond Park Time Trial. It is the 5th oldest parkrun. An interesting fact is that Richmond was the first parkrun venue to introduce the concept of a tail runner (now tail walker).

I first took part in the event in November 2013 and then revisited in March 2024. The parkrun is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk or use a wheelchair to complete the course. However, with the park being so vast, it is important to know exactly where to head to when visiting, and that place is just inside Richmond Gate, which is on the northwest side of the park. For anyone unfamiliar with the park it is best to enter via Richmond Gate, this is at the top of Richmond Hill and just next to the Royal Star and Garter Home, which provides accommodation and nursing facilities for injured service personnel.

opening stretch

There are seven free-of-charge car parks within the park's boundary, and if driving to the venue the obvious choice is to use the Pembroke Lodge car park (may also be labelled on some maps as Petersham Park car park). To access it by vehicle you would need to use Richmond Gate, Ham Gate or the Kingston Gate. The car park itself is about a 1km walk to the parkrun meeting point next to Richmond Gate. The next closest car park is the Sheen Gate car park, and that one is two kilometres away from the meeting point. This one is only accessible via Sheen Gate. The other car parks can be as far as 5 kilometres away from the Richmond parkrun start area, so are not really options for the average parkrun attendee. It is worth noting that the Kingston Gate car park is actually closer to the start of Kingston parkrun (write-up) than it is to Richmond parkrun, and the Robin Hood Gate car park is closer to Wimbledon Common parkrun (write-up). The park really is that big!

If arriving by public transport there are of course many buses that go to the centre of Richmond, but the 371 seems to be the best option for parkrunners because it stops just outside Richmond Gate. If travelling by train, the station to head for is Richmond Station which is located within the centre of the town. It is served by South Western Railway mainline trains that run between central London and Reading, and is the terminus of the London Overground's Mildmay Line and of the London Underground's District Line. The onward walk is about 2 kilometres (mostly uphill) but it looks like the aforementioned 371 bus runs between the two should you wish to avoid the walk.

sawyers hill

The park and local area is a very popular place for cycling, and if using a bicycle to travel to the venue, it is important to note that there are plenty of bicycle racks in the car parks, but none at the start area. I saw that some people had chained their bikes to a fence at the back of the adjacent housing. Please refrain from securing bikes to the trees as this can cause damage and the park rangers will most likely be very upset with you. There are a good number of toilet facilities spread around the park. For the purposes of visiting parkrun, the most convenient option can be found next to Richmond Gate. The toilets have a 20p charge in place and the only way to pay is via the contactless payment system (by card or mobile phone wallet app). They no longer accept cash. There are some free-of-charge toilets at the Pembroke Lodge car park, but these are not Royal Parks toilets and did not seem to be open pre-parkrun.

The briefings take place at 'The Stump' before assembling at the start line a little further along the path, near Bishop's Gate and Bishop's Pond. Richmond parkrun takes place over a single, undulating, anti-clockwise lap around the northernmost section of the park. The surfaces underfoot are a mixture of tarmac, and a hard-packed gravelly path (possibly a hoggin path) and road shoes are usually the best shoe choice, however trail shoes may be preferred by some in unfavourable conditions. Strangely the usual parkrun paragraph on the course page regarding participating with a buggy seems to be missing from Richmond parkrun's course page. However, fear not, the course is perfectly fine for buggies. Please be aware that the deer that reside in the park are wild animals and need to be treated with caution and respect. There are some general deer safety guidelines plus some detailed advice for dog owners on the Royal Parks' website.

sawyers hill / sheen cross / sheen gate

The start is on the hoggin path which forms part of the Tamsin Trail footpath. The start area is taped-off creating a start funnel which keeps everybody on the path, preventing over-spill onto the adjacent grass areas. In practice this means the start is only the width of the footpath so expect some initial congestion. The course heads gently uphill to the west towards Richmond Gate, and once reaching the road, turns onto the tarmac footpath which runs alongside the internal road named Sawyers Hill. The tarmac path is not particularly wide, but as the field spreads out congestion starts to become less of a problem. The uphill theme continues throughout the first half-a-kilometre with the highest point on the course being reached just before the 500 metre point, where it levels out for a bit. On a clear day you can see into Central London from here.

The whole of the second kilometre is downhill, so this is almost certainly going to be the fastest kilometre split for the majority of participants. Please note that there is a point which is not marshalled where the course crosses the internal access road for Holly Lodge. Still on the tarmac path, the lowest point of the course is reached at the southeast corner of the course where it reaches Sheen Cross, 2.3 kilometres into the route. At this point the tarmac path ends and the route turns onto the closed road which heads uphill towards Sheen Gate (in 2013 the course used the grass here). After approximately 400 metres, the course re-joins the Tamsin Trail footpath where it passes the Sheen Gate car park and the surface changes back to the hoggin path. 

tamsin trail

The remaining two-and-a-bit kilometres feature a roller-coaster style series of undulations which gradually work their way upwards. The Tamsin Trail section first passes through Sheen Wood, and as the path emerges from the woodland a few hundred metres later, the view over the parkland to the south reveals itself. This part of the course is a lot of fun as it meanders in and out of the wooded areas. Eventually the course reaches the original start area and passes Bishops Pond for a second time. All that's left is to follow the path for a second helping of the opening incline and the finish is found upon reaching the area adjacent to Richmond Gate.

Barcode scanning takes place just after the finish and the advertised post-parkrun refreshments are over at Pembroke Lodge, which is very convenient if that's where you parked the car.

tamsin trail

I recorded the course with my Garmin and the GPS trace of the course can be viewed on my Strava account. The total elevation gain was recorded as 50 metres. I used that data to create a Relive course fly-by video that can be viewed on YouTube. For the record, apart from using the road rather than the grass at the Sheen Gate end, the course used in 2024 was absolutely identical to the course that was in use when I visited in 2013. The course does not require very many marshals, so the only ones you are likely to encounter are at the Sheen Gate end of the loop who ensure that everyone makes the required turns onto the road and then onto the Tamsin Trail path.

The results were processed and published a bit later that day and 352 people took part in event 799 on 2 March 2024. This was a little lower than the current average, and I'm almost 100% certain that this was down to the heavy rain. The attendance figures do dance around quite a bit here, but on a regular parkrunday, it would be fair to expect somewhere around 400 to 500 participants.

finish area

Before we left, we managed to spot some of the park's majestic deer and also went up to King Henry's Mound which is a very famous viewpoint (and possibly also a prehistoric Bronze Age burial chamber). To the west is the panoramic view across the Thames valley and to the east is the protected view of St. Paul's Cathedral, both of which can be viewed through the onsite public telescope. The view is one of 13 London vistas protected under the London View Management Framework (LVMF). Sadly, due to the amount of cloud cover, we couldn't quite see the cathedral on this particular day, but we plan to revisit the park when the weather is better.

We had originally intended to spend all day wandering around the park and the local area, however despite having a full change of clothes, the continuous heavy rain had really got to us and we decided to make our way back home. That does mean we didn't get to admire Richmond's other protected view, which can be seen from Richmond Hill. This view is protected under the Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act 1902, making it the only view in the UK to be protected by an act of parliament.

king henry's mound

Finally, this is a very special park and we are very fortunate to have a parkrun here. A huge thank you goes to all the parkrun volunteers that stood out in the rain to make the parkrun possible.

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