Bethlem Royal Hospital parkrun

Posted on: 19 Oct 2019

I had a new parkrun experience this week when I headed off to Bethlem Royal Hospital.  Parkrun takes place at all sorts of venues.  In the last year alone I have run around the grounds of a stately home, round some school playing fields, round a vineyard, round an airfield, over the Severn Bridge and around the gardens of the Eden Project.   But I have never before run around the grounds of a working hospital.

Bethlem is to be found in the district of Beckenham, which is part of the south London suburban sprawl, just to the east of Croydon.  I have been to this area quite a few times on my parkrun journey.  There seems to be a large cluster of parkruns in and around Croydon and, just when you think you’ve done them all,  a new one pops up.

Bethlem Royal Hospital has a surprisingly long history dating back to the Middle Ages.  It was founded in 1247 and was originally the Priory of the New Order of our Lady of Bethlehem, situated in Bishopsgate.  Bethlem was a hospital in the medieval sense which was "an institution supported by charity or taxes for the care of the needy"  It provided a refuge for the poor of London and for those making a pilgrimage.  Medical care only developed in later centuries.  As a religious institution, Bethlem was one of the few medieval hospitals to survive the dissolution of the monasteries.

From the fourteenth century, Bethlem had been referred to colloquially as "Bedleheem", "Bedleem" or "Bedlam". Initially "Bedlam" was an informal name but from approximately the Jacobean era the word entered everyday speech to signify a state of madness, chaos, and the irrational nature of the world.  It is not quite clear when Bethlem began caring for the insane but a Lord Mayor of London, William Gregory, writing in around 1450 describes the place thus.  “A Church of Our Lady that is named Bedlam. And in that place be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man”

If in previous centuries medical care was rather primitive then the treatment of the mentally ill could be positively barbaric.  Patients could be beaten or starved or kept chained to a wall.  Bedlam later became a visitor attraction for Londoners, a kind of human zoo.  If you were being charitable you might suggest that the visitors were coming to show concern or offer financial assistance.  But more likely it was a case of “let’s go and look at the lunatics!”

Bethlem has moved its premises three times in its history.  It remained in its original home in Bishopsgate for four centuries but then, in 1676, it moved to a purpose built building in Moorfields, East London.  In 1815 it then moved to St George’s Fields, Southwark to the building that now houses the Imperial War Museum.  Finally, in 1930, it moved to its present location in Monks Orchard Road in Beckenham.  From the name I am assuming that there used to be a monastery with an orchard here.  I do know that there was a manor house on the site but that this was demolished to make way for the hospital buildings.  In 1948 the hospital was absorbed into the NHS.  Nowadays they treat patients with a wide variety of mental disorders including psychosis, anxiety and depression.  There is a specialist unit for dealing with disturbed adolescents also a unit which deals with some of the mental problems associated with old age.  There is an occupational therapy unit which has pioneered, amongst other things, the use of art as a form of therapy.  Unusually the hospital boasts a museum and an art gallery devoted to some of its former residents which have included well known artists such as Richard Dadd and Louis Wain.

It is possible that parkrun has a role to play in promoting mental health.  Parkrun combines two of the greatest things in the world - healthy physical exercise and friendly supportive social interaction.  There is a longer article on the subject at this link   Perhaps the organisers had this fact in mind when they started up the parkrun here in May of this year.  It has proved fairly popular although numbers were down somewhat this morning.  I’m not sure if it was the mud or the England/Australia game which was to blame!

The course at Bethlem takes place on some grassy fields at the northern end of the hospital grounds.  It comprises two laps of a figure of eight course around the two large fields with a path through a strip of woodland in the middle.  It’s largely flat though, with all the rain we’ve been having lately, it can be a bit squishy underfoot.  A course around muddy fields is perhaps my least favourite but I pulled on my trail shoes and gave it a go.  My level of fitness is still pretty poor but I would give it my best shot.

I thought I was running relatively briskly in the early stages but clearly I wasn’t as the faster runners shot off into the distance.  I tried to keep a steady pace going and passed the end of the first lap in around 12:40.  On the second lap I seemed to be going slower and so I was relieved to finally see the finish up ahead and plodded down the final muddy path.  43rd place in 26:50.  I was pleased to have visited Bethlem and met the nice folk there but I  was pretty disappointed with my weary plod around the fields.  Better luck next week.

My statistics for today - that was parkrun venue number 209. I was surprisingly first in my age group and 27th overall on age graded scores.

I couldn’t find any video of the course so I shall leave you with a couple of photos.  This is what it looks like (albeit a lot muddier today!)

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