Richmond Park bans cross-country racing

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Will Cockerell slams a decision by The Royal Parks to stop cross-country events in its largest public park

When once asked if all the technology he was introducing to the world was changing it for the worse, into a more soulless, less romantic place, Bill Gates replied: “Don’t worry, whatever I do will never replace the treasured words ‘let’s go climb a mountain, let’s go for a picnic’.”

Words that do descend the world into a joyless place, though, are these from the Royal Parks: “Unfortunately, we are no longer accepting cross country events in Richmond Park as we feel these are not suitable for the park being a SSSI [site of special scientific interest] and NNR [Natural nature reserve].”

It’s the easiest, most brutal, draconian of cop-outs for the bureaucrats who have been tasked with preserving the park’s indescribable beauty and, for sure, I think it’s the greatest park in the world. But it’s not as if we’re asking to put on races in the Isabella Plantation for goodness sake.

And it’s not as if local councils and Parks officials have been blameless themselves over the generations. The myriad and many council skyscrapers that overlook the park, ruin countless of its views and are a huge blotch on the Mona Lisa. Busy roads carve up the park from all angles. The car parks are enormous. But some runners scampering along its trails, keeping fit, improving their health, taking priceless joy from nature? No. Scrap them. The degenerate hooligans.

Thames Hare and Hounds is the oldest cross-country club in the world and they too have just been thrown out of the park. Their Parkland relays each June are as low-key and grassroots as it gets. A team even for those who fancy a three-mile time trial for their beloved club or manufactured-for-the-night team. Lots of children take part too – my son first did the course aged five and is now one of the leading runners in Surrey a decade on – thanks to events like this instilling him a love of sport and fitness. The conditions are baked, like running on concrete. The atmosphere is surreal in its beauty, friendliness and magisterial splendour – it’s like being dropped into another world. A vast majority will have come from stressful jobs in town, and suddenly they’re in this parallel paradise, a heaven on earth, that reminds them of the joy of life, which they may have felt was in quite short supply in the 14 hours since 6am.

Mo Farah training in Richmond Park (Mark Shearman)

My first cross-country race in Richmond Park was in January 1999 and as we cantered down the long ride, toward the Ballet school, I instantly realised, that by some distance, I had seen the most beautiful sight of my life. And I don’t change that opinion nearly quarter of a century later. Yes, the magnificent surrounds helped, but what really made the image was the 150 souls all around me, at one with nature. I was instantly inspired to have one of the best races of my career. It’s still one of the best, happiest days of my life. I never missed a race there for the next generation – hooked on running for life.

The thing about Richmond, and what makes it cross-country nirvana is that it’s usually very firm and fast. And we use around 4% of the park? My family and I often go ‘off-piste” for our walks, and it’s far muddier there than it ever gets at the Surrey League.

Racing in Richmond Park in 1965

The power that these directives have is astonishing, their brutality and insistence to destroy quality of human life untold. Will the huge commercial events they charge the big bucks for remain? Will the superb Richmond parkrun remain – around a kilometre of which is on grass – in all sorts of terrible conditions, with 400 runners cantering away each Saturday morning? Can you imagine the pushback if they tried to cancel that too?

There should be events in life that are listed, ring-fenced and deemed safe from the bureaucrats and the dissemblers, and cross-country running is clearly one. Yes, occasionally some turf may get scuffed, but two questions: will it right itself? An overwhelming yes, and quickly too. And who really minds? Maybe 1 in 200. And that’s who these directives are really for. Then there’s the odd park walker who loathe cross-country, as it interrupts their daily stroll. One moment they’re walking along, the next they have to get out of the way, to make way for the runners. They may even have to put their dogs on the lead. Perhaps one race a year, I hear one spectator bellowing abuse at us: “You f***ing people, this is our park, not yours!” They may also fire off a letter to the council. I will probably run past, what, 10,000 spectators over the course of my 10 cross-country runs per winter all over England? But that one curmudgeon – goodness do they try to make themselves heard.

Jo Pavey running in Richmond Park (Mark Shearman)

I very much hope that with enough push back from the community that these draconian, short-sighted, joyless sanctions will be lifted or adjusted in the coming months and years. Yes, the odd worm, caterpillar or even butterfly will rest less easy if they do, and yes some small stretches of the hundreds of miles of pathways in the park, will look a tad more rutted for a few weeks after a busy event but, for goodness sake, look at the upside too, about how cross-country promotes human health and happiness.

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