Belsay Hall (with Castle and Gardens) and Prudhoe Castle

Based in Whitley Bay for a night, before returning to Hadrian’s Wall (which for location purposes means the relatively well-preserved section in the middle of the country), I visited a couple of local-ish English Heritage sites.

Belsay Hall, from the front – the Greek effect is deliberate, and continuous.

Covid restrictions mean that some of the inside areas are out of bounds, though this is a site in flux in any case. The covenant that passed the property to English Heritage stipulated no attempt to recreate rooms, but just allow the space to tell the story. It’s an approach that fits with English Heritage’s approach – there is quite a difference in feel between the well preserved but rather static Roman sites at Corbridge and Chesters and the still-excavated Vindolanda – and leaves the Hall stark, but beautiful. Also, in 2020 they are in year 2 of a 5-year project to restore the gardens and add more explanatory text to rooms, so there are several reasons for the place being light on text: you aren’t allowed everywhere, not all rooms are finished, and the place is being actively restored.

That still leaves dramatic buildings, and beautiful gardens. There are sculpted gardens near the house, being restored on a long-term plan, and slightly wilder, big on trees and rocks (think small cliffs, rather than a rock garden – this is the ‘quarry garden’), areas further on. There is a one-way system in place which works well. One family ahead of me came the wrong way, to a loud, questioning “I didn’t think that was the exit?” from the young girl who was part of the group, going the right way, ahead of me. They stopped to satisfy her curiosity, and therefore got to see whatever amusing lapse of judgement caused the crash of metal poles by the infringing family.

But little real harm done. With the current one-way system, you can see the house at the beginning or end of your visit, and I went straight in. It doesn’t take long, unless you’re really using your imagination, to wander through the ground floor and cellars. It is some house, with a view over the estate, with sheep still nibbling in fields that are out of bounds.

After your first walk through the gardens, you come to the 14th-century castle. It was a castle for a while, then converted to a grand house from 1614, before that, too, was not enough for Charles Monck, who had the large Hall built between 1810 and 1817. The castle is grand but for now is an easy visit, with more interpretation to be added, and only the ground floor open.

Most people, it seems, come to this popular site for the gardens, and you are taken back into them by the route once you leave the castle. There is room for kids to explore, and gnomes tucked away for them to find, if they need extra distraction.

I was in sight (through a gateway) of returning to the hall when I wandered down a side-path out of curiosity. I was glad I had, as it takes visitors to Crag Wood walk. Don’t be put off by the sign by the lake that warns that the full walk may take up to two hours – it certainly could, but only if you move gently, and stop at every bench. Treating it as a slightly more rigorous bit of exercise than wandering in the gardens, and not stopping, I did the ‘long walk’ (there’s a cut-off to the short one, half the distance at most) in about 15 minutes. It is under a mile, and even the warning that it is strenuous refers only to a long gentle climb and descent, rather than any dramatic scrambling. The view of the house from the path that takes you to the walk is its most-photographed, through lush and beautiful rhododendrons. Or so I read – it being October, it was a grand view, but shorn of flowers.

From there I headed South to Prudhoe Castle, in a dominant position to guard a crossing over the River Tyne. Getting to the castle is straightforward, but you have the chance to cross the Ovingham bridge, which is single-carriageway. It’s worth a look at the photo here on geographic.org.uk. There are some wider sections, though I wouldn’t have fancied pulling over and waiting for someone to do the same, so was glad to read on wikipedia that that isn’t generally the way it is done – people wait at either end, using “unwritten rules that usually function well”. It could never work in the South, where attempting to dominate is ingrained in people’s sense of entitlement.

There’s just a small car park for the castle, suggesting visitor numbers are fairly low, even without the booking and limited numbers required by a pandemic. There is an exhibition in the house inside the walls, though currently only the ground floor is open. That is enough to give context: most significantly, though it defied most invaders, this is the only Northumberland castle to resist the Scots. It has long been ruined (reported as such in 1776), but in a scenic, admired, fashion, rather than a sad one.

A marathon race. Most appear to be cheating.

The explanatory panels talk you through the history, from the Norman motte and bailey castle of the 12th century, through fighting for the crown and then, thanks to Henry Percy, against it in 1403. You can see evidence of the curtain wall sagging where it was built over the wooden fort (which then rotted under the ground) and of different buildings in the courtyard. For a while there were lavish gardens, later excavated such that they now show the medieval foundations. The exhibition has some great photos from the non-war residential years – a conservatory looks scenic, if odd, sticking out from a castle.

There is also a nice circular walk around the outside of the castle, which allows you to clamber down to the ruined mill house if you fancy. And I did. In fact, I did the circular walk twice. Although the entrance is very clearly up the cobbled path through the gatehouse, I spotted a “way in” sign on the door to my left as I walked up, and thought it might be some interesting route for one-way purposes. As indeed it is, but only so that the walk is one-way, not as a way into the castle. I realised my mistake as I wandered round the back of the castle, now several metres above me, but it wasn’t all that far to walk round. And no one saw, so it didn’t really happen.

Exploring Cornwall – with free parking

To start without controversy, Cornwall is stunning. It is also very popular, but often large parts of the really pretty bits are inaccessible, making useful land valuable. Parking is, then, a scarce resource, rationed by price – it’s possible to feel as though Cornwall is full, or that you have to pay wherever you go. In fact, it isn’t the case everywhere. Below are three spots with free parking and gorgeous scenery. You can walk much, or much less, further than I did, but I’ve included my routes for context. All these sites are best checked on an online map first for a route; and beware the little lanes that lead to them, especially Luxulyan and Penare.

Henderson National Trust car park

Henderson car park is in the middle, top.

This is a small car park, with sharply downhill access to the coastal path. Walk toward Talland, and there’s a lovely cafe (down another sharply downhill stretch), The Smuggler’s Rest, for hot food, cake, pop and beer. It was a gorgeous day when we visited, so we sat with cake first, then moved on to beer. Frankly, I just didn’t really want to climb the hill back up to the car, though we ended walking some distance towards Looe (just off the map to the East) afterwards, so I got into my stride.

Luxulyan

Luxulyan

Luxulyan is a village near The Eden Project (itself near St Austell). A drive down winding lanes seems unpromising until, all of a sudden, there is the small car park. Trails lead off into the woods, and there’s a relatively straightforward loop by the river. Very quickly, you come to the Treffry Viaduct. It used to serve two purposes, with water flowing under the top to power the water wheel, which let the tramway move up the valley. All this to link mines in mid Cornwall with the coast – now, surrounded by trees, tracks long gone, it is incongruous.

Penare/Hemmick Beach

Hemmick Beach, accessed via a few-hundred metre walk from Penare car park.

A little SouthEast of Boswinger, this is another car park accessed by little lanes, which I found a little nerve-wracking, though we passed the few cars with no trouble. Given that we came through the school run earlier on the journey, and they were well-practised at leaving space and politely letting people through, it might be more trouble with slow-moving tourist traffic than quicker locals. There’s a lovely, fairly strenuous, walk round the point to The Dodman. Near there is a large cross, erected by the religious. I couldn’t really see why it was there until I looked at the shadow and realised that it’s a big plus.

The beach is gorgeous and reached down a fairly sharp downhill walk. It’s only a few hundred metres from the car park, but not a straightforward wander.

St Helens parkrun, England

St Helens parkrun route
St Helens parkrun route. A little wiggle from the middle, 3 laps, then a tour round the back of the mansion house to the finish.

I had a car load of Lego to take to Wigan, so took the chance to add a parkrun up there, too. With rain and wind forecast, cancellations were in the offing, but in the end this part of the country was spared – we certainly saw some rain early on, but from 8 till 11 on the day was clear, even sunny at times.

parkrun advertised on a signboard, along with walking in the park, and 'fit forever'
Exercise, including parkrun, advertised on a signboard.

Victoria Park is small but has everything you need. There’s a small, free, car park, with other parking on the roads around. The lodge at one end of the park has toilets (and is also used to store the event’s kit). Meet at the bandstand for the parkrun itself.

I took a friend with me for the trip North, and we stayed at The Bay Horse, Ashton in Markerfield, which is just a few miles from the park.

The bandstand is an obvious feature, though I couldn’t see it when I first wandered out of the car park, so took the opportunity to follow the course for a while, till it and people and Hi-Viz hoved into view. After a couple of “good morning”s, my first proper interaction was with a local who said, I kid you not, “turned out nice again“. His intonation was perfect, possibly he was actually quoting either from the film, or from Eric Idle’s theme to The Infinite Monkey Cage.

Flowers arranged in circular beds on an immaculate lawn
It is a pretty, well-maintained park.

People gathered around the bandstand in the sunshine
The bandstand.

The bandstand is a convenient spot to leave your kit – plenty of us took off long-sleeved tops and hung them over the railings. There are free hot drinks and cakes there afterwards, so chances are that volunteers are in attendance for the whole time. I’d have had no qualms about leaving a bag there, in any case.

The park is on a hill, and the route is 3 laps, so you get to run down and up a hill enough times to be thoroughly au-fait with it by the end. The start takes you onto the downward part, halfway along, the part alongside Bishop Road is fairly flat, then you climb next to City Road. It isn’t hugely steep, but it is pretty long, and I definitely felt it on the second time. And the third. That said, the total elevation is 31m, as against 62 for Sunny Hill last week, which explains why I ended up with a quicker time here.

The paths are wide and tarmacced, which is just as well because the event is well attended – some parts had puddles, but road shoes are always going to be fitting. We had 352, with 519 the record (1/1/19). If you get stuck, though, it is possible to go past people on the grass, though the field was pretty nicely stretched out after half a lap or so.

It’s a lovely event, and yet another to recommend. The St Helens 10k also goes through the park, and the rugby stadium is fairly near, so there are other reasons to visit, too. You could just wander round the park afterwards, spotting items of interest:

Results from St Helens parkrun, event 295, 22/2/20.

Sunny Hill parkrun, Hendon, England

Sunny Hill parkrun route
Sunny Hill parkrun route. A shorter loop at the top, then two figure of 8s, heading anti-clockwise. The hill is right in the middle.

It can be sunny, and wasn’t today, but the hills are a given. The course does a great job of fitting 5k into a fairly small park without feeling at all squashed, and still allowing room for dog walkers and those gathering for other sports to use the paths.

I drove, and parked in the small park car park, marked by a red square, above. The postcode given on the event site¬†would take you to the other side of the park, which I am sure is fine, but the car park is just off the A41, and easy to reach from the North (so long as you don’t miss the tight turn, and avoid the bollard). There is a sign to the park, but otherwise it looks like a driveway.

The meeting and briefing is by the finish, as shown on the map, though today we had a great, enthusiastic and clear first-timer’s briefing which pointed out the start, and there were enough first-timers there that once a few started to move to the start, we were unstoppable. The event director seemed happy enough to bring his briefing to the bench by the start instead of the usual spot. Rules. Made to be broken.

The start is downhill, then you turn left before the finish area – with the main hill straight on – to run round a relatively flat section at the top of the course. That hill is waiting, though, and once you’ve done that first loop, you head straight on, up the hill (shortish, steepish), turn right to go down it (longish, shallowish), then follow the path left to climb back up it (long, gradual, tough). Down again, a steeper descent and you’re back onto the first loop, before doing the same figure of 8 again.

Yes, the hill features four times. Brilliant training, and a tough course but a fair one, in the sense that there’s no long uphill then short sharp downhill – I felt I got a reward for pushing, and the hills were runnable, where at Wendover Woods, last week, I’d walked some of the ups.

Just next to the car park is the cafe (the toilets are also here), a log cabin, which will do you eggs, salad and toast, Mediterranean/Middle Eastern style. Excellent.

Don’t be put off by the hills – come for the welcome, enjoy feeling you’ve found a hidden gem, and a higher position than you’d get at an event with more participants, stay for the breakfast.

Results from Sunny Hill parkrun, event 46, 15/2/20.

Wendover Woods parkrun, England

Wendover Woods parkrun route
Wendover Woods parkrun route.

Wendover Woods is a Forestry Commission site, near Aylesbury and just off the A41. There’s loads of parking, for ¬£2.50/2 hours – download the Glide app if you want to avoid queues for the paystations (pay before you exit – the barriers are camera-operated) on busy days, though it was fine today. It is possible to park in one of the muddy areas on the main road and walk/jog up, though the drive is over a mile long.

Woods. Sign on the left says "Gruffalo orienteering course starts here!"
Start of the woods proper, a right turn after the toilet block takes you here.

The facilities are also good, and obvious – toilets and cafe, right near the start and finish. Everything you might need, really. The event is on good paths, though at this time of year you will hit the odd muddy or wet spot. Road shoes are fine, though, unless you’ve very comfortable trail shoes. Even then, it’s probably overkill – I went through the muddy patches and got splashed, but didn’t slip.

Open view over the countryside off to the right
One of several viewpoints on the route.

From the start you head away from the facilities, make a turn and go back past them, with a marshal making sure you don’t go straight into the bollard next to the toilets, shown in the picture below. A right-turn later, and you’re into the woods for the rest of the course, with the first open viewpoint appearing on your right shortly after. The mix of tree-lined paths and occasional wide-open views is a grand one, and being on a one-lap course is also a relatively rare treat.

Potential hazard on the course, well-marshalled for the event, as you run past the toilet block
A marshal stands in front of the bollard as you run by.

As the run director was careful to warn us, much of the first half is downhill (though an uphill section comes earlier than I’d expected), which makes for a mostly uphill second half. That makes it feel pretty tough, though it doesn’t take in as much elevation as, say, Tring, which is nearby.

Tall trees along the right of the course, by the start and finish
Start and finish area. Tall trees!

It’s a glorious event, even on a cold day. On a warm one, I’m not sure I’d leave the woods, but I was happy enough to head off given that it was chilly. I didn’t even mind my miscounting – I was after an event 75, and this was 74, so I’d not checked closely enough. But the event number doesn’t matter – just know that you’re in for a lot of woods, and you’ll be heading past a whole lot of views and paths that warrant a further look, later on, if you have time and conditions for it.

Tall trees and green grass in the park
View of the park.

Results from Wendover Woods parkrun, event 74, 8/2/20.

Kingdom parkrun, Kent, England

Kingdom parkrun route
Kingdom parkrun route. 3 laps, anti-clockwise.

Kingdom is a members-only cycling club, with a cafe and gym, near Penshurst, Kent. They are happy to enjoy the synergy of having people run in their woods, then head hungrily to the cafe afterwards.

Grassy area with bare trees, under a blue sky
View down the hill from near the start.

With Tonbridge parkrun re-starting after three weeks of cancellations, numbers were down a little, but still saw 143 finishers (against over 200 in the three previous weeks).

I arrived at 8:35 and was one of the last to slot into the car park – with 60 spots, it won’t take everyone, but they did a great job at squeezing us in, especially given other fitness groups using the grounds and gym. Overflow parking is – carefully – along Grove Road, which also works just fine with a bit of management.

Mud and a puddle on the ground near a corner
Plenty of mud around the course. Here you can avoid it. In other places, not so much.

You can’t miss the meeting point once you’re anywhere near, and the briefing was good and clear. Three laps, then into the finish funnel. The start is downhill, which makes the finish a fairly cruel up, though at least it’s on gravel, rather than mud. There is plenty of mud on the course, which didn’t bother me in road shoes when going carefully, but you’d want something with more grip to push the pace at all.

Tailwalkers cross the start line under a bright, low, sun. One in yellow high-vis, the other orange, and walking a dog
Tailwalkers cross the start line on their final lap.

The route switches back on itself a few times which means, when combined with the three laps, you get plenty of chance to see other people, even if you’re having a solitary walk or run. Simplified, you could say the route is a long gentle down, then a long gentle up, though there is some respite in that. It is never steep, always manageable, though I’ll admit I wasn’t pushing too hard. Had I been, there’s a fairly long uphill section, leading to another one after a short break, before the final uphill bit to the finish which would have found me out. The more I think about it, the tougher that looms in my memory.

Elevation map below. It might be a slight net downhill, given that the finish doesn’t climb quite up to where you start.

Down, then up, and repeat, on the elevation map
Kingdom parkrun route elevation map.

A gate ahead of people gathered at the finish, post activity. Trees surround the area, under blue skies
View of parkrun activity from the car park.

The atmosphere was jolly, helped by a quipping run director and blue skies overhead. A group of youngsters got busy with mountain climbers, push ups and more off to our right; I can’t tell if they watched enviously or were happier in what they did, but it’s a big on the exercise atmosphere. A group were doing some yoga indoors as I headed off. I enjoyed my run in the mud, among the trees and along with a crowd of all ages, and with several dogs.

People drift away from the finish line. Wooden structure behind, above an area used for fitness training
Finish line.

Results from Kingdom parkrun event 42, 1/2/20.

Rothwell parkrun, Yorkshire

Rothwell parkrun route
Rothwell parkrun route. 2 1.8km laps, one shorter.

In case you’re wondering; yes, many people have commented on the shape. I’ll say no more.

Rothwell is South of the centre of Leeds, easily reached from surrounding areas. I came from Pontefract, and it took about 20minutes. There’s plenty of parking – I went past the event car park, turned right after following another car park sign, didn’t see another at the next junction and parked very near the start, in Park Lane. It’s a wide road, so there’s space to park – in places, on both sides. It’s the road shown beyond the park in the picture below.

Crowd gathered at the start
Crowd gathered at the start.

The run is on tarmacced paths, with grassy areas to the side allowing a large crowd to find its pace and spread out. It’s not totally flat, with a climb up to the decision point – left for laps 1 and 2, right on lap 3. Then the course drops as you head back to the start, before a long flat section along the North and East of the park.

I got round, happy in the crowd, and ‘actually running’ for the third week in a row. Scanning was quick at the end, and I sat briefly on the grassy bank that looks over the finish funnel, before scooting back to Pontefract to catch up with friends, post-run. The obvious reaction to that is “Wait! why not run Pontefract parkrun?” and it’s a good question, and testament to tourist madness. I ran Pontefract back in 2011, so fancied a new run, while a friend ran Pontefract in order to pick up the “Full Ponty” badge from the running challenges.

Results from Rothwell parkrun event 124, 25/1/20.

For more from Pontefract, see the Jan 30, 2020 episode of With Me Now.

Penrose parkrun, Cornwall, England

Penrose parkrun route
Penrose parkrun route. Out and back, North to South.

At the end of a week in Penzance, after Land’s End parkrun last weekend, I went to the next-nearest run to the town; 15 miles away, and about a 25 minute drive. As you can see from the map above, it is close to both Helston and Porthleven. The latter has very pretty beaches, and gives access to the South West Coastal Path.

The course, has changed. It used, as far as I can figure out, to start from nearer the National Trust car park, in the middle of the estate, and moved when they had to do work on that car park. It is now an out and back from next to the free car park by the side of Flora motors, off Porthleven road. It is a big, potholed car park, though with nearly 300 runners, it was pretty full by the start time. The run now heads from the gate that marks the entry to the estate, along a slightly winding and slightly undulating route past Loe Pond.

Crowd at the run briefing
Crowd at the run briefing.

There are toilets back up the road (away from the estate) at the Lakeside cafe, which is in as pretty a situation as it sounds.

A cold start meant some runs had had to cancel, but there was no ice, only mud, on this course, which is surrounded by trees. The path is wide enough for everyone to pass, as quicker runners reach the turnaround and fly back – almost literally in the case of today’s leader, who got to the finish in 13:58 behind his dog. Friendly runners called out “keep left!” as he and others (a couple of minutes later) came past, so any overtaking is best postponed till you can see the way is clear.

A fairly typical start at Penrose
A fairly typical start at Penrose.

Although locals miss the old course, this is still a pretty run. It’s fast, too. There’s a little hill heading up to the turnaround point, but that means your second half starts downhill; perfect if you want to remind yourself to keep the effort up. There was a nice crowd of nearly 300 people there, which made for a bunched start but soon spread out along the trail. For me, it’s another National Trust course covered, and I took advantage of the sun and clear conditions after a stormy week to head to the coast and see The Lizard, England’s Southern-most point. I parked in the village, rather than at the National Trust car park at the point; it’s a km or so to walk to the point, and then you can walk several different distances along the coastal path, with plenty of cut-throughs back to the village. Might need wellies for some of them after rainy weather, mind.

Results from Penrose parkrun, event 254, 18/1/20.

Land’s End parkrun

Land's End parkrun route
Land’s End parkrun route. Approx 1 mile out and back, then three anti-clockwise loops at bottom left.

Booked to stay in Cornwall for two Saturdays, I had a choice of many lovely and tempting parkruns. They’d all be tempting anyway, by virtue of being so far from my usual locations, but there are plenty of National Trust, scenic, riverside or other factors. In the end, I chose the new one at Land’s End; scenic, new and at the very Southwestern extreme of England.

Land's End sign
Land’s End complex.

There’s masses of parking; the event page says it’s free to parkrunners, so I ignored the pay and display sign and put a barcode on my dashboard just in case. It seemed that on this quiet January day, with the attractions all closed for maintenance, no one was checking. There are kiosks at the entry, so perhaps in busier times you will flash a barcode at them. At any rate, I don’t know exactly how it works, but it worked just fine.

There are toilets in the main building – the doors in the passageway behind the columns, above. That passageway is also the way to the meeting point, just behind and to the right.

The run director has a megaphone, which may not be needed for the numbers on a January day, but is for the windy surroundings. This was as windy a day as they’ve had here, though there will be windier ones. The short laps go fairly close to the edge and though there is a wide path there, very windy days will probably lead to cancellation. Today was fine, though people (okay, me) on their first short lap tended to stick close to the left hand side, lest a sudden gust lift them into the air. On the second and third, knowing it wouldn’t, we used most of the path. With a little left over for safety.

The route is very straightforward to follow, with marshals massing near the start/finish, to make sure you take the right turns. The start goes down the exit road, which is closed for a few minutes for that purpose, then takes a left onto a path with several sharp turns – there’s plenty of space, just stick to the left for the sake of people coming back the other way. Keep going till you meet the turnaround marshal, run around their cone and back. At the end you don’t go onto the exit road, but use the narrower stony path beside it, heading onto the three short laps. All you have to remember, as the run director told us, is that you pass the ‘first and last’ house three times, then finish. Easy.

There’s a very nice cafe on site; they’ll happily sell you a beer, too, if you want to celebrate more than usual.

I loved the event. It isn’t totally unpopulated, and at least one person walked from their nearby house to volunteer, but most people will travel from the near area and there’s an air of excitement at being here to run or walk. As always, highly recommended and plenty of fun.

Results from Land’s End parkrun, event 9, 11/1/20.

Bakewell parkrun

Bakewell parkrun route
Bakewell parkrun route. Out and back, left then right.

I booked to stay in the Peak District, with Bakewell my nearest parkrun. I figured I’d probably do it, it being so, but when I mentioned it to people I got many knowing nods, mmms and oohs. A good one? I asked, rhetorically.

Why, yes! It’s on the Monsal Trail, 8.5 miles of old railway track, once a main line between London and Manchester, serving the industry in the region. Now not only do you have a flat, wide track to walk on, with side paths taking you off into the hills and nature reserves around, but you can run through the old railway tunnels and pretend to be a train.

The course doesn’t go through those tunnels, they’re a couple of kilometres further along, but I think it’s worth the trip. The YHA at Ravenstor is about 5 miles from the start at Hassop station, so I imagined several tourists making the jog down in the morning, or at least being joined by people along the way. But no; although it is a predominantly tourist run, most stay in Bakewell, it seems, or park at Bakewell station and walk up (about a mile).

The run director made a feature of the tourism. “Normally,” she said, “I’d ask if we had any tourists.” (At this point, one over-keen bod was too keen to announce themselves, heard what they wanted to hear and stuck their hand up.) “But here, we ask if we have any locals!” And only a smattering of hands went up.

It’s a very simple route. Out for 2.5km, turn round cones under a bridge, and head back. Stay left, and keep off the trail until the event starts. Simple. It’s slightly up on the way out, so the return is quicker than the first half. I can recommend the journey to and from Ravenstor, though I was accompanied by just as many people on my way back as on my way there: none.

Whet your appetite with photos of the Monsal Trail.

Results from Bakewell parkrun event 90, 12/10/19.

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