1 July 2017
This Saturday the Pretty Muddy Race For Life 5k was taking place on The Common so, once again, parkrun was cancelled. This time we decided to go to Moors Valley Country Park to check out the parkrun there. When the boys were young we used to take them there to enjoy all the colourful sculptures and climbing frames built from trees felled by the great storm of October 1987. When he first began running, Commando ran a 5k race there too. All in all I was pretty sure I’d find plenty to amuse me while he ran today.
Moors Valley is in Ashley Heath in the New Forest straddling the border between Hampshire and Dorset. Obviously we had to leave a fair bit earlier than usual but it was a beautiful morning so it was no hardship. We managed to find the Country Park with no major issues and parked up in the pretty car park surrounded by tall pines. Commando had done his research and discovered parkrunners would only have to pay £1 to park, as long as they left the park by 10.45. Even so, it took us a bit of head scratching and the assistance of a local parkrunner to work out we had to put the car registration in the ticket machine and press Leaving Now before paying.
We were walking towards the Visitor Centre, still not entirely sure where the parkrun would start, when Commando stopped dead right in front of me. As I was looking around for signs of the start line I almost clattered into the back of him.
“Look,” he said pointing at the ground.
I looked. I couldn’t see anything but stones and pine needles. Just when I thought he was going mad or seeing things a tiny little frog hopped from one stone to the next. As soon as it stopped moving I lost it again but, eventually, I managed to take a photograph. It was so minuscule the gravelly stones looked like boulders and the pine needles like fallen branches. How he’d ever spotted it in the first place beats me but I’m glad I didn’t tread on it by accident.
Moments later we saw Ian and his wife walking towards the parking machine. At least Commando wouldn’t be the only Spitfire. We explained the bizarre car parking process to Ian and then set off together to find the start line. With around one thousand acres of park this might have proved tricky. Originally this was farmland but, in 1984, East Dorset District Council bought the eighty two acre Kings Farm and began to build a Country Park. It opened in 1988 with a nine hole golf course using the old farmhouse as the club house, a narrow gauge steam railway, a lake and a play area. Two years on it was obvious the council had underestimated how popular such a place would be. They bought a further one hundred and seventy acres of land and expanded. The golf course got bigger, a second lake was built and the tree top trail I remember walking with the boys all those years ago, was constructed. These days it’s even larger and is one of the most popular parks in the South of England.
We were still dithering by the visitor centre, a beautiful reclaimed barn, transported from Manor Farm Easton Royal, in Wiltshire and rebuilt here in 1987, when John, Rachel and Kate arrived. As John is the Event Director at Southampton parkrun and he, Rachel and Kate are Run Directors there, we were in good company. If they couldn’t find the start between them then we really were in trouble.
In the end it turned out to be far easier than expected. We simply followed at steady stream of runners who were beginning to appear and we were soon standing in front of a huge totem pole with wings marked Walking and Cycling along with a few marshals and local parkrunners.
Moments after I’d taken a group photo Sarah, Alan and Chris arrived. There was no time to take another one though because the Run Director was giving her briefing. I managed to snatch a quick shot of Sarah with Commando before everyone began to line up for the start.
Moors Valley is another relatively new parkrun venue. The first run was on 7 November 2015 and the average turnout is just under three hundred. We swelled the numbers by eight, nine if you include non running me. With no less than three of our number Run Directors, four with more than one hundred parkruns under their belts, two Spitfire Run Leaders and John and Rachel who started the club, there was certainly no shortage of experience amongst the day’s visitors.
Pretty soon they were off. It didn’t take long for all the runners to pass the totem pole and disappear down the tree lined lane. Once the tail runner had passed by I set about finding the finish line. At most parkruns the start and finish lines are in more or less the same place. This is not the case with Moors Valley.
Feeling a little lost I headed back towards the car park, hoping to spot a sign of some kind or a helpful marshal. What I saw made me wonder if getting up extra early had frazzled my brain. Bigfoot was striding along the road by the car park as bold as brass. Quickly I raised the camera and took a photo. Maybe I could sell it to the press, after all, sightings of Bigfoot are rare and photographs even rarer. Of course I wasn’t sure he wasnt just a figment of my imagination until later when I looked at my photos. He really was there though and he appeared to be wearing trainers. Obviously he wasn’t a parkruner in fancy dress as they’d already started running and he was going in the wrong direction. Who he was and what he was doing I never did find out. Maybe he was the real Bigfoot?
While I was still wandering around, slightly shell shocked and more than a little lost, I bumped into the Run Director and a couple of marshals. For a moment or two I thought about asking if they knew anything about Bigfoot but I decided they might think I’d gone mad and call the paramedics. Instead I asked where the finish line was. They kindly led me there. The views were stunning at our last parkrun tourism adventure, at Fareham Creek, but the little lake the marshalls led me to was prettier still. It was surrounded by trees, had a small reedbed, a wooden bridge and was filled with ducks. Much to my delight, there was even a swan.
At Southampton parkrun a team of wonderfully dedicated volunteers arrive a good hour before the event and begin setting out the start line, course notices and finish funnel. Here it seems the marshals don’t set up the finish funnel until the event is underway. With half an eye on the lake and the swan I watched as they began the familiar process of putting up poles and chains. It was a much shorter funnel than I’m used to but of course this is a much smaller parkrun.
The lake was dug in 1985 to help control flooding along the lower part of the Moors River and the river now feeds the shallow nine acre lake. There are fishing bays around the perimeter. Fishing is allowed between 16 June and 14 March. Apparently there are roach, rudd, tench, perch and dace in the water but, today, there were no fishermen, at least I saw none.
What I did see, apart from the lone swan, was a lovely carved dragonfly Sticking up from the lake like another totem pole. There were also some lily pads with flowers almost ready to open. Sadly we seemed to have left the blue sky behind in Southampton, otherwise it would have been a perfect view.
Much as I’d have liked to explore the lake further, I knew from my conversation with the marshals that the last kilometre of the course was around the lake and over the little wooden bridge. It seemed sensible to stay well away, even though it would still be a little while before the first of the runners appeared. The finish funnel was now complete and, across the grass, I could see a bridge of some kind and some other structures. A quick look at my watch told me there was just about enough time to have a look.
The bridge looked very much like a miniature railway bridge. When I reached the top I saw this was exactly what it was. Below me there were two children’s play areas, one with higgaldy piggaldy houses and a wooden train, the other with teepee like structures and adventure playground equipment. There were also the rails of the Moors Valley Country Park Miniature Railway, opened in July 1986, while the country park was still being built. Created by steam engine enthusiast Jim Haylock, it is the longest fully signalled narrow gauge railway in the south of England. Jim started out as a carpet fitter but, in 1980, his love of steam trains led him to sell his Croydon shop and set up a miniature railway in the Tucktonia theme park in Christchurch. Five years later he moved his railway to Moors Valley where the council were busy creating the Country Park.
My vantage point on the bridge also gave me a birds eye view of the lake and the surrounding park. A little knot of marshals were sitting around on benches and a few parkrun spectators like me were dotted about. I could even see the swan, although he was just a tiny white dot from this distance.
A little way off I could see another bridge, like the one I was on, beside what looked like a small station. There was still no sign of any runners so I climbed down and went to investigate. The little station is called Lakeside and it was once one of the old King’s Farm buildings. In fact Jim Haylock made good use of all the remaining farm buildings, he turned cattle stalls into carriage and engine sheds and a milking parlour into an engineering workshop. The railway began with a single track looping around the children’s play area and one station, Lakeside.
The little station building with its black cladding and chimney was so sweet I couldn’t help wondering what the original building had been. Perhaps it was a farm worker’s cottage? Today there are two stations, Lakeside and Kingsmere, along with double track, four tunnels, and twenty one trains. The trains are large enough for the driver to sit inside, giving an authentic steam locomotive feel. Sadly, I didn’t see any. Jim’s nephew, Tim Wortin now runs the railway with a team of volunteers. The oldest of these is Ken Clay, at ninety one, he’s the oldest guard in the country.
A marshal, the solitary scanner for the race, was standing by the station and I asked her if she knew how quickly the first parunners usually finished.
“You’ll know when they’re coming,” she said, “there’s a marshal on the bridge before the funnel who rings a bell when they come past.”
This seemed like an especially sensible idea but, just to be on the safe side, I thought I’d better head back towards the funnel anyway and get ready. Not long after I’d taken a practise shot of the place where the runners would appear, right next to the dragonfly sculpture, I heard the bell. Moments later the first runner came around the corner.
It wasn’t long before John appeared, closely followed by Ian. Next was a man in a striped shirt bearing the word Bristol. He was also wearing a veil and waving a wand. I’m fairly sure he was getting married this weekend. Kate wasn’t far behind him.
Commando was next. He may have been slower than he’d have liked but he was smiling and sticking his tongue out at me as I snapped his photo. Somehow, in the excitement I missed Chris crossing the finish line so I took his photo on the field instead.
Sarah made a real sprint finish of it. She came tearing up behind the woman in front of her and overtook her at the last moment. The poor woman probably wondered what on earth was going on. A little while after this a mother and daughter came past. Both were smiling but the mother seemed tired while the daughter was almost flying and looked as if she could easily do it all again. Alan, Sarah’s husband, was next with a sprint finish of his own, overtaking a lady in a pink t-shirt and jazzy leggings. Poor Rachel had no chance for her own sprint. A mother and son were blocking her way. The son seemed more than a little reluctant and his mother had to almost drag him across the line.
Now every one of the tourists had finished runnng and was gathered in the field discussing the course. It’s just one lap, which is always a good thing and apparently it’s also fairly flat, another bonus. The first 4K is gravel track through woodland and the final 1k is around the lake on tarmac. Everyone agreed it was worth adding to the list of alternative parkruns when Southampton is closed.
With a little more time we could have stopped for coffee at the visitor centre, or even gone for a ride on the trains. We did stop to use the visitor centre loos but, with the long drive home ahead and the need to leave the car park by 10.45, we decided to give it a miss this time. Maybe next time?
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