Monday 8 July 2024

Billericay parkrun

Billericay is a town which sits within the Borough of Basildon in the county of Essex with a population of around 31,000 people. It was first recorded as Byllyrica in 1291, but the exact origin of the name is unknown. It has a historical link to the 1381 Peasant's Revolt due to The Battle of Billericay in which the King's soldiers defeated and killed 500 Essex men. The town was said to have been the meeting place of the Pilgrim Fathers shortly before their voyage to the new world in 1620 and many of the names around the town reflect this historic occasion, such as Mayflower School. In 1655 another group of colonists named the town of Billerica, Massachusetts after their English hometown. The two towns are now twinned.

There were a number of local country estates and farms around the town, and in the 19th century a significant number of these were owned by Major Thomas Jenner Spitty. His land provided a source of work for local agricultural workers but following a series of bad harvests, the workers were suffering the effects of mass unemployment. Major Spitty's solution to this was to employ many of the workers to dig a lake on his Hill House Estate. His hope was that the lake would attract wildfowl so that he could host 'elegant shooting parties'. A regular attendee of these parties was Lord Kitchener, most recognisable from the 'Lord Kitchener Wants You' British Army first world war recruitment posters.

The Hill House Estate changed hands multiple times following Major Spitty's death, and some of the land was sold off for house building. In 1935 Billericay Urban District Council purchased the majority of the estate's remaining land and a year later it opened the 40-acre Lake Meadows Park. It wasn't until after the Second World War that additional features were added such as a bowling green, paddling pool, sports pitches, and pavilion. A boathouse and boats had been added by 1949, but these are no longer in operation. The park now also has tennis courts, a cricket pitch, a petanque court, a children's playground, skate park, indoor swimming pool and formal gardens.

On 24 June 2017 the park became home to Billericay parkrun, where it became the 18th 5k parkrun in the county of Essex. It takes place on Saturday mornings at 9am and is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk the course. I first visited the park on 1 July 2017 and took part in event number 2, my second visit was on 6 July 2024 at event number 299 and on both occasions I drove to the venue. There are two car parks at the south-east corner of the park and both are free-of-charge on weekends. The parkrun course page suggests that parkrunners use the Radford Crescent car park, but the other option is to use the Lake Meadows car park which is a tiny bit closer to the park's entrance.

For travel by public transport, the park's main entrance is only around 500 metres from Billericay railway station. The station is served by Greater Anglia trains running between London's Liverpool Street and Southend-on-Sea. There are also a selection of buses that stop at various places in the vicinity of the park, mostly at the main bus stops at the train station (some examples are the bus numbers I can see are; 9, 12, 50, 251, 256, 300, 552, and 561). I would expect anyone considering taking the bus would already be fairly local and know more than I can come up with anyway. For cyclists there are some bicycle racks located at the park's main gate which is accessed via the car park.

The park's toilets are also located in this area of the park, and can be found inside the small brick building on the right hand side immediately after passing through the entrance, just next to 'The Wizard and The Dragon' sculpture. The sculpture itself has an interesting story - in 2013 one of the park's old oak trees died and was due to be removed for safety reasons. However the Friends of Lake Meadows Park suggested and arranged for it to be recycled into a sculpture, the wizard carved from the trunk of the tree and the dragon from the upper part which had been detached - you can read all about it here and see some before and after photos here.

The meeting point, start and finish of the parkrun are all on the northern section of grass, on the opposite side of the park from the car park and toilets, so remember to leave a time buffer in order to walk across. For anybody that visited this venue in its early days, all these key places are in different locations to the original course from 2017. For the record, the course is also slightly different from that original version and I have provided a link to my GPS data of that course for historical reasons at the bottom of this write-up. The first timers and the main briefings both take place on this open grass area, although on my 2024 visit there was some pretty heavy rain from around 8.45am until about 9.10am and I missed them both as I was feebly sheltering under a nearby tree.

The main course takes place over four anti-clockwise laps of the park and features a combination of grass and tarmac. Each lap is 1.25km in length and has an approximate split of 0.95 kilometre on tarmac and 300 metres on grass, giving a grand total of 3.8 kilometres on tarmac and 1.2 kilometres on grass over the course of the 5k. Generally, road shoes should be sufficient for this course. It's not 100% flat as the eastern and northern sections of the park are at a slightly higher elevation than the southern and western parts. It's only a slight rise, so definitely not hilly, just gently undulating at most.

If the conditions are bad enough there is the option for the route to be switched to a five lap course (also anti-clockwise) which removes the main section of potentially muddy and slippery grass and, with the exception of the start, takes place entirely on the tarmac paths. If this course is used, it looks like the start is moved to the area just to the north of the tennis courts and finish to the north-east corner of the lake. I acquired some GPS data from February 2024 and have uploaded it onto my Strava account for reference, and there's also a Relive course fly-by video to accompany it (see the bottom of this page for links).

On this occasion (event 299 / 6 July 2024) the standard four lap course was used and this starts on a beautifully wide start line on the northern grass section with the participants initially heading to the west towards the lake. I will note that part of the grass section involves passing through the centre of the painstakingly perfectly placed arrows, so be sure not to cut the corner when transferring to the tarmac path a few hundred metres later. It's probably a good time to mention that a course with this many laps is always going to feature a large amount of lapping, and to assist with this the standard arrangement is that participants keep to the left and overtaking takes place on the right. For the record, anyone taking more than about 27 minutes is likely to be lapped and those between 27 minutes and about 43 minutes will probably be lapped and also lap some people themselves.

The first part of the tarmac path meanders gently as it works its way around to the north side of the lake. Initially there is a small height difference between the path and the lakeside embankment so watch out for the small drop. The western side of the lake has distinctive blue railings on either side and the views looking across the lake are picturesque, even in the rain. It is home to lots of wildlife including plenty of species of water birds, it is also home to a giant catfish called The Beast of Billericay. As the course reaches the end of the lakeside section, it passes the playground and a marshal point, and heads towards and past the cafe. This is where there is a slight rise in elevation.

The southeast part of the course passes the Flower Garden and the Ornamental Garden before swooping around and past the tennis courts and into another lovely long curve which drops down to the next marshal point. The final part of the lap simply follows the path around to the north east corner of the park where there's a turning back onto the grass and this completes the lap. At the end of the fourth lap the participants enter the wide finishing lane instead of following the main route, and this head straight into the finish funnel. Barcode scanning takes place on the grass, although on this visit the scanners were huddled under the gazebo in an attempt to avoid the rain.

Checking my Garmin at the end of the parkrun, I saw that my son had achieved a new 5 kilometre personal best, so he took the opportunity to pick up ring Billericay parkrun's PB bell, which was great fun! On the subject of Garmins, I had recorded the route, and the GPS data for the current (2024) four-lap anti-clockwise course can be found on my Strava account. I uploaded that data to Relive and the resulting course fly-by video can be viewed on YouTube. The results for event 299 were published a short while later and 182 people completed the course with 31 being recorded as having volunteered. The attendance figure was a little lower than usual, most likely due to the heavy rain. The usual expected number of attendees tends to be around the mid to high 200's with the occasional event exceeding the 300 mark.

Post-parkrun, it is worth finding the Child in the Park bronze statue, which was originally installed in 2001. It features a child crouching down surrounded by plants and many small creatures. During my first visit to the park in July 2017 the statue was not there as it has recently been stolen. However it was found in a wheelbarrow, restored and then re-installed in November 2017. We also found a machine that dispenses food for the ducks and birds, so I purchased some. However I hadn't read the guidelines properly, so didn't realise that I would need my own container. We ended up with a load of loose bird-feed which we had to continue scooping out the machine before scattering to the crowd of expectant waterfowl!

The post-parkrun social gathering takes place in the park's café, called the 'Café in the Park'. We didn't have enough time to pop in ourselves, but I remember on our last visit it was cash-only. I have had it confirmed that this is still the case as of July 2024, so if you are looking to visit the café make sure you bring some good old-fashioned money with you!

It is also worth noting that Lake Meadows Park is home to the largest fireworks display in the whole of Essex, and the set-up for this event means that the parkrun has to cancel. So remember, remember to check for a cancellation at the beginning of November. I hear that the locals like to go on tour when this happens and they've even made it as far as Barry Island in Wales, which is linked to Billericay through the Gavin and Stacey TV show.

It can also hold up to 5,000 people for other outdoor events such as music concerts. I imagine any events of this size could also lead to the parkrun being cancelled so again be sure to check beforehand. After the parkrun, the rain started coming down heavier again, so once we had finished feeding the birds, we quickly headed over to the car and made our way home. The park is small but very nicely laid out, some may even say it is lush. We had a great morning and a huge thanks to the team of volunteers that made the whole thing possible.

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