Sunday 24 March 2024

Swanscombe Heritage Park junior parkrun

Swanscombe is an area in the north east of the Borough of Dartford, in Kent, with a population of around 6,500 people. The earliest mention of the name is from 695AD, and over the years has been recorded as Swegenscomp, Swanescampe, and in the Domesday Book as Suinescamp. The motto of the County of Kent is 'Invicta', which comes from Roman times and means unconquered. It is generally accepted that this comes from Kent's conditional surrender to William the Conqueror after his victory over the last Saxon King of England, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is claimed that the men of Kent met (or intercepted) William at, or near, Swanscombe, on his journey to London and offered a peaceful transition if he agreed to grant their ancient rights, which he did.

Swanscombe and its adjacent areas have a long history of being quarried for the materials required to support north Kent's cement production industry. One of these vast quarries is now home to Bluewater shopping centre, which lies just to the west of Swanscombe. Another quarry was called Barnfield Pit, and a number of archaeological finds, including a number of hand axes.

The most significant discovery here was made in 1935, 1936 and 1955 when three fragments of the same skull were found. Further analysis showed that the skull belonged to an early or pre-neanderthal person, and it dates from around 400,000 years ago. It was initially known as Swanscombe Man, although further investigations suggest that the skull actually belongs to a woman. It is one of only two Lower Palaeolithic human fossils to ever be found in Britain (the other one is known as Boxgrove Man). The Swanscombe Skull is on display at the National History Museum. 

Quarrying at Barnfield Pit ceased, possibly in 1936, and it was subsequently backfilled with Thanet Sand. In 1954 it was made a National Nature Reserve when it was donated to the nation by its owner, the Associated Portland Cement Company. The site is technically owned by Natural England and is leased to Swanscombe and Greenhithe Town Council where it is open as a public park called Swanscombe Heritage Park. It covers an area of 9.6 acres and in 1988 was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The park was given a makeover in 2005 where new interpretation boards, set within large split granite rocks, were installed and new pathways created. At the main entrance is an oversized sculpture of a 400,000 year old hand axe that was found at the site. It was unveiled at the park's re-opening ceremony in June 2005 by archaeologist Phil Harding, who is most well-known as being part of Channel 4's Time Team series.

In March 2024 the park became home to Swanscombe Heritage Park junior parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed 2k event. The junior parkrun series takes place on Sundays and is open to children of all abilities aged 4-14. Participants should be registered and have been issued with their own personal barcode before taking part, this personal barcode will be required for scanning at the end of the event.

There is a free-of-charge car park which is next to Swanscombe Leisure Centre, just off Craylands Lane. The closest train station is Swanscombe and this is located about 1 kilometre to the east. My understanding is that there are no bus services that stop at the park on a Sunday, but there are some services that stop on London Road, which is not too far away. Once at the park's main entrance, the huge hand axe sculpture is the most distinctive feature. Once at the sculpture, there are a choice of three paths to follow - the meeting point for the parkrun can be found by following the middle path. If you require a toilet, just pop into the leisure centre before entering the park.

The entire parkrun is set within the park's rectangular central open grass area which I'd say is roughly the size of two adjacent football pitches. The perimeter measures almost exactly 500 metres and is mostly bordered by trees, bushes or a sloped bank. The grass area is totally flat and seems to cope well after wet weather, I expect the drainage is good owing to the park sitting on the back-filled sand. As is standard at junior parkruns up and down the country, the kids are given a briefing which is followed by the legendary junior parkrun warm-up! This takes place at the start area which is on the north-east side of the grass field.

The course could easily have been four identical laps around the perimeter, but that would most likely end up being a little chaotic with lots of lapping and the very youngest children having no idea how many laps they had done at any given point. So...

... in order to make it a little more manageable, and a little bit more fun, a two-and-a-bit lap course has been designed. This features some parts where the course sticks to the perimeter, but also a central section which is affectionately called 'The Snake'. Underfoot is 100% grass and as mentioned above, it is flat. As far as footwear is concerned, in the winter I would say that a trail-style shoe may be better than a road-style shoe, but it's a fun kids event, so I guess they will wear what they feel happiest in.

From the start on the north-east side, the junior parkrunners (and probably a few accompanying adults) set off in a clockwise direction, initially following the perimeter of the field.

At approximately half-way into the lap, on the western side of the field, the snake section begins. The course turns into the inner grass area and heads straight across before doing a 180 degree turn and heading back towards the south-western perimeter, in effect creating an out-and-back section. Once back at this end the course re-joins the perimeter path ever-so-briefly and then does another separate long out and back across the centre of the field. Thus creating the snake.

Once back on the south-western side, the course re-joins the perimeter path where it continues in a clockwise direction around until reaching the start area - this completes the lap. It is repeated one more time, again returning to the original start area. From here the course continues around the perimeter of the field until reaching the finish funnel which is located next to the bench on the south-eastern side of the field.

The finish funnel must only be entered by children in the 4-14 age group - any accompanying adults should peel off to avoid entering the finish funnel itself. The children are given finish tokens which are then presented along with their own personal barcode to one of the volunteers scanning barcodes.

The results are processed after the event and published on the Swanscombe Heritage Park junior parkrun results page. At time of writing, this event is still very new so is still in the early days of becoming established. The number of participants is currently in the region of around 12-14 per week.

I have done a freedom run of the course and the resulting GPS data along with a Relive course fly-by video can be viewed via the links at the bottom of this page.

Should any visitors be looking for any post-parkrun activities, the first one that comes to mind is to follow the heritage trail and learn about the history of the place and the items discovered here. There is also a very small playground which will give the kids something to do for a while. Finally there is the Swanscombe Leisure Centre which has a very small range of snack items for sale at their reception desk, plus they can also knock up a hot drink too. Even if you do not require refreshments, I would recommend popping into the leisure centre as they have a small display cabinet showing some of the archaeological finds from the pit, including a replica of the Swanscombe Skull.

I should also mention that at the time of writing, I am volunteering here every week, so if you visit, please come and say hello. Also if any parkrun voluntourists fancy paying the event a visit, your help will be very much appreciated.

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