This week parkrun is celebrating International Women’s Day, a cause I am always happy to support. When I started running back in the 1970s, you would not see women taking part in running events. Indeed they were barred from running longer distances; it was thought that distance running was far too demanding for their delicate little bodies. Well that was then and this is now. Nowadays when I travel to a parkrun I find that many of the participants and the volunteers are women and the events are so much better as a result.
For my parkrun today I headed back up the M1 to the town of Houghton Regis and Houghton Hall park. Houghton Regis has a history dating back many centuries. It began as a peaceful little village in the Bedfordshire countryside, more recently grew into a medium sized town and nowadays could more accurately be described as a suburb of Luton. The name is of Anglo Saxon origin - Hoe meaning “spur of a hill” and Tun meaning a village or settlement. The Regis bit indicates that the land was originally the property of the crown. It is recorded in the Domesday book as Houstone and later in the Middle Ages as Kyngshoutone. For much of its history Houghton Regis was an insignificant little place. A few of its old buildings still remain such as All Saints Parish Church and also Houghton Hall, of which more later.
After the Second World War the area was earmarked for “London Overspill” development. Large new housing estates were built for Londoners moving out of the capital. The newcomers worked in the industries of Luton or on some of the new industrial estates in the area. Unfortunately much of the character of the old village was lost and there are only a few remnants of the old Houghton. The spread of housing and industry meant that the adjoining towns of Luton, Dunstable and Houghton have pretty much merged together to form a small conurbation.
Houghton Hall is one of the few survivors from those earlier days. The land here was acquired by Henry Brandreth in 1652 as a reward for his support for parliament in the English Civil War. He never actually lived here but his daughter Alice commissioned the building of a new manor house in 1692 and was able to move into the new property in the year 1700. Succeeding generations of the Brandreth family developed the land to the south of the house, turning it into a parkland in the style of Capability Brown. The Brandreth family sold Houghton Hall to Sir Dealtry Part in 1913 who lived there until well after the second World War. He loved hunting and became Master of the Hertfordshire Hunt. The kennels for the hounds were kept on Houghton Green and it is said that the hounds could even be heard in Dunstable. The footpath from Dunstable to Houghton is known as Dog Kennel Walk because it used to lead to the kennels.
Houghton Hall still stands, although nowadays it is used as offices. The parkland was acquired, thanks to a lottery grant, by the local council and is nowadays open to the public as a recreational area, comprising around 42 acres. There are a few remnants of the formal gardens which adjoined the house, but mostly it is open parkland with areas of woodland. There is a car park and visitor centre in the south east corner.
Houghton Hall parkrun began just before Christmas 2017 and was up to run number 147 today. The course consists of one longer lap including a loop round the woods and two shorter laps on the paths around the perimeter. It is fairly flat and a lot of it on hard surfaces. It’s not the fastest course ever but certainly not the slowest.
There were 190 starters there this morning, about average for Houghton Hall, on a day that was rather cold and grey with a hint of drizzle. We started on a path that was rather narrow so I found myself rather boxed in at the beginning and it took me a little while to find some clear space to run. I settled in at around twentieth place, taking it easy on the more uneven parts then stretching out on the smooth paths. On the third lap we had the extra hazard of weaving through the lapped runners. Anyway, it all went fine. I wondered if I could improve on my 21:30 from last week but the seconds ticked past and I crossed the line in 22:08, good enough for 22nd place. I was perfectly happy with that and I was pleased to have finally made it to Houghton Hall. It’s been on my ‘to do’ list for a little while.
My statistics for today. That was parkrun venue number 248. I was first in my age group and sixth overall on age graded scores.
If you would like a little glimpse of the course, here’s Richard Bazeley’s report from a few months ago.
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