On a wet, wet, wet day, I was in Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire. Unlike the volunteers, I could at least shelter in the car till it was nearly time to start, and we all caught a break as it stopped raining for 20 minutes or so, just before 9am.
Despite the weather, I enjoyed my run around, and was happy to be doing laps of the park. Those laps vary a little, with the first a longer one, taking in a wooded section at the top right of the map. After that, we headed round the main loop a couple of times, avoiding some puddles and splashing through others.
I blame those puddles, and my focus on planning a route round them for the fact that I missed the inside of the park entirely. There is more there than I appreciated at the time, with a large grassy area spotted with hay bales at this part of Autumn.
The route heads out of the main part of the park for a short downhill section. It’s worthy of note mainly for the narrow gates on the way out and then again on the way in, which are described as an impediment, but have a gap big enough to tempt you into racing through them. A tempter! They definitely don’t need much of a shuffle for most of us, but if you get it wrong you’ll be brought up short by the metal. A nice piece of jeopardy on the route.
A pretty park, a well-organised event, and all the facilities are available right by the start/finish.
A mile or so South of the Suffolk town of Harleston is a hockey club, from which this parkrun takes its name. Since parkrun spread widely, and calling the runs after the town became problematic (taxi to London, please!), they updated their naming convention such that we will see more and more of these eclectic names. (Take a bow, Dallas Burston Polo Club parkrun.)
Wondering whether I should park elsewhere to make sure there was space, and that there was no need to test the instruction to park not in the club car park, but on the grass behind the club house, I looked at walking from town, and found a couple of lay-bys to the North of the club, next to the water, which looked like a decent compromise between parking right at the event, and walking down pavement-less roads to the place. In the end, I was there so early I just parked in the field, and for the numbers attending at the moment (66 this week), that’s unlikely to cause any problems.
The clubhouse has refreshments after the event, and probably facilities beforehand, too, though I didn’t check – frankly, given England’s current “hey, let’s ignore the queues outside A&E, the fact it’s only early Autumn by any sensible measure and just pile into places without masks” madness, I preferred to keep away from crowded spaces, even if they’re only full of lovely runners.
The ground was pretty firm underfoot this morning, but being grass throughout it’s never going to be especially quick, despite being fairly flat. As you’ll see from some of the photos, the route is already getting quite nicely (I hope that’s the club’s view, too) marked even though this is only week 5, but at some point that will probably be a little muddy, too.
I went to this event partly because it was a new event, and partly because of the unusual name, but it was enjoyable. Everyone involved seemed very keen to see it succeed, and there was a general air of excitement, suggesting new runners and a community being formed. I overheard a couple of hockey players talking about it, and they obviously didn’t know much about it – there’s an obvious possible cross-over if any of them can fit in some pure cardiovascular activity on a Saturday morning, though the event will happily go on around them.
With such an open course, you’re going to be subject to whatever the weather throws at you – this was a cool October morning but with nothing else we were free to get on with getting round as well as we could.
The turns within the fields were often just a little bit further round than I expected – turning a right-angle is apparently easy for me, but going a bit further is something I apparently forget to do – so it helps to keep your wits about you, or have someone to follow. You can see from the width of the lighter colour on the field that people have not picked one line and stuck to it. It doesn’t matter, so long as you head for the sign and turn round it, you’ll cover at least 5k, but if you’re pushing for a time you’ll want to pay attention and keep straighter lines than I managed.
I hope club and parkrun have a long and happy association.
There are several parkruns entirely on beaches, but not loads, so I decided not to miss my chance to fit another in. This is a fairly new parkrun, in that this was only the 18th event, but it started before everything closed down in 2020, so it is a year and a half old.
There is a car park right next to the start, and there are also toilets there. The car parks along the sea front are all quite expensive, though, so for cheaper paid parking, park in town or on the sea front itself. In town, it’s £1 an hour, on the road at the front, £4 for 3 hours. Alternatively, a little further North, there’s free parking. I parked in Salisbury Road, from where it’s about half a mile to the start, and there are more toilets on the sea front at the end of the road. Parking by the sea is free here, too.
As well as being a run entirely on sand, which I thought might be kinder to my knee (it was not), this is a relatively small one in attendance – we had 39, which is fairly typical at this point in its life. The record is 160, from the first event, but they’ve only three subsequent times had more than half that.
It’s useful to listen to the first-timers’ briefing if you’ve not been before, as there are a few important instructions. First of all, don’t run in front of anyone fishing – it might be annoying, and they might be casting. Keep on the sand, and don’t run on the dunes once on the town-side part of the course. There are plenty of ‘keep left’ signs on spades, which was a nice touch, and a couple of marshals patrolling to keep us honest.
All of this means that there are only a couple of places with firm footing. There’s an area which has enough grass in the sand, up towards the boating lake. And you get the chance to run nearer the sea once you turn at that end – though the temptation to stay there, in front of fishers, must need a bit of controlling. We were told there were lots of fishers, but that turned out to be just the one, who seemed unbothered by our presence.
Other than that, it’s soft sand, then soft sand with some pebbles, and an occasional tiny incline that feels, thanks to the soft sand I must remember to mention, like a big hill. It is very tough. I have run Woolacombe Dunes, famously hard thanks to having an actual hill up a dune, but was significantly quicker there (over 8 minutes). I am, admittedly, a different runner now, with only one good knee, but gosh, this was hard. The Dunes run has a lovely downhill bit. This one, flat. With soft, soft sand.
Still, don’t use my times as a guide. Expect to be a minute or so per kilometre slower than a fast course – it was more than that for me.
It is absolutely lovely, though. The conditions will vary wildly with the seasons, and even from week to week. We had some crazy clouds, and a bit of a headwind for the South-bound section, but it was pretty good. A cold start, but this is an ideal way to warm up, and running (or struggling) through (I use the word advisedly, and not “on”) the sand with the sound of the sea rushing in to shore is a glorious thing.
Other than the run the Venetian waterways, right next to the course, were renovated in 2019 and look great. There are hotels all along the front, and also several cafes, which combined to torment us with the smell of breakfast on the entire route. The Beach Cafe itself opens at 10, though looked open when we finished, so may have clued in to the fact that some customers are appearing from the beach at 9:30. I managed to resist, walked back along the front past people setting up for the Fire on the Water festival, and drove along the sea front to soak up a little more sea air.
Bressay (pron. “Bressy”) is an island to the East of the Shetland mainland, just a few minutes on a ferry (officially 10, which is possible if you include mooring time and the ferry is full of cars you have to wait for before you stroll off, but no matter – it’s a short trip). It’s a scenic part of the world, even on a drizzly day such as we had.
The ferry is £6 return, payable on the way out only (cash or card). Locals and long-stayers can currently get a ferry card for cheaper travel. The ferry itself is easy to find, right on the waterfront in Lerwick – you can see the route on the map above. I walked past it by accident the day before while strolling round town after I’d got off the larger ferry from Kirkwall (Orkney) which docks further to the North of town. The event team meet the ferry to point everyone in the right direction and greet volunteers, though it’s fairly straightforward to follow people on the short walk to the hotel and round to the side where the parkrun flag flies, above the painted start line.
Although fairly remote, as the North-most parkrun in the UK (Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia have more northerly ones) this is a destination event for parkrunners, so I wasn’t totally surprised to not be the person there with the most completed parkruns, even in a field of just 46. It was a little more of a surprise that I actually knew the person who had run more, though it took me several glances to realise. We’ve not been in the same place since a trip to Poland in 2013, so I let myself off, even though I’d said good morning to her on the way to the ferry and then smiled when she let the event team know she was from Bushy. Two big clues, but it was something in the way she walked to the start that reminded me – wait – Gdansk and Gdynia?!
There were a few other tourists, including a couple from Alaska who I assumed were in Shetland for work – there’s a lot of well-paid jobs here in oil and gas. Others, including my friend, had run the Loch Ness marathon the weekend before and could enjoy a more relaxed weekend this time round.
The course is a long out and then shorter back, as you go past the finish line after just under a mile, head further on down the road before a right turn, turn around a cone and back to the finish at Speldiburn cafe. A quick left-turn into the cafe car park and you’re over the painted finish line and can go for drinks and breakfast baps next door. It’s pretty much the perfect setup.
There’s no bag-moving service, so those in the know, and those of us who always travel with a running bag just in case, set off with our bags on our backs, then cast them aside at the mail shop, which marks the corner before the finish. A helpful marshal was there to take them from us and arrange them nicely on the wall. That helped me greatly. For one, I didn’t want to run with my bag the whole way. For two, I had offered to scan barcodes once I’d finished, so being able to collect my bag for the last 200m without having to find wherever I’d dropped it was super efficient. I have run and scanned before, but it always feels like a bit of an indulgence, and not necessarily that helpful unless you know you’ll finish first, as someone else has to be there to scan at least till you get there (and realistically, why would they then stop?). Now I’m several minutes slower than I was, even more so, but they were still looking for people at 7pm on Friday and wanted two scanners, so I figured offering would help make sure the event went ahead and my lack of pace wouldn’t be too awful – a look at previous events suggested I ought to be fairly well in the first half of finishers. It worked out, at any rate – and I’d happily have dropped out had a third person offered. As it was, I was able to finish, scan several of the people behind me and get to chat to several of them after they’d finished, as well as some of the other volunteers.
The route itself is undulating. They did warn us of a hill, and there is one, but it’s short and mean rather than a huge obstacle. The start is downhill, which is always exciting, and then it’s a case of up, flatten, down, up, up, flatten, and so on – a classic example of a course that rarely lets you go. That hill is towards the end of the long out, so reappears into the final mile, to test you, and there’s a little more uphill heading towards the finish itself to keep everyone breathing heavily.
As for returning, it’s possible to finish and walk/run the mile back to get on the 10:30 ferry, but I joined the crowd in the cafe. Table service at the moment makes it very simple, and you don’t even have to keep an eye on the clock with the 11:30 ferry in mind: there was a general movement at 11:00, some finishing of drinks and conversations, and a fairly leisurely walk up Gunnista road (not on the course) and left to make it to the ferry without rush.
All parkruns are great, and each have something to recommend them, but there’s a lot in the combination of hopping on a ferry, running somewhere remote with scenic views, and most of the participants being able to fit in the cafe, a cafe right on the finish line, to make this a really special one. Book your ferry!
After a weekend of windy weather, Monday was sunny and relatively still. The ideal day for a walk through the island.
Orkneys buses cover much of the island, but for places that aren’t ferry ports, are only intermittent. It’s possible to get a bus to Skara Brae, but direct ones from Stromness go rarely enough that it seemed easier to walk – it’s 7 or 8 miles, depending where in Stromness you start from. I booked my ticket ahead of time to make sure the fairly tight capacity limits weren’t reached by the time I got there, though on an October Monday that wasn’t really an issue. It’s £9 for adults, or £4.50 if, like me, you are in the first year of an English Heritage membership (if you’re a renewed member, it’s free).
Orkney has plenty of Neolithic sites, and Skara Brae may be the highlight; a settlement of ten houses. It was discovered by chance in 1850, when a severe storm took the earth from a large knoll, to show the outline of the village. It was partly excavated, then abandoned before it was returned to in order to protect it from the sea and people raiding for artefacts. Now, there’s a museum, the site itself (and a display room next to it, currently closed) and Skaill House.
The museum is in the visitor centre, and just has a few rooms to introduce the site. The artefacts found, at least those of whalebone, are in incredible condition, given the settlement was occupied between approx 3200 and 2200BC.
Just outside the centre is a re-creation of the best-preserved house, to give an idea of how each would have looked when intact. They were all built to the same template, so if you’ve seen this one, you’ve seen them all.
From there it’s a short walk to the site. Beside it are dated blocks to give you an idea of just how far back in time you are going – beyond the Romans, past the construction of the pyramids, to this collection of houses.
It’s a place to wonder at, rather than spend ages. It isn’t a large site, but on a good day it’s astonishing enough to just stand and stare, imagining a bustling community living here.
From the site itself, another short walk takes you to Skaill House, for a chance to see how rich people lived not very long ago.
The house has been there, gradually expanded, since 1620. It strikes a slightly discordant note with the ancient marvel that is the settlement, but it’s presented nicely and, I suppose, does the job of returning you to more recent times. There is some personal history of the owners, which I found mostly uninteresting – great for them, of course, but not for me – other than that of the last person to live there full-time, who retreated to mostly live in one room as the house grew mouldy around her. She died in 1991 and left it to Malcolm Macrae, who had it restored so as to be on display, host weddings and hold a couple of rental flats for holiday-makers.
I was lucky enough to be just behind a charming double-act, who entered each room with “nice room”, and then gave the call-back “lovely room!” As we finished and headed for the gift shop, he agreed that yes, he would like ice-cream. “Vanilla?” “Yes, of course”. Quite. I had the chocolate, which was excellent.
Visible from the site, and a short walk down the road (or through a metal gate on the left of the site – I snuck back in this way, ticket to hand in case I was challenged) is a great beach. On a sunny day like today, it is a great place for lunch, and not itself a long walk even if you walk the whole length.
The way back was harder than the way there – purely because I got more tired, and walking along the side of the road needed a little bit of attention, which was ebbing. I also chose not to take the slightly shorter route, down Hillside Road, as it was slippery and uphill on the way there, and I didn’t fancy sliding down it on the way back. That left me on the main road: the roads aren’t busy, the walk is fine, but after a couple of hours of checking behind me every time a car came towards me, in case a car coming the other way meant I needed to move off the road, I was tired. If you can get the bus one way, I would recommend it.
The only rain of the day came in horizontally for a brief period, being replaced by more sunshine and a rainbow, which topped off a glorious day.
Next to the ferry terminals, on Junction Road, is a small museum of radio and its use in the war. When I went, it was offering free entry, though they seemed uncertain whether that would continue – some summers, the entry fee provides enough income to cover the insurance on what is low-cost volunteer effort.
The space is crammed with radios and related paraphernalia. Components, posters, even an empty old display unit for batteries. They must have done a roaring trade back in the day.
There’s an obvious route through, past the radio section and into the war one, though you get a quick view of everything from the door – it’s that diddy. Captions are plentiful and I thought the whole thing charming, though the attendant was quick to add that many people found it chaotic. Charming and chaotic, perhaps.
I know next to nothing about radios, am not especially interested and entered in slight trepidation that I might be assumed to be a ham-nut and subjected to more detail than I could cope with. But that was not the tone at all – enter and enjoy it in whatever capacity you can. For me, those old radios, with intricate wooden cases, were a highlight, as was the spy radio from the war (though you’d think I’d have taken a photo of the latter, and I did not).
It’s a lovely museum, a short walk from the centre of Kirkwall and cheap to boot.
Although I missed the summer, and hit a windy weekend, I made it to Orkney in time to see it at its best, in sunshine. The ferry from Scrabster, at the very top of Scotland, takes under two hours, and leaves you in Stromness, where I had decided to stay.
As a result, I had to hop on a bus to get to Kirkwall, but the 8:10 got me there for 8:40, leaving plenty of time to stroll around the town and have a look over the course. It’s easier to do than to describe, with nearly three laps going back and forth past the Peedie sea (Peedie is an Orcadian word, for ‘small’ – it used to form a natural harbour). There are plenty of places to stay in Kirkwall if you’d rather, with the Peedie hostel overlooking the route.
There’s plenty to see from the bus, with views of the sea on both sides at one point. The fields are full of sheep (sheep) and cows (coos), for extra highlights.
In the sun, the place looked gorgeous, but the wind blowing towards the sea at our backs was enough to slow us all down as we ran across the middle of the course. Turnout, at 34, was a nice size for a course that has two out-and-back sections on narrow paths, though they’ve had over 100, which must have been a little more chaotic.
It’s all on paths, so unless the sea floods in you’ll have no difficulty with grip. And although the course description sounds complex, it’s very easy to follow. It’s also very easy to find – I hopped off the bus beside Tesco, knowing that was on the route, but if you stay on till the travel centre in Kirkwall, you’ll still be in sight of the course.
After a lovely run, as the weather brightened and the wind seemed less significant (more because I wasn’t trying to run into it, I suspect, than because it had disappeared – it only got stronger towards Sunday), I had a wander round Kirkwall itself, which is a charming town with a small centre.
The parkrun is also near the harbour, where they play the Ba game. I chose purely to imagine how it would feel to score the winning goal, fully immersing the ball in the sea – the sign nearby points out that players often immerse themselves, too, and it’s hard to imagine being given the time to score while pursued by a scrum of players without hurling yourself into the cold-looking water. I sat overlooking it in the sun, instead.