Trailblaze is installing metal boxes permanently on long-distance walks through beautiful countryside. The boxes are checkpoints to record the time when runners pass on special Trailblaze timing tags.
Trailblaze has "an exclusive agreement with Natural England to roll the Trailblaze concept out across all National Trails". Natural England is not only providing help and support, but also funding. The scheme was launched at Easter 2011 and its scheduled evaluation period is until 31 May 2012.
Criticism of the scheme has attracted mounting media attention at national and local level: visit Updates to catch up on the latest.
Trailblaze will open on 8 National Trails in England and Wales between April and October 2011. The list already includes Offa's Dyke Path North, the Pennine Way South, Thames Path, South Downs Way and Cotswold Way. For a full list, visit this page.
According to their website, "the Trailblaze portfolio is growing all the time and ultimately will include a varied assortment of the most beautiful trails from across the globe". They aim to to create a global network.
Trailblaze posts out the timing tag after the runner registers and pays their fee. Each runner pushes their timing tag into the hole of each checkpoint box that they pass. Once the tag has recorded times from the run, the runner has to post the tag back to Trailblaze, which uploads the results to their website and gives out prizes.
Runners pay £20 for a single-trail one-off registration, or £70 for an annual subscription that allows them to run as many trails as they like, whenever they want, 24/7/365; prices are as at launch date.
The runners are expected to compete to be fastest, to win prizes and to see their names on leader boards. They are expected to be motivated by coloured wristbands, from green to black. The company behind Trailblaze is clearly seeking to make a profit from the installations, and by selling equipment and souvenirs. Each metal box advertises their website.
The Trail Managers who have agreed to these installations (allegedly on a pilot basis) were probably motivated by the 20% of registration fees that Trailblaze says it will pay. This amounts to £4 on a one-off registration or £14 on a multi-trail, unlimited annual subscription. Whether that amount will offset the impact on the trail of the extra runners is an issue that a pilot scheme might have addressed, but we have seen no information on this.
The runners are anybody who pays to register. For a promotional video explaining the appeal, see Trailblaze on YouTube
The people behind Trailblaze are Endurancelife who already organise mass endurance events from 10 K trail races to marathons and ultra-marathons.
14 February 2013
Carey Davis has picked up the story in TGO website and quotes Cameron McNeish (its Editor-at-Large) and also the Updates section of this website. Already there are a couple of comments on that website. For example, a sensible-sounding runner called Mark comments:
"I run trails and noticed these on the SDW. I checked the websiteout of interest and only one person had logged a time in the first 18 months! I think that's probably the killer factor."
He is right. In purely economic terms, this is Trailblaze's fatal flaw: the whole grandiose, lunatic project was launched without a shred of evidence that runners actually wanted such a scheme.
12 February 2013
The domain name www.trail-blaze.com expired on 11 February and is now listed as pending renewal or deletion. It looks like that was a cheaper option for Endurancelife than actually dealing with disgruntled citizens, including some paid-up trailblazers who had paid for "plays" not yet used. What a shabby end to the whole sorry tale. It looks like somebody else will have to pick up the pieces and clean up a considerable mess.
6 February 2013
Many thanks to all of you who signed the petition. Public opinion was mobilised by this website, and the evidence we submitted to the NE evaluation clearly has had its effect. NE has been coy and tardy about admitting they made a huge mistake, but finally, an innocuous-looking news item dated 4.2.2013 has appeared on the National Trails website. It's official: they too have said NO to Trailblaze - game set and match! Now that NE has finally performed its U-turn, we can feel satisfied that our voices have been listened to. Here is what they said, in full:
"The evaluation of the National Trail Trailblaze pilot was completed as planned by the end of 2012. The evaluation concluded that Natural England would no longer participate in or make further investment in the Trailblaze concept as piloted. This decision was arrived at primarily as a consequence of the continuing advances in GPS/mobile technology providing more convenient alternatives for endurance runners to measure and record their achievements, particularly for those only wishing to run shorter sections of the trails."
Of course the bit about "continuing advances" is pure flannel: smart phones were available long before dumb Trailblaze boxes. But they had to say something to cover their embarrassment. They are now supposed to remove the boxes, and we will be vigilant to see that they are not left to rust in place.
7 September 2012
Today was Natural England's deadline for receiving evidence for its evaluation. So on 4 September we drew a line under counting things and prepared our document as a PDF. Its first three pages are a summary of our objections, a note on finances and statistics and a graphic showing the postcode scatter of those of you kind enough to sign up. The remaining 28 pages are a compilation of the comments added to this website. You can download it here.
20 August 2012
It seems that even the Trailblazers themselves are starting to wonder if they have been conned. Apparently, the promised prizes have not materialised after over a year. The dibbers are slow to be posted back to the subscribers. One forum user even complained "I'm left questioning the value @ £20 for a rubber band." Quite so.
13 August 2012
Natural England has just contacted us about their evaluation. They are inviting written evidence which we have to submit by 7 September, so if you know anybody who might sign the petition and hasn't yet done so, please try to activate them. (If you can't remember whether you have signed already, don't worry: the system will alert you if your email address has been subscribed before, so a repeat signup attempt won't dilute the quality of the list of signatories to date.)
Natural England plans to reach a decision by the end of 2012, and we need to help them to make the right one. This is still a live issue, and your voice and those of your contacts still counts and should be heard.
24 November 2011
The December issue of Strider, journal of the Long Distance Walkers Association, carries on page 25 a letter from Colin Saunders protesting about Trailblaze. Saunders, who is a guidebook author and one of the architects of the Vanguard Way, writes
"... I am very much against the scheme. The garish white boxes have no place in the countryside, and I believe that the decisions of Natural England and others to participate in it were misguided. It seems to me a gross waste and misapplication of public funds for the benefit of a tiny proportion of National Trail users, when the money would have been better spent to benefit all users, such as improving signage or gating.
Organisations such as the LDWA and Ramblers bring far more people into the countryside with no taxpayer support mainly through the efforts of volunteers. ... The main business of Endurancelife is organising mass participation endurance events in the countryside. Their mission statement is ‘to create a global network of Trailblaze challenges’. Now that Natural England and others have opened the door, will this mean Trailblaze boxes on mountain summits, say, and a string of applications from other organisations seeking public funding for their inappropriate schemes?"
1 November 2011
The autumn newsletter of the South West Coast Path Association newsletter devotes page 15 to the Trailblaze controversy and acknowledges the concerns that "the boxes go against the ethos and traditions of long distance walking in the UK; that they add clutter to the countryside; and that the message of speed, commercialism and competitivenes is inappropriate in beautiful landscapes."
And then they print a statement of such breathtaking naïvety that you wonder if they've been brainwashed by EnduranceLife. "It has been suggested that on the South West Coast Path an annual income of some £10,000 might be achieved." Let's do some arithmetic, remembering that EnduranceLife hands back only 20% of runners' fees, so for each "per-play" £20, the Trail gets £4 in return. To achieve £10,000 pa, 2500 runners would have to use the scheme on SWCP every year. Is this credible?
According to its website today, only 56 runners have completed the first, most popular stage of SWCP South Devon, thus bringing in a grand total of £224. (Completing later stages may add to runner status on the website, but generates no extra income to the trail.) More runners may register between now and next April, so if there's a rush this winter, the total raised may possibly inch towards £250 or even £300. But does anybody believe in the exponential rise in popularity that would be needed to multiply the numbers 30-fold or 40-fold? Even if you tried to recruit all the endurance runners in Britain and send them on the SWCP (thus sparing all the other trails) it's hard to believe that you'd persuade more than a handful to keep coming back year after year just to "see how far they can go".
Come to think of it, did anybody at Natural England ask themselves how many endurance runners there are in Britain, let alone what proportion of them actually want this kind of scheme? EnduranceLife is based in Devon and ran their Trailblaze launch event there at Easter, so it's no surprise that SWCP is by far the most popular of its trails. Given the pitiful numbers achieved in their launch year on their most popular target, why does anybody believe that this can ever be a serious income stream for our National Trails?
16 October 2011
The November issue of TGO magazine carries another letter protesting about Trailblaze. Fiona Barltrop focuses on the financial aspects:
"For the record, NE provided £1100 plus VAT to 'installations' on six National Trails - a total of £7920 (inc VAT), and CCW (the Countryside Council for Wales) provided the same contribution (£1100 + VAT) for a 7th National Trail. That's a grand total of £9240, if I'm correct.
On the BBC R4 Open Country programme in July, Andrew Barker from Endurancelife ... said each box cost c.£500 to install, and stated that a quarter of the funding came from Natural England, a quarter from themselves and the rest from local grant providers, namely sustainable development funds provided by the AONBs. So it appears 75% has been provided from public funds. There are almost 100 boxes in total along the 8 National Trails, which suggests an investment of
To return to NE, as an "investor" in the scheme, they receive 20% of each 'play', as it's described, ie £4. Which means "only 275 'plays' have to be made on each trail before it becomes fiscally neutral" (Barker). Arguably, if all the other providers of public funds were also to receive a similar percentage to help recoup their investment, let alone make any profit, many hundreds of 'plays' per trail would have to be made. At present, after almost 4 months since the scheme started, only a handful of runners have taken part. A rough count (at the time of writing) gives a figure of 112 in total for all 8 National Trails, of which the South Devon Coast Path - Endurancelife's home ground - accounts for 51. So that's 61 for the other 7 trails, an average of 8/9 per trail. Needless to say, given the lengths of the trails (c.100 miles) most of the boxes along the latter halves of the trails have hardly, if at all, been used. For example, again at the time of writing, the last 5 boxes along each of the South Downs Way, Cleveland Way and Thames Path have had no use."
19 September 2011
The Ordnance Survey blog is spreading the word about Trailblaze with apparent approval, but clearly those who have commented so far do not agree.
5 September 2011
Page 15 of the Autumn issue of Walk (the Ramblers' magazine) has a feature that asks "Is Trailblaze bad for the countryside?". It recognises "passionate opposition among the outdoors community" and links to this website, mentioning our "nearly 400 signatures" - so at least they checked before they went to press. They name Cameron McNeish and Roly Smith as prominent critics and comment that "many are appalled that a commercial scheme is being backed by Natural England". They cite as benefits the Endurancelife claim that it "will encourage more people to be active and appreciate Britain's natural heritage". But endurance runners are already active, and the scheme has no appeal to recreational walkers, let alone to the less fit, sedentary majority. And how much heritage can an endurance runner really appreciate while running against the clock? It's hard to imagine a competitive athlete stopping for long enough to appreciate what the National Trails have to offer.
Walk's verdict is disappointingly cautious: "Anything that gets more people out enjoying the countryside is good ... but those contentious checkpoints are perhaps unnecessary". But there's no evidence that Trailblaze is attracting new people onto the National Trails in discernible numbers. And whatever induced a famous campaigning organisation like the Ramblers to precede "unnecessary" with an ambivalent "perhaps"?
16 August 2011
The President of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild has added his weight to the campaign with a thoughtful piece in Outdoor Focus, the periodical of OWPG. Entitled Striking the Wrong Chord his article invokes the spirit of Tom Stephenson, architect of the Pennine Way. Smith is certain that Stephenson would have been appalled by "these ugly boxes, which look exactly like the condom machines found in public toilets ... the visible and highly intrusive manifestation of an appalling new scheme which threatens to turn our National Trails into some kind of competitive racetracks."
27 July 2011
BBC Television yesterday ran the Trailblaze controversy as an evening news story on its South East Today. The intro referred to the view that it blights the landscape and commercialises the countryside, and to the fact that this petition has "hundreds of signatures". Runner Stuart Mills was trotted out again; he said that the thrill of finding the boxes and getting the little beep was like a treasure hunt – "just an added extra to the run". Nigel Buxton was indignant about the intrusive boxes: "they'd be more at home in a public lavatory than on a gatepost on the South Downs". James Seymour (Natural England) claimed it was "a really good way for people to stay fit and healthy", but that is rubbish! The health problem of sedentary, overweight citizens will not be solved by incentivising extreme runners to compete for wristbands and to go "further and faster". Any benefits of Trailblaze are confined to a group of runners who are already extremely fit (at least physically). So where is the health benefit?
Finally, a factual oddity: spokespeople for both Trailblaze and NE keep talking about the trails having ten boxes each but this is wrong: their own website identifies 13 boxes on this trail. The discrepancy (30%) is significant, and if they cared about the trails as much as we do, they would know how many boxes have been installed. In fact, all trails have either 12 or 13 boxes except for the Ridgeway with 11, and the total installed was 99. At £500 each, this is very expensive and large-scale for a pilot! The issue has been picked up by BBC Sussex and for now the filmed part of the item can be watched there too.
26 July 2011
Some interesting comments (14 so far) have just appeared on the BBC Archers message board – good for Poppy for drawing attention to the issue. Some have signed, others don't agree, but the one that's worrying is "Can't really see the point of them but I also can't get really worked up about it either" and goes on to justify them on the grounds that NE has made other mistakes/there is other trail furniture. Two wrongs don't make a right; and EVERY manmade bit of trail furniture needs to be justified (it isn't hard to make a case for waymarkers, gates and stiles) or removed.
25 July 2011
September's TGO magazine came out today, including a fine column by Roger Smith called Why emblazon a trail? which begins "Here's a curious thing – a body called Natural England funding something which could hardly be more unnatural". He asks "What happened to the Precautionary Principle ... that in sensitive/heritage areas the assumption should be that development does not take place unless it can be proved to be essential and causing no lasting environmental damage" and he ridicules NE's claim about the boxes weathering: "The only thing that will happen to a painted metal box is that the paint will peel and the box, exposed to the elements, will gradually rust and appear even more unsightly than at present."
He also reminds readers of the purpose of National Trails: "they were established ... to enable people to experience wild places for themselves and to be able to get away from their working lives and be self sufficient for a time. Trails were certainly never designed as racetracks." Having pointed out that they are unnecessary anyway, he calls on NE to decide "by the end of the summer ... whether the amount of use, and the criticism they have received, justifies leaving them up over the winter."
14 July 2011
BBC Sussex ran the Trailblaze story as a news item today, with interview sessions in support. Neil Pringle interviewed local resident Nigel Buxton, later speaking to guidebook publisher Jacquetta Megarry (Rucksack Readers) and marketing manager Andrew Barker (Endurance Life) together. You can listen to it here - the first interview runs for 5 minutes, followed by one of 7 minutes.
Nigel Buxton focused on the vulgar, urban boxes themselves, and demolished the idea that size matters: the boxes may be small but it takes only one piece of litter to spoil an otherwise immaculate view. Jacquetta Megarry emphasised the fact that the Endurance Life uses clunky, last-century technology, and that the numbers don't work. Endurance running appeals to maybe 1% of the 1% so it's no surprise that only penny numbers have run any of the trails to date - since Easter, a total of only 38 runners on all trails excluding the launch event. So the promise of income to the National Trails is a false hope.
Andrew Barker demonstrated his listening skills by confidently and persistently getting people's names wrong. He dismissed the numbers issue blithely: apparently 800 people like them on Facebook, so that's OK! He even trotted out the cliché about "even the largest river starts with a single drop". More worrying, he criticised his opponents for their "real lack of understanding of the culture of trail running" and went on to make the breathtaking claim:
"There's very little difference between trail runners and walkers. Most trail runners were walkers: they've just decided that instead of doing 12 miles on their daily walk they could actually do 30 and see more of the National Trail". We are on planet Earth here, which planet is he on???
15 July 2011
Triggered by the radio programme, another forum Fell Runner is debating the idea here. There are some childish posts (being rude about an "old duffer" suggests a lack of rational argument) from people who admit they haven't listened to the podcast. They accuse Nigel Buxton of "wanting to prevent people making use of a natural resource" when he could hardly have said more clearly that he had nothing against runners: "it's the boxes that are the great offence".
However, there is also great sense talked on this forum, including the recent post that says "And if these are allowed for runners, what will be next? Watering stations every few miles, or vending machines selling puncture repair kits for mountain bikers or maps for ill-equipped tourists? The FRA and most fell runners make a point of minimising their impact on our countryside, this Trailblaze system doesn't." Quite so.
13 July 2011
The forum Fitness Banter has picked up the TGO Letter of the Month and you can read its debate here. It's interesting how Trailblaze supporters often seek to "justify" the ugly boxes by saying they're no worse than litter lying around. Apart from the fact that no amount of litter justifies more litter, why should we have to endure Natural England-sponsored litter?
A later post picks up the financial angle: "Public money has gone into this (as well as EnduranceLife's money). The scheme is designed for (and will only) appeal to trail runners - not all of whom will participate. I can't see how it will produce enough funds to actually make a positive difference to the budgets for upkeep of the routes. So a poor use of public money."
9 July 2011
This morning's Radio 4 broadcast of Open Country is available as a podcast here. Listen for yourself and try to work out whether Unnatural England is actually collecting evidence with an open mind or whether Tess Jackson's reference to "a long-term investment" doesn't pre-empt the idea of a pilot scheme. As Nigel Buxton asked, is this really a pilot or is it a fait accompli? And if Andrew Barker is sincerely "uneasy" with the impact of Endurance Life's running events that "mob" the spectacular countryside, why doesn't he stop running these events? The global ambitions of Trailblaze are truly scary.
However, nobody made the point that endurance running appeals to only a tiny, tiny minority of the population, of whom only a minute, gullible minority will sign up for Trailblaze. For example, about £5000 each has been spent (wasted?) installing boxes on the Cleveland Way and Offa's Dyke, and so far only one runner has attempted each since Easter. (Barker quotes costs of about £500 per box and about 10 boxes per trail, but that is an underestimate – nearly all trails have either 12 or 13 boxes installed.) "This is a facility for everybody" claims Tess Jackson: but who is she kidding?? As an alternative funding source for National Trails, it would be laughable except that, since the boxes are ugly 24/7/365, it isn't all that funny.
5 July 2011
The August issue of tgo magazine has just come out, with a prize-winning Letter of the Month about Trailblaze on page 20. Written by a woman from Dunblane, it deplores the poor design of the boxes and points out that they are unnecessary "in an era when portable GPS-savvy devices can time runners and transmit results". The writer clearly hopes that Scottish Natural Heritage will not follow Natural England's lead but says "we must all be vigilant". Good for tgo!
3 July 2011
BBC Radio 4 has a programme on Saturday 9 July to debate the pros and cons of Trailblaze: Open Country is looking at Trailblaze on the South Downs Way and should be well worth listening to. Presented by Helen Mark and produced by Helen Chetwynd, the programme features Stuart Mills (a keen runner), Andrew Barker (Endurance Life), Tess Jackson (Natural England), Nigel Buxton (local resident) and Mark RIchards (outdoor writer) – so that sounds like 3 advocates and 2 nay-sayers. If you can't manage the early start (7 minutes after 6am) there is a repeat on the following Thursday, 14 July, at 3pm, and (for a while) there may be BBC iPlayer.
1 July 2011
Somebody just sent a link to Strava – a system that seems to let anybody with a GPS device (including iPhone and Android phones) do a timed journey, anywhere in the world with a GPS signal, and upload their results to a website. It appears to be free to use, to need no permanent installations of any kind, and although devised mainly for cyclists also provides for runners, skiers and hikers. This focuses attention on the question "why do endurance runners need to mess up our National Trails with Trailblaze boxes?". Read more about how it works here and here.
10 June 2011
Some people on the Trailblaze forum are whingeing about the existence of this site. They think it would be more ethical if we let them use it to vote YES to Trailblaze, and they naively "hope it isn't easily accessible". Some hope: if they Google Trailblaze they'll find us at number 2 or 3 on page 1. Meanwhile the number of signatories to our petition has just reached 250.
9 June 2011
Country Walking magazine led its "The Month" page in June with an item on Trailblaze. This was mainly factual but names both Cameron McNeish and Doug Scott as critics of "their garish presence". Natural England has apparently responded that "the boxes will weather to look less intrusive" but how can white plastic over metal "weather" to anything other than dirty white plastic, unless it gets pockmarked with rust? And how would that be an improvement?
8 June 2011
Just listened to Andrew Barker's podcast in which he dismisses the view that Trailblaze "introduces commercisalisation into the countryside" as "frankly ridiculous". His argument seems to be that not many runners are ever going to run the Trails: "that's never going to happen" he admits. According to his own website, there are less than six runners on all trails and none or one on some (excluding the launch event which had 1 completer and 47 running the first 8K). The fact that his numbers are dismally low after two months of good weather doesn't offset the urban ugliness of his boxes, all 99 of them. But it does make 20% of the registration fees look pathetic as an income stream to the Trails.
2 June 2011
Natural England circulated all those who had signed this petition with a link to their response. In doing so, they needlessly published each signatory's private email address in breach of the Data Protection Act, and then made things worse by trying to recall the email while displaying the same list twice more. However, Tess Jackson did 'fess up to this malpractice and apologised to people personally. Although others have suggested this was a conspiracy, seems more likely to have been a cockup.
22 May 2011
Just saw an item on the North Wessex Downs website about the Ridgeway, from which it seems that not only was £2400 contributed by the National Parks' Sustainable Development Fund, but that it was "matched by the Chilterns AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and Natural England". If you are lucky enough to have a National Trail that runs through an AONB, what possesses these people to spend £7200 of taxpayers' money on making it less natural and less beautiful by installing these outstandingly ugly checkpoints?
15 May 2011
Hard to see how the Trailblaze scheme will contribute to National Trail maintenance when so few runners have actually taken part. According to Trailblaze's own website not a single person has run the Cleveland Way using this scheme, and only 1 has attempted Offa's Dyke. Yet all 99 boxes will sit there in all their ugliness unless and until we can get the scheme ended.
2 May 2011
Our petition reaches its first 100 signatures.
26 April 2011
Online magazine Grough ran a story about Trailblaze which presents both sides.
23 April 2011
The first person signs our petition. A blog comments that Natural England has been accused of betraying their own mission statement ("to safeguard England's traditional landscapes for future generations").
22 April 2011
This website went live.
This website was created by a small group of us who care deeply about the countryside and the outdoors. We have no funding, no axe to grind and no resources beyond our own spare time. We live in various parts of the UK and set up this petition as a vehicle for others to express their support and to publish their comments.
We respect all users of National Trails equally, whether walkers, runners, endurance athletes or others. We object to Trail Managers allowing, and to Natural England funding, the installation of Trailblaze boxes. Our protest is wholly democratic and lawful, and we disapprove of vandalism of trail furniture.
Thank you for reading about our website.
Say NO to Trailblaze
As of 19 May 619 have said NO to Trailblaze