Hands off our marathon, Branson

London Marathon 2008

The Evening Standard might have changed ownership, but its hatred of south-east London continues. Today’s paper puffs up Richard Branson’s latest wheeze – to change the route of the London Marathon. It seems we’re not good enough down here for Branson, whose Virgin brand takes on the race’s sponsorship from next April.

Speaking exclusively to the Standard, Sir Richard, who plans to run the Marathon for the first time next year, acknowledged that the current 26-mile, 385-yard route does not showcase London at its best.

He said: “I would like readers of the Standard to come up with a better route. We’re very open to ideas.” The change is one of a package of measures being considered to make next year’s race on 25 April “more fun and glamorous”.

Trouble is, anyone with who’s actually familiar with the capital will be well aware that you simply cannot make a 26-mile route through London “more fun and glamorous” without including some less sparkly bits. The current route, little altered since 1981, starts at Blackheath, runs through Charlton, then turns back at Woolwich, back through Charlton, Greenwich, Deptford, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Tower Bridge, loops through Wapping, Poplar and the Isle of Dogs before hugging the Thames through the City and Westminster, ending either at The Mall or Westminster Bridge.

Trafalgar RoadIn fact, if anything, the course – designed to minimise road closures, particularly on the Thames bridges – was actually originally designed to show off some of London’s great landmarks.

Described as “magnificent” by its founder Chris Brasher, who died in 2003, the course was commended by the tourist board for passing the Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, the riverside, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. In fact, the route’s got more glitzy over the years anyway – the first marathon followed the closure of the east London docks, and much of the route was then an industrial wasteland. Now it passes through capitalism’s shiniest monuments, alongside historic landmarks and ordinary homes. Add the London Eye, Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern to the new sights over the past three decades, and you’ve managed the majority of “must see” sights you’d persuade a tourist to visit.

But the Standard’s consumer business editor (eh?) Jonathan Prynn writes: “The marathon begins in Blackheath and ends in The Mall, but for 24 miles runners are forced to pound the streets of east London [sic] where crowds are often thin and “sights” few and far between.

“Only small sections of the course are by the river or in parks and apart from Buckingham Palace, little of “tourist London” is seen by the runners.”

So, clearly, the problem is us. Blackheath, Greenwich, Charlton, Deptford, Woolwich, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey clearly are not good enough for Richard Branson. And are not good enough for the Evening Standard, either. “This newspaper takes a fundamentally optimistic view of life, of London and Londoners,” says editor Geordie Greig. Clearly not when it comes to south-east London, though.

For me, it’s one of the highlights of the year, a terrific community event which gets people out and enjoying themselves. It’s a great booster for local businesses; pubs are packed out at 11am, shops and cafes do healthy trade and the whole place smells of sweat and bacon sandwiches for a morning. It’s a real people’s occasion – something which marks it out from, say, the Lord Mayor’s Show or Trooping The Colour.

It’s mostly ordinary runners, passing the homes of ordinary people (and often, their own homes). For visitors, the race is also relatively easy to follow by public transport, with both local rail and Docklands Light Railway following the route – both offering unique views of the race you can’t get by Tube.

I don’t know if anyone wants to make Jonathan Prynn read an A-Z, but only small sections of London road are by the Thames – a marathon that used, say, Chelsea Embankment would still end up having to go through drab streets once Cheyne Walk swings away to Earl’s Court. And parkland doesn’t make for good TV viewing – or a decent atmosphere, as campaigners who’ve wanted to keep the Notting Hill Carnival in W11 will testify.

Maybe that’s where Branson wants the route to run – Notting Hill, the heartland of the Standard’s imagined readership and the tycoon’s old stamping ground. But you’d only end up swapping, say, Woolwich (with its distinctive barracks) for Shepherd’s Bush (with its Westfield shopping centre), and how would West End stores feel about losing a day’s trade because nobody can cross the road? Branson hasn’t thought it through properly – and nor has the Standard, which should know better than to jump on this with such glee. Clearly, though, the paper hasn’t changed its spots since the takeover, despite what its editor says.

Like many of Branson’s schemes, hopefully this will die a quiet death. As for the Standard, I suspect that fate is due anyway once its new owner’s money runs out. Time for another round of ‘Sorry’ billboards, Geordie?


  1. Its a typical Branson PR wheeze. They wouldn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t change they route. But a nice exclusive puff for Virgin in the Standard and he’ll make it sound like he’s going to listen to readers of that vile rag.

    Don’t worry old boy. There’ll be blokes dressed as gorillas running past your doorstep for years to come. And the marathon might go past too.

  2. If the normal marathon route’s too drab, maybe Richard would like to change the route of the 2012 Olympic Marathon too. Whitechapel? Stepney? Bow? Can’t have that! If only the stadium was back west in White City or Wembley…

  3. The bottom line is, Branson doesn’t care about anything apart from making more money and self publicity…

  4. I ran it in 2007 and was cheered on every step of the way. “Thin crowds” indeed! Utter tosh!

  5. Every year the runners come past the end of our road… nearly every house on the main road and a lot from the sides roads turn out to cheer on the runners… with a lot of people staying to cheer even the last stragglers and the lorries picking up the cones and barriers.

    As for ‘sights’ there are absolutely plenty – I’ll grant that a few bits of Woolwich and the Isle of Dogs aren’t up to much – but I think that you go past (or near to) most of the iconic London symbols and then some.

    Just another reason to add to the long list of reasons that Branson annoys me.

  6. “If the normal marathon route’s too drab, maybe Richard would like to change the route of the 2012 Olympic Marathon too…..”

    Diamondgeezer’s words were truly prophetic except it was Lord Coe and his American TV cronies that decided the world’s viewers must not see dwellings and areas inhabited by working class riff-raff.

    Even although I don’t live in the East End it still infuriates me that the people living close to the stadium — by far the majority of whom will not have tickets for anything — will not have the pleasure of seeing a bit of one of the highlights of the games.

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