WHY: this is the penultimate edition in a series of four blogs telling trig tales
WHAT: this blog explores the wonderful world of baggers in a land of diminishing pillars
I’ll always remember where I was on the night of my birthday in 2021. On top of a hill, in the middle of a golf course, stood beneath an oak tree. In the dark. It was cold and sleeting. A running friend had kindly arranged a headtorch run, comprising a visit to a local trigpoint pillar. I was holding a large dram of whiskey. This was my memorable lockdown party for two. Well three1 This trigpoint is one of six within a 3-mile radius of my home in Leeds. One is usually surrounded by flytipping. Two others are permanently imprisoned behind steel palisade fencing. Bit like visiting wayward uncles, minus the security search or glares from the screws.
Targeting local trigpoints was excellent motivation for me: to get outside during dark times. Along with millions of others, the public health restrictions triggered a fresh need to create personal lockdown challenges – locally. Navigating between local trigpoints also generated unexpected mini-adventures and revealed (mostly permissive) new short-cuts. Mind, I’m still unclear about the difference between a ginnel and a snicket. Also I’ve not yet started to record the pillars I’ve reached. Spreadsheet logging really isn’t my thing. I still enjoy visiting a new location though. Why?
Veni, vedi, vici
It’s a very eccentric British pursuit to target lumps of concrete. There’s no actual record of when trigpoint ‘bagging’ became a thing. Online forums and social media offer some anecdotal timeframes. Most likely when hikers and ramblers started ticking off Munros and Marilyns and all the highpoints in between. From there more personal targets were subsequently formed. Aiming low and hidden as well as high and remote. For example, to reach all the trig pillars in a specified geographic area or maybe just those over a certain elevation. The area might be within a defined National Park boundary, county-wide, all those listed on a scale of OS map or even those inside a drawn 10 or 20-mile circumference from home.
Trig-bagging has now been hijacked by all sorts. Mountain bikers, hill-runners, dog-owners and even car drivers have a trusty trigpoint logbook or a multi-layered spreadsheet. You can even purchase specific books. The Trigpoint UK website enables visitors to report issues and the general pillar condition. Bit like leaving a TripAdvisor review. And there’s a flashlight introduction into the wider scope of boltmarks, blocks and benchmarks. Proper old-school geocaching.
Snagging a handful of trig pillars continues to be very rewarding for many leisure enthusiasts. Plotting ahead to mark-off a couple more during hike or Sunday car drive. Very few trigpoints can be reached by only car. Pillars are also commonly used as checkpoints for participants to reach on foot races over high crags, boggy moorland or waymarked routes. Fixed features to make your way towards. Some of these iconic challenges cover vast distances (like the Pennine Way Spine Race) or apply time restrictions (for example, the total number of pillars in a day or a week).
Some right silly sods even set about completing the entire UK trig network: Rob Woodall achieved this very feat in 2016 when he touched his 6190th pillar at Benalty Hill, Fife. It had taken him over ten years. Equally silly sods have jumped from trig pillars to the more niche area of geolocating benchmarks. Coincidentally, the OS have added these features to online mapping.
Measuring you up
Let me clear any form of trig-bagging is brilliant. Get outside and find your adventure. Near or far. Car or foot. Right from your doorstep or a daytrip into the high mountains. Continue to tick off the list in your notepad or click the red-green computer cell in that column. Exhale with expletives upon reaching that mountain trig through the mist. Wipe away the blood (and possibly tears) after pulling bramble or ivy away from an urban hedgerow to finally get a glimpse of the elusive flush bracket. I’d say keep taking those all-important trig photos (selfie, pooch on pillar or aeroplane) to share later on social media.
The remaining 6000 or so pillars still provide much joy. Why? The American writer Bill Bryson suggests that trigpoints occupy a central place in British culture. And yet there are no specific rights to conserve or protect the remaining network. The OS still hold access and limited property rights, but no longer need or choose to maintain. By ‘choose’, we of course all recognise this is due to limited available funds. Unsurprisingly, trig pillars are now a diminishing feature.
This trend will only worsen. Isolated pillars continue to be neglected by landowners. Some property developers see them as an obstruction to progress. Ironic, given the role of pillars was to survey and record development. Even local authorities have reacted minimally to record any as valued cultural features. Redundant, largely ignored and orphaned by today’s indoor technological society – analogue artifacts in a digital dreamworld.
Still, there is some optimism. A white flicker of light on top of a bleak hill summit. Steps to conserve and encourage greater care of the pillars have already been taken by some organisations, such as the National Trust and National Park Authorities. This is a great start. Also, the forming of Neighbourhood and Parish Plans offers a chance for you – yes, you – to register them as community assets. Many resident and outdoor groups have similarly ‘adopted’ their local or frequently visited trig pillars: an initial paper chase of shared agreements with the landowner and the OS, a signed memorandum of understanding, plus a small admin fee to cover the cost of the ink stamp. Boom – including fostering duties you are the custodian of a block of weathered concrete!
Trigs are diminishing. And yet, pillars continue to jointly intrigue and inspire. Something of a paradox. In less than 50 years around 10% of the total network has been lost – what will this be at the turn of the next century? Should we follow writer Bill’s proclamation and begin to raise greater awareness? I see you tutting at your device, asking isn’t it enough that people continue to stand proudly next to trig pillars in photos on social media? Perhaps.
Could there be scope for trig and outdoor enthusiasts to do a little more? Extend our adventures to include a bit on the route, the view, hidden gems or even the delights in your packed lunch. Simply a little more than the somewhat sterile comment, ‘another one ticked off the list.’ Describe the journey as well as the destination. And surely omit all use of ‘conquering’ as it’s slightly over-dramatic? Be gentle. Stay adventurous. But embrace the landscape.
I’ve been known for re-routing a running group to visit a new pillar. I’m certain all involved now feel more enriched for the experience! Maybe not the unexpected heavy rain. Perhaps we can all share these stories with our active, hiking or running friends? These anecdotal nuggets will soon filter into wider circles: intriguing, educating and entertaining. A solid base for popular culture.
My aspiration is for trigpoint enthusiasts to also give some thought – beyond bagging the next one – about how the pillars were built, by whom and who’ll look after them in the future? There are always stories beyond the pillar. A quick internet search of any trigpoint usually provides a few fascinating details of the local area, landscape features or people. Like my birthday run some trigpoints are furnished by commemorative plaques and remarkable legends. Others simply hold vague elements of folklore myths relating to ghosts, druid burial grounds or supposed drilling for oil!
A trigpoint pillar local to me is slap-bang centre in the front rockery of a 1950s semi-detached house. Now and again the current owners lovingly apply a fresh lick of white masonry paint. I wonder if it has been caringly adopted? Owners change, you see. And yet less than a mile away another pillar has been vandalised, seemingly part-eaten by a Tyrannosaur Rex. Maybe this is the one I’ll seek to adopt. Even restore it to full height, paint it in Yorkshire white, yellow and blue and lovingly visit every weekend like an elderly relative in supported housing. Not imprisoned behind fencing bars: free, accessible and prominent in the community. I might even affix a steel pan and utensil for visitors to bang. A proper, lasting commemoration to all NHS workers.
Trigpoint pillars were indeed made to measure. ‘Bob-on’ as they say in t’north. Now they perform a blurred role as part of the UK’s outdoor heritage. But hikers, bikers, ramblers, scramblers and all them trigpoint baggers might now need to work together to keep them there. Shifting the emphasis from ‘just visiting’ to something more of paternal protection. Should we start a conversation to preserve the remaining trigpoints one pillar at a time? And who knows, also cementing a continued joy for the trig-baggers of future years.
Thanks for reading.
Kindly share with other like-minded friends if you also think they’d also enjoy. And let me know your stories:
- Have you started/ completed a trigpoint challenge?
- What was your favourite aspect: a random experience or THAT final pillar?
1 A commemorative plaque is affixed to the trig pillar for Melvyne Smart (1945-2019)
Image copyright: 1,2 and 4 – blogger; 3: secretwalks(dot)com
Blog 4: ‘Your Way Or Mine’
Blog 1: ‘Made To Measure’
Blog 2: ‘A Spider For Every Erection’