Adventure challenge by bike

Hunting for Benchmarks

Julia Hobson By Julia Hobson

We've all had to find new ways to get outside and explore locally. And there's no better way to do that than by setting yourself a challenge, big or small, but something that will entertain you is a must! Mountain Bike guide Julia tells us how she's been doing just that.

The COVID-19 lockdown has been a strange time for all of us, a complete change to normal daily life. In any other normal year, from April onwards, right through until October, I'd have been outside most days guiding people on mountain bike rides all over the northern UK and Europe. Instead, like everyone else I've been stuck at home, trying to adapt to the confines placed upon us.

I’ve been forced to try and satisfy my craving for outdoor spaces and adventure from the doorstep and ease my anxieties about the lack of work and income for the year by escaping and exploring local woodlands to clear my head.

Lockdown has made me have to think differently about planning routes, mainly avoiding narrow paths with no space to pass people at a safe social distance or choosing to ride them pre-dawn! But it’s also meant I look closer at the map to find new trails, back lanes and byways in my local area. Paths I’ve simply overlooked before as I stuck to the same old ones I’ve always used.

I’ve found some real gems... And also a few I probably won’t choose to use again! However, as the weeks rolled by it soon seemed I'd explored everything I could nearby, I needed a new motivation.

Trig pillar
Trig pillar in grass
Trig pillar in someone's front garden

Challenge time!

I've always been a sucker for a Trig (triangulation) Pillar. Those prominent white or grey triangular blocks often found atop a mountain summit. These features aren’t just found on mountains, but dotted all over the UK, even in urban areas. I decided it would be a fun day out to plot a route taking in the 10 nearest local trig pillars, using bridleways and back lanes to wiggle my way between them.

It was brilliant! I found one that was part of a wall, one right in the middle of someone’s front garden, and even one in the middle of a wood! It gave my ride a focus and provided the motivation I needed for further local exploration.

Find a Trig pillar near you!

After this, in search of other map features I could use for ideas in planning routes, I scoped out historical features I could see on the map, old mills, ancient stone circles, "cup marked rocks", and rock outcrops. And then a friend sent me an OS blog on Benchmarks and suggested they might be something else to go out and find from home.

I hadn’t even heard of them before, but little did I know I was about to become hooked on finding these unique little symbols!

So, what are benchmarks?

Ordnance Survey Benchmarks (BMs) are survey marks made by Ordnance Survey to record height above sea level. If the exact height of one BM is known, the exact height of the next can be found by measuring the difference in heights, through a process of spirit levelling.

Most commonly, the BMs are found on buildings or other semi-permanent features. Many people will probably have noticed them but many will not have known what these little marks were for. Although the main network is no longer being updated, with the last Benchmarks made almost 30 years ago, the record is still in existence and the markers will remain until they are eventually destroyed by redevelopment or erosion. Nowadays GPS and satellite systems are more often used to accurately measure heights.

There are several different kinds of benchmark, click here to find out about the different ones.

Cycling and searching for Benchmarks
A flush bracket Benchmark engraved into wall
Julia pointing to benchmark on wall

A bit of research showed I could overlay the location of benchmarks onto OS Maps online, and so I walked to see if I could find my nearest local one, literally just around the corner from my house...lo and behold, there it was!

I’ve since become a bit addicted and planned many bike rides and walks simply to venture out looking for benchmark locations. Of course, not all of them are still there, but part of the fun is searching for them, kind of like a treasure hunt, and when you find them it’s always exciting.

It’s been a brilliant way to keep myself entertained at the current time, and amazing that there are so many of these strange little signs nearby that I must have passed dozens of times before and never noticed. I’ve even found my first Fundamental Benchmark which are really rare!

Share your challenge with others!

I've shared my finds on social media and been amazed by how many others have been interested to know more and start hunting themselves. They've shared their finds with me too and it's been great seeing different Benchmarks from all corners of the country.

I know several friends who have used benchmark hunting as part of their kid's homeschooling, how cool is that?! Teaching them map reading skills and then heading out for walks or rides to go and find their local marks. That's definitely my kind of school!

Social sharing of benchmarks finds

I'll admit to being a map geek. As a Mountain Bike guide for the last 8 years I’ve spent a huge amount of time poring over maps and plotting routes. But even before this, as a mountain biker, adventure racer, climber, ski tourer and hiker I loved maps and the intricacy of how they show the landscape and could lose hours just looking at all the details on them. There’s even a room in my house where the whole wall is covered by a map! I love visualising what those lines of trails on a map look like on the ground, what the contours of the land around them appear like in reality. Picturing the shape of the mountains. And ultimately, going out and exploring to see if I’d pictured correctly!

In the UK, we really are lucky to have Ordnance Survey maps, they make planning walks and rides so easy compared to other maps I’ve used in other countries of the world.

How I plot routes

When I start plotting a route, I’ll begin with just marking my start point, and normally have a target or end point to work to, or several spots to visit. For example, a Trig point or several Benchmarks. Then starts the fun part of trying to work out an interesting way to reach and link all those target points and get back to the start. OS maps make it easy to see the different Rights of Way, although if you are new to looking at maps you might need to refer to the map key until you recognise the different kinds.

For a mountain bike ride, I’ll look for bridleways, byways, National Cycle Network trails, disused railway lines and small lanes, avoiding busy main roads where possible. Near where I live the Canal towpath is also part of a cycle greenway too.

The route I end up plotting is often anything but direct, but it’s normally (mostly) fun!

Benchmark on wall with bike
Benchmark on bike passway

It depends on your fitness level and the time you want to be out for as to how far your route is, and there’s also the issue of how hilly a route will be. If the path you are planning to ride crosses lots of contour lines that’s a good indication it’ll be steep either up or down!

But many BMs are easy to reach via lanes or flat tracks, making them great for family activity and easy to navigate to using OS Maps and the Benchmarks overlay available on the desktop site.

If you're unsure about planning something bigger but looking for an adventure that takes in some Trig points or Benchmark hunting then you can always arrange a day with a local walking or riding guide and get them to plan you a route suitable for the ability of you and your family or group. They will also be able to help if you don’t feel confident with the set-up of your bike or those of your family, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the ride without worrying about fixing mechanical issues or finding the route.

Have fun Benchmark hunting!

And if you want to see some of the Benchmarks myself and friends have found you can find them via my Instagram posts and stories archives at @julialikesbikes and @endlesstrailsmtb.

Plus if you're looking for a guide to plan a custom mountain bike route for yourself or some friends in the North of England, or if you’re an experienced rider looking to join one of our organised trips (once restrictions allow), then get in touch at Endless Trails MTB.

Take a look at even more cycling inspiration on GetOutside.

Click for more ideas to get active outside safely

Published 01/06/2020

Julia Hobson By Julia Hobson


Julia is a freelance writer and mountain bike guide at Endless Trails MTB.