Tuesday 9 April 2024

Whitstable parkrun

Whitstable is a coastal heritage town in the north of the county of Kent with a population of around 32,000 people. There is evidence of occupation here since palaeolithic times. The town's name is thought to be made up of the Old English words 'hwit' as in 'white' followed by 'stapol' as in a pole, pillar or post and essentially means 'white post'. However it could also have other meanings and the simple fact is that no-one actually knows the truth.

It was recorded in the Domesday Book as Witenestaple which then evolved into Whitstaple by the early 13th century and into its current form by 1610. It was for some time also known as Whitstable-on-Sea. In the mid-eighteenth century, the town was served by the hoys boats which brought in visitors from London. It was also the northern terminus of one of Britain's first passenger railways, the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway.

It is known that the Romans were present in Whitstable, as remains of a Roman-era building have been found in the centre of town. It was apparently the Romans that popularised Whitstable's famous oyster beds just off the coast of the town and as they were regarded as a delicacy, they had them shipped all the way to Rome. The oyster industry continued to prosper long after the Romans left and at its peak in the 1850s around 80 million oysters per-year were transported to London's Billingsgate market to be sold. At this time Whitstable was regarded as one of the world's premier oyster producers. The industry lives on into the present day and the town also hosts the Whitstable Oyster Festival every year during the mid-late summer.

Another large and highly prosperous local industry began in 1588 when a mine was opened in the suburb of Tankerton, and this created the local copperas industry. This substance was used as a fixative for dyes and in the manufacture of ink. Incidentally, in 2017 the wreck of a Tudor-era merchant ship was discovered on Tankerton Beach, which is thought to have been connected to the copperas trade - it is unique as being the only medieval shipwreck to exist in south-east England. The wealthy owners of the business, also holders of the Manor of Tankteron built themselves a large house which over the years went on to evolve into what is now known as Whitstable Castle. It still stands and although the castle itself is only open for events, the gardens and playground can be visited free-of-charge.

Tankerton has north-facing slopes that run down to the shore which provide ideal growing conditions for an aromatic flowering plant called Hog's Fennel. In fact, it is the largest area of Hog's Fennel in the whole of Britain. The presence of this plant makes it the perfect breeding ground for two rare moths called Agonopterix Putridella and Fisher's Estaurine Moth, whose respective caterpillars feed exclusively on Hog's Fennel. This led to the Tankerton Slopes being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1986. Tankerton itself became popular during the seaside heyday in the late 19th century and its design largely dates from this period. The seafront once featured a pier but this was demolished the early 1900's.

It is the seafront at Tankerton that provides home to the town's free, weekly, timed 5-kilometre event called Whitstable parkrun, which has been in operation since 6 November 2010. The event is open to all abilities including wheelchair users and to those who wish to walk the course. This parkrun is significant as it was the first to be held in Kent, and this was thanks to the efforts of the former event director Jacky Macdonald who is quite a legendary figure in this part of the country. It flew the flag as the county's only parkrun for almost two-and-a-half years until in 2013 there was a fast-paced explosion of new Kent events, supported by Jacky in her role as parkrun's Kent ambassador. By the end of that year there were eight parkruns in the county. At the time of writing there are twenty-five 5k parkruns in Kent.

I first took part in the event back in February 2014 and wrote about it in my original Whitstable parkrun blog (note: an alternative course was used, but not the current alternative course). I revisited in April 2024 which gave me the opportunity to produce this much-needed updated write-up. On both occasions I travelled to the event by car and parked for free on the local streets; Marine Parade is the obvious street to aim for as this is adjacent to the course. The parkrun meeting point is next to the Tankerton Ice Cream Parlour (opposite St Anne's Road), so the favoured parking spots tend to be those closest to the parlour and the adjacent tennis courts. However, the free parking stretches all the way to the east along Marine Parade, so finding a space shouldn't be a problem. The adjacent side-streets also have some on-street parking bays, but please note that these tend to have a 1 hour maximum stay.

Travel by public transport is also possible as the town has a mainline train station, Whitstable, which is just under 1 mile away from the parkrun meeting area. The station is served by Southeastern train services on the London to Ramsgate trainline, running primarily out of London Victoria station. If using the bus, the closest bus stop is located at Tankerton Circus on Tankerton Road, and this seems to be served by many services including the 660, 903, 904, 906, 922 and the Triangle. There also seem to be other services that stop in the centre of Whitstable, such as the number 5 Stagecoach Southeast bus. Cyclists, who have good links from Canterbury via the Crab and Winkle Way, and to other local seaside towns via the seafront path, can secure their bikes at one of the bike racks outside the ice cream parlour.

Once at the meeting point, the toilets are advertised as being open from 7.30am and can be found within the same building as the ice cream parlour. Should these toilets be closed, the closest alternatives are next to Tankerton Bay Sailing Club, to the east or within the lower floor of The Bubble cafe, to the west. The first timers' and main briefings take place on the grass area next to the toilets and once complete, everybody heads down the steps or slope onto the promenade. A handy thing to note is that in general, those who are likely to be within the first half of the field may find it better to take the stairs which join the promenade closer to the front of the start line. The slope (Kiosk Hill) is a better route for those likely to be participating further back in the field as this joins the promenade to the rear of the start area.

The Whitstable parkrun 'regular course' takes place over an almost-two-lap clockwise route taking in both the lower promenade and the upper grassed area, and it is this course that is covered in this write-up. The course is essentially flat, but the slopes used to change between the different levels obviously add in an incline/decline element. The surfaces underfoot are a mixture of the concrete promenade path and the grass on the upper section, so the best footwear may vary from week-to-week. If it's lovely and dry, road shoes are ideal, while if the conditions have been wet, the grass can hold onto quite a bit of water and could be muddy and quite splashy, and this could swing the preference towards trail shoes. Please note that if the conditions on the grass pass a certain threshold, the event team may switch to the alternative course (also known as the lollipop course) - there are some notes on the alternative course towards the bottom of this page.

So, at 9am the parkrun starts and the field heads off in an easterly direction. The promenade has a fixed width due to there being a retaining wall on the right between it and Tankerton Slopes, and on the left-hand-side this part of the prom is raised about half-a-metre higher than the beach. The point is that if you happen to line up a bit further back than you would have preferred, you'll have to be patient and filter through as the field thins out. Eagle-eyed parkrunners looking out to sea will spot a couple of interesting things. Firstly, there is the Kentish Flats Wind Farm, which is 10 kilometres off the coast and consists of 45 turbines. Secondly, and these are a little harder to see, are the Maunsell Sea Forts. These were anti-aircraft defensive positions which would have housed searchlights and anti-aircraft guns during the Second World War.

The parkrun course continues along the prom, which is marshalled at regular intervals. However, the path is also part of the National Cycle Network, so keep an eye out for cyclists. Initially the scene stays the same with the Hog's Fennel growing on the adjacent slopes. After a while the foliage gives way to an area of beach huts which are painted in all sorts of wonderful designs and colours. These are highly desirable and are currently selling for anything between £50,000 and £86,000.

Just after the beach huts is Tankerton Bay Sailing Club, where you'll find plenty of boats lining each side of the path. Once past the boats, the prom section of the course comes to an end and the route bears off to the right with a climb up Fraser Hill, incidentally this is usually marshalled by a volunteer called Fraser. At the top of the hill there is a sharp right hand turn onto the pavement where the parkrun course then moves onto the grass.

The elevated position at the top of the slopes gives a wonderful view across Tankerton Beach and onwards with the eastern side of the Isle of Sheppey visible in the far distance. The grass underfoot is generally in good condition, but I will note that it does have an interesting feature where pools of water seem to form in random positions. Also, it can be quite difficult to spot them in advance, so it would be very easy to end up with a soaking wet foot (hint: have spare shoes and socks with you if it has recently been raining). There were also some sections that were a little muddy, but as noted above, if the underfoot conditions get too bad it is likely that the event will switch to the alternative course. There are a few shelters to pass and some paths to cross, but soon enough the familiar sight of the Ice Cream Parlour can be seen and the course reaches the original briefing area.

On the first lap, the course goes through this area and then heads down Kiosk Hill, which I'd note as being particularly steep. My GPS data reports the slope as being a -10.9% gradient at its steepest point. At the bottom a sharp right-hand turn feeds the parkrunners back onto the promenade and past the start line where the lap is completed a second time until reaching the original meeting/briefing area, which is now the finish area. The barcode scanning area is well organised with separate queuing areas marked out with rope and small buckets for participants to deposit their finish tokens once scanned. The results are processed and are available online a short while later. As a guide, expect to find somewhere in the region of 350-450 participants at this event, but it can occasionally exceed 500. On the day we visited in April 2024 (event 643), there were 366 plus 51 volunteers.

As noted above, I recorded the course (regular course) with my Garmin and the GPS data can be found on my Strava account. The data was also used to create a Relive course fly-by video and it can be viewed on YouTube. Should the need arise, the route can be changed to the 'alternative course' which is a lollipop-style course and takes place over a single lap.

For the lollipop course, the parkrun starts in the same way but continues past the Fraser Hill turn-off point and instead heads right to the very end of the prom. The lollipop part of the course is within the adjacent nature reserve, called Long Rock. Interestingly, Long Rock Beach used to be a Nudist/Naturist beach. The ground with the nature reserve can be muddy and rutted, plus there is also a pinch point and a small step up onto a wooden bridge. Once the loop is completed, the route follows the prom all the way back, then turns up Kiosk Hill and the finish is found at the usual place next to the Ice Cream Parlour.

At time of writing (April 2024), I have not personally taken part on the lollipop course, but I have acquired the GPS data for it, so that can also be viewed on Strava and the course fly-by on YouTube. I would also note that the continued use of this alternative course is not guaranteed as the Long Rock area may be undergoing some changes including the installation of a shingle path.

Post parkrun, the Whitstable parkrun family heads off to either the Marine Hotel or sometimes one of the other local cafes on Tankerton Road. We had brought some food and drink with us so we didn't partake in the official refreshments. Instead we got started with our planned day out in Whitstable starting with a trip to Whitstable Castle where our five-year-old spent ages playing in the playground. The day continued with a walk over to Whitstable Harbour before continuing along the seafront path taking in all the sights including the famous Old Neptune pub which stands right on the beach. We also found the house of one of Whitstable's famous former residents, Peter Cushing, star of many of the Hammer horror films and who also played the part of Grand Moff Tarkin in the 1977 Star Wars film.

We then headed away from the seafront and found some of the wonderful alleys that Whitstable is well-known for, including Squeeze Gut Alley and I can confirm it really is a squeeze to get through one section of it. This led us through to Whitstable Museum and Gallery (£4 entry for adults, under 18's free) and here we learned about Charles and John Deane who invented the deep sea diving helmet while living in the town. This equipment led to John becoming one of the first people to recover artefacts from the Mary Rose. We also learned about Whitstable's ship building and repair trades, which existed for about 400 years with the last one closing in 1985. One of the highlights of the museum is 'Invicta' which is the original steam engine which ran on the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway. We also saw some of the filming locations for a recent TV show called Whitstable Pearl which is filmed almost entirely in the town. We had watched the first series during the week leading up to our visit (it's currently on UKTV Play).

In preparation for our visit, I had also checked the Whitstable tide times as I wanted to see a quirky natural feature on the seafront called The Street. This is a shingle strip which is exposed at low tide and stretches about 750 metres out to sea. We arrived about 90 minutes before the low tide was due, but already The Street had started to emerge, so even though the full length hadn't been revealed, we managed to take a walk to the end as it was at the time. By the time we arrived back at the car, we had covered a total of 10 kilometres during our walk and were well and truly exhausted.

We had a brilliant time in Whitstable and that of course started with the wonderful Whitstable parkrun. As I mentioned in my original blog, it is a well-oiled machine, and you are sure to receive a very warm welcome. A huge thanks goes to the 51 volunteers that made it all possible.

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