Wednesday 1 May 2024

Aldenham parkrun

Aldenham is a village and civil parish in Hertfordshire which has a population of around 10,000 people. The name derives from Eladeham, which is said to mean 'old home' or 'Ealda's home'. The ownership of the Manor of Aldenham seems to have been heavily disputed for many years with both the Abbot of St Albans and the Abbot of Westminster claiming the land as their own. The Manor was surrendered to the crown upon the dissolution of the monasteries and it was held by many families over the subsequent years. A manor house was built called Wigbournes and this was replaced by Aldenham House, which still stands and is now in use as a private school.

The manor contained several areas of common land and the largest of these was Aldenham Common, which sat at its southern end. In 1793, 68 acres of Aldenham Common were sold to the Grand Junction Canal Company. The water levels of the canal, which is actually a few miles to the west, needed to be managed, and the company required a large body of water to do this. The common had a stream running through it called Tykeswater, so a dam was constructed out of clay and gravel, and a reservoir (Aldenham Reservoir) was hand dug. At the time of its construction, the French Revolutionary Wars were taking place and some of the French prisoners of war were recruited to provide much of the manpower required for the project.

By the start of the 20th century, the reservoir had become popular for boating, fishing and swimming. Just before the start of the Second World War, the dam, which suffered from erosion, had been strengthened with the construction of a concrete wall. This coincided with an agreement made between the canal company and the local water company, to allow water to be drawn off when other local water supplies were running low. A consequence of this agreement was that some of the recreation activities had to cease in order to reduce the risk of the water becoming contaminated. The boating activities of Aldenham Sailing Club, which had been based at the reservoir since the 1920's, were allowed to continue. In the early 1970's the agreement came to an end and the reservoir was no longer required for public water supply.

The local council still owned some of the land adjacent to the lake, and in the mid-1970's they made the decision to create a recreational facility in the form of a country park. The park features a rare breeds farm, nature trail, adventure playground, a Winnie the Pooh 100 Aker Wood walk, toilets and car park which from what I understand were all originally free-of-charge. I should also mention that the park also has camping and glamping facilities. The reservoir was (and still is) privately owned, but the council took out a lease on it and it essentially became part of the park. In 2012, with the period of austerity in full flow, the council decided that it could no longer fund the country park, and put out a tender for the park's management. This tender was won by Aldenham Renaissance and they have managed it ever since. However, this resulted in charges being introduced for the farm, playground and car park.

In June 2015, the country park became home to Aldenham parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed 5km event and is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk. We first visited Aldenham Country Park in December 2015 where I took part in the parkrun with my daughter in the running buggy. I wrote about it in my original Aldenham parkrun blog, but as we were revisiting I thought I'd take the opportunity to create a new write-up. For the record, there haven't been any significant changes since my first visit and the course is basically identical.

On both visits, we used the car to reach the event and parked in the on-site car park. The car park has a number plate recognition system in place and will calculate the charge for you. Thankfully it is pretty simple. The current arrangement as of 11 May 2024 is that there is a flat fee of £5.50 for using the car park. Please note, the previous arrangement where parkrunners could pay a reduced rate if leaving before 10:30am has now been withdrawn. The payment is made by using a contactless payment at the exit barrier upon leaving, so make sure you have your payment card or mobile payment app to hand. If you need to pay by cash, this must be done in person at the farm shop or kiosk and they will then give you an exit code. Volunteers qualify for free parking up until 11am (volunteers should liaise with the day's run director regarding this).

For anyone using public transport, the nearest national rail train station is Elstree & Borehamwood, which is approximately 3km away from the country park. The closest bus stops are on Watford Road and seem to be served by the 306 and 306A services. From what I can see the 306 runs from the train station, so it looks like a good option for anyone that doesn't fancy walking from the station. Alighting at the bus stop near the Bargeecha Indian restaurant will allow access to the country park via the Watford Road entrance and from there the footpath can be followed around to the car park and parkrun meeting area. For anybody cycling, there are some bicycle racks in the car park. The meeting area for the parkrun is towards the southern end of the car park, near the farm entrance.

The first timers' briefing is held at the meeting area and this is followed by the full briefing once everybody has lined up at the start line. The parkrun takes place over two, flat, non-identical clockwise laps around the perimeter of the reservoir, and underfoot contains a mixture of surfaces which is predominately made up of a forest-style trail path, but also includes some tarmac and a compacted stone surface. There are some sections of the path that are very uneven due to lots of large stones and rocks protruding from the ground, and it can also be a little muddy. With this in mind I'd lean towards this course being best suited to a trail-style shoe, even in the summer months. Buggy runners should be absolutely fine here, but it may be a little bumpy for the occupant during those stony sections. I'd say committed wheelchair users will get around the course, but again I would highlight the uneven surface in the section with the stones and the potential for muddy sections during the wetter seasons.

The start line is formed in the car park itself and at 9am everyone is sent off in a northerly direction for approximately 150 metres to the far end of the car park where the course joins the start of the park's reservoir loop path. Incidentally, following changes to the parish boundaries in the 1930's the reservoir actually sits within the neighbouring parish of Elstree & Borehamwood, resulting in over 90% of the course sitting outside of the parish of Aldenham.

After crossing a small bridge, the course continues by heading along the top of the dam. This path is tarmac and there are some quite noticeable cracks in the surface. This gives some clues as to the current state of the dam, which is in need of repair. In fact, in 2020 the dam was assessed as being at high risk of complete failure. As a consequence, the water level was lowered by around a metre to help prevent further deterioration. The reduced water level had a knock-on effect for the sailing club, as it was deemed unsafe for sailing to continue. So, for the time being the boats have gone.

Once the course reaches the far end of the dam, the path turns onto the forest-style trail where it continues heading around the reservoir's perimeter. The stony section of path can be found around this section of the course, so watch out as the rocks can be quite large in places. Continuing on, the path continues along through the thin strip of woodland that separates the reservoir from the adjacent road. The width of the path changes from time-to-time, with some short sections even going down to a single file path. The reservoir is not always in sight, but the overall experience is quite pleasant. There aren't many marshals out on the course itself, but there is one when the course reaches its second small bridge.

The course then continues away from the reservoir through a slightly thicker patch of woodland where it eventually passes alongside the farm and you should get a glimpse of some of the animals. The end of this path is where the non-identical part of the lap starts. On lap one, the parkrunners are sent to their right which follows the inner curve of the reservoir. This part was especially memorable as the path had a section which flowed from left-to-right in a really nice way. It can get a little muddy towards the end of this part but before you know it, the route pops out of the trees and rejoins the opening section, again heading along the edge of the car park. The course then follows the same route until reaching the end of the path next to the farm.

At this point, the course turns left and heads through a magical, green leafy tunnel. At the end of the tunnel the course feeds into the southern end of the car park, where it continues along its edge until reaching the original start point, which is now the finish line. Barcode scanning takes place in the car park and with that done, the parkrun is complete. Post event there are two options for on-site refreshments; firstly there is the clock house kiosk which is next to the finish and offers a basic selection of drinks and snacks. The other option is on the opposite side of the car park and is called Rustic Rhubarb, this cafe has a wider selection of food including full cooked breakfasts.

We had brought a packed lunch with us, so headed over to 100 Aker Wood for a picnic, where we also had a game of Pooh Sticks and explored the trail. As mentioned above, there is also a farm and a playground here, but there are entry fees for both of these and in the end we decided against the additional expense. The country park extends to the north and at the far end there is an avenue of trees dating from 1880 which formed part of the grand entrance to Aldenham House.

It wasn't long before our parkrun results came through, which showed that there had been a turnout of 120 participants at event 391. This number of attendees is typical for this venue, although it is also quite normal for the attendances to drop down into double figures. I recorded the course with my Garmin and you can see the GPS data on my Strava account. I also used the data to create a course fly-by video with the Relive app, and this can be viewed on YouTube.

I have also read that the local council recently (2023) approved a proposal set out by the reservoir's owners to construct some commercial warehousing nearby, and the income generated from this will finance the much-needed repairs to the dam, which is obviously good news. However, if this results in the footpath closing during the works, this could potentially affect the parkrun so remember to check Aldenham parkrun's news page and social media feeds before visiting for the latest updates.

Finally, despite being a little damp and chilly, we really enjoyed our second visit to Aldenham Country Park. We were made to feel extremely welcome by the volunteers, including getting a fist-bump within seconds of getting out of the car by a fellow Steve(n)! So a huge thank you goes to everyone involved in putting the event on.

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