Monday 10 June 2024

Henlow Bridge Lakes parkrun

Henlow is a village and civil parish in the ceremonial county of Bedfordshire. The name is thought to have come from the Old English 'Henna Hlaw' which means 'hill frequented by wild birds' and was subsequently recorded in the Domesday Book as Haneslau. In 1917 an area of land in the south of the parish was chosen as the site for RAF Henlow. It was originally a military aircraft repair depot and was subsequently used as the first parachute testing centre. During the Second World War it was used as an assembly centre for Hawker Hurricanes whose components had been shipped in from Canada. Adjacent to the base is the civilian settlement of Henlow Camp. In total the parish is home to around 3,800 people, with around 2,200 of these residing within the village itself.

The village was historically divided into three separate manors, Henlow Warden, Henlow Llanthony and Henlow de Grey. An 18th century manor house still stands and this is called Henlow Grange. In the 1960's it became the Henlow Grange Beauty Farm where it was once frequented by celebrities. The place has an uncomfortable link with Jimmy Savile who is alleged to have committed some of his abuse crimes in the mansion. It is now the Champneys Henlow Grange luxury health spa. The grounds of the manor house once extended to the east to the parish border at the River Hiz (Hitch), but the land here is now home to a campsite and angling facility called Henlow Bridge Lakes.

Henlow Bridge Lakes is situated in 33 acres of land in the eastern part of Henlow parish and also sits right next to the site of Etonbury Castle, the castle would have been constructed from timber and has been long gone for hundreds of years. Most of the remaining archaeological evidence was destroyed during the construction of the railway. It is also next to the village of Arlesey. The campsite features hard standing pitches for camper vans all year round, and has grass pitches available between March and September for tents. In addition to these there are lodges, cabins and pods for hire. In 2002 two large angling lakes were created, they were named Jordans Lake and Vincents Lake.

I've done some online research and I cannot find any record of there ever being an actual bridge called Henlow Bridge, and this was confirmed by some of the locals I spoke to. The 'bridge' most likely relates to the modern trunk road flyover which is adjacent to the campsite. There is a small medieval bridge not far from the site which used to form part of the main road between the two villages, in fact it was the only river crossing in this area so I imagine it used to be a very busy spot. This is Arlesey Bridge; the original medieval bridge still forms the main structure but upon first glance all you can see are the modern-day modifications which were required to widen it.

We visited the area to take part in Henlow Bridge Lakes parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed 5km event that takes place on Saturday mornings at 9am. It is open to all abilities including people who wish to walk and is also a great option for anyone that would like to be involved in some local volunteering. The parkrun has been in operation since September 2021. The venue is located just a few minutes' walk from Arlesey Train Station which is served by direct Thameslink services from Horsham (West Sussex) via Crawley, Gatwick, Croydon, London Bridge, Blackfriars and St Pancras station, before heading through Stevenage and Hitchin. From the other direction direct trains run from Peterborough via Huntingdon and St Neots. Despite its rural location it is actually very well connected.

The closest bus stop is on the A507 main road near Arlesey Station and from what I can gather, is served by the 9A, 9C and W1 buses. If you are prepared to walk a little further, the 9B, 74, W5 and W6 buses stop in the centre of Henlow. If cycling is you method of travel, you will find some bicycle racks within Henlow Bridge Lakes, just next to the campsite shop near the Angler's entrance.

Travelling to the venue by vehicle is also possible, however there is no on-site parking available for parkrunners. The recommended place to park is the Arlesey and Henley train station car park. For the record this is the same train station as mentioned above but for some reason the car park is labelled with the train station's name from the 1930's when it was indeed known as Arlesey and Henlow station. It is run by a company called Britannia Parking and has ANPR cameras. As of June 2024 I can confirm that the car park is free-of-charge at weekends, which is great news for parkrunners. Previous visitors to this parkrun would have paid for parking, however Britannia Parking should never have been charging for weekends in the first place as 'free weekend parking' was a condition laid down when the original request for planning permission was agreed to.

I will also note that the slip road that leads off the main road towards the car park can only be accessed from one direction, so if you approach from the east (for example, from Arlesey or the A1) you have to drive past the venue and use the next roundabout to make a u-turn. Both the car park and the campsite, including the need to make a u-turn, are clearly marked with road signs from the main A507 trunk road.

Finding the entrance to Henlow Bridge Lakes is relatively straight forward. If you arrive by train, you'll need to take the exit heading to the west, and this may involve crossing the station's footbridge. After crossing the tiny Arlesey Bridge you will be outside the aforementioned Arlesey and Henlow station car park. Walking from the car park you can simply head along the small road that passes underneath the modern trunk road and then enter the venue via the public footpath entrance. However if you require the toilets, they are located within the campsite so you'd have to make your way along to the Angler's entrance and then head over to the toilet block. Once finished, you need to retrace your steps back to the footpath entrance area next to the river and the trunk road flyover - if you are relatively early you may find the volunteers assembling near the footpath entrance.

The start of the parkrun is on the northern side of the lakes, to get there you need to follow the footpath, keeping the River Hiz on your right until reaching the start area. Please note that you cannot cut through the campsite or the fishing lakes in order to reach the start area - you must follow the public footpath around the outside. For a visual representation of this, please see my GPS data which shows my walk from the car park to the toilet block and then around to the start area.

The parkrun takes place over a flat, anti-clockwise, two-and-a-half lap course. The terrain underfoot contains a mixture of dirt paths, stony dirt paths, grass and in some sections a wood-chip path. For shoe choice I would note that it is an off-road course which can get very muddy so trail shoes will be useful in less favourable conditions. In the dry summer conditions road shoes will be just fine. Taking part with a buggy should pose no problems, but I would note that if doing so in bad conditions there may be some particularly muddy sections to deal with. While this is not the ideal course for wheelchair users, I'd say in dry conditions it is do-able providing the individual is confident with negotiating the terrain mentioned above. Dogs can take part under the normal parkrun rules, but the footpath has its own rule that dogs must be kept on a lead at all times, including outside of the parkrun event.

The briefings are held at the start area and at 9am the participants are sent off on their 5 kilometres of Saturday morning exercise. The start area itself is a decent width, so there is plenty of room for everyone. The actual path in this section is a single-file dirt strip, so the majority of people will be using the grass at this point. There is a small bench towards the end of this opening stretch which could potentially be a hazard. However the volunteer team have clearly noted this already and it is very clearly marked and taped off. Given the location of the start area, it seems to be quite common for there to be late-comers, so you may find that faster people end up darting past those at the back a few minutes after the start.

The footpaths that the parkrun uses are owned and maintained by Henlow Lakes and Riverside Ltd, but are open to the public. Sections of the route form part of The Kingfisher Way and the Hicca Way walking routes. The theme of the course is pretty similar all the way around with the path being almost exclusively bordered by trees, bushes, fences, or the River Hiz. It is all very pleasant but also very contained, so I think I'd be safe to say that it is very well sheltered from the effects of wind. The only time there is any extended view beyond the footpath is when passing the fishing lakes which are very pretty.

There is also an abundance of wildlife present here; we spotted a heron, ducks, geese, fish (of course), something in the adjacent woodland which we couldn't identify (probably a fox), we were told there are also crayfish, but the real highlight for us (the kids) were the tiny frogs hiding within the grass and bushes next to the lakes. I've also hear that there are Kingfishers along the banks of the river.

The route itself meanders around nicely as it follows the boundary of the campsite. There are lots of straight sections and the corners are generally 90 degree turns. The surface underfoot changes from time-to-time as does the width of the path, however there is always plenty of space either side for people to pass. At times there are barbed wire fences to the sides of the path, but there is never any need to get that close to them, so there shouldn't be any particular risk of making contact.

Even when we visited in June, there were still some small muddy sections, but these were relatively easy to navigate around. There are a few gates to pass through around the course, but these are marshalled and propped open for the duration of the event. There are also two points where the course crosses the entrance roads to the campsite and the fishing lakes. Again these spots are marshalled but there is a chance that you may be instructed to stop for safety reasons, so pay attention and follow any instructions the marshals give.

The only significantly narrow section of the course is after the second road crossing where the path runs in-between two fences that then form a narrow bridge which at running pace is negotiated in single file. The finish funnel is located on the grass section in-between the two road crossings. It is passed twice during the 5k and upon reaching it for the third time the participants enter it and are given a finishing position token which can then be scanned along with their personal barcode immediately after the finish. Should anybody be in need of some post-parkrun refreshments, there is a campsite shop which has some covered, but very limited outdoor seating. There is also a playground within the campsite, although my understanding is that this is only supposed to be for those staying onsite.

I used my Garmin to record the GPS data for the course and you can view it on my Strava account. I also used that data to create a Relive course fly-by video that can be viewed on YouTube. The results for event 135 were processed and published later that morning. There had been 129 finishers on the day and this seemed to be about average. However the attendance numbers seem to drop down into double figures during the winter months when the course becomes very muddy and there is also a flooding risk which can lead to the event being cancelled.

After the event we went for another walk around the course where we returned to the area where we had spotted the frogs earlier on. We also headed away from the campsite to see Henlow Grange, which is a very nice looking building. We then had a little wander through the campsite and it looks like a nice spot to spend a couple of nights. The walk ended back at the River Hiz where we managed to find the viewpoint for seeing the medieval section of Arlesey Bridge. With all that done, it was time to start our journey back home. The morning had been really nice and a big thank you must go to all of the volunteers and other locals who made us feel so welcome during our time here.

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