Review of the postponement of the 2024 National Cross Country Championships

In the aftermath of Saturday 24th February’s postponement of “The National”, many have commented that this is unprecedented outside of war time and Covid. This sense of history is most certainly not lost on members of the ECCA committee – all of whom have a very long association with the sport. The decision not to proceed on the 24th was thus not taken lightly, and it is not over-stating the matter to say that it caused a sense of real devastation amongst the organisers. Not least, many hundreds of hours go into the organisation and preparation for an event like this, and no one embarks on that process with anything less than 100% commitment to delivering the event in full. There has understandably been much resulting comment on social media and elsewhere, and we thought it might be helpful if we were to outline the chronology of the decisions taken, and the context in which each was made, and indeed we will study implications for the future.

Some commentary has picked up on the fact that all those involved do so on an entirely voluntary basis. This is indeed true, and is worth reiterating, but the ECCA in no way regards this as an excuse for not adopting a professional attitude in every way. The expertise and depth of experience available to the event organisers is very considerable, but there is a willingness to involve expert third parties whenever this is thought to be beneficial to the event overall. In the light of Saturday’s outcome, it is worth noting that this has involved external traffic management companies on a number of occasions, including this.

Parking the Issue

Whilst most people involved will by now be aware of the backdrop, the first thing to make absolutely clear was that the postponement was in no way due to the condition of the course. Yes, the ground was wet, and almost certainly would have cut up in places and have become heavy, but this was of absolutely no concern whatsoever to either the organisers or the venue’s own management team. The decision to postpone was entirely due to the inability on the day to park 2,000 cars safely, and nothing else.

Accommodating this number of vehicles is always difficult, but there was every reason to be confident that Weston Park could readily cope. The venue has a track record of hosting events throughout the year, and this includes some which involved more than twice the footfall and vehicular flow than that which the National generates, and which were held in the winter months. Nonetheless, the exceptional rainfall that we have experienced over the past three months or so led to concerns being raised about parking, and as a result, an extra site meeting for this purpose alone was convened for 1st February. The outcome of this was a revised parking plan, which effectively comprised the venue’s own contingency plan for bad weather, and which they had derived over time in conjunction with their Traffic Management company of choice. This involved the laying of tracking (Enduramat, and the like), provision of tractors and/or 4×4 vehicles, and using areas of grassland which were at higher elevation, and better drained than the normal car park. However, the heavy rain in the week leading up to the event fell on already wet ground, causing flooding on Thursday (when a section of the adjacent A5 was closed due to flooding), and the Park Managers and the Traffic Management Company informed us that parking on the site could not happen. Subsequently, we have been told that the Weather Station on the site has stated that the site was at its wettest since World War II.

Alternatives Tried

Consequently most of Thursday (22nd Feb) was spent searching for hard-standing parking capacity, and bus/coach companies that could operate a ‘park and ride’ system. Weston Park’s management team contacted no less than 35 possible options, including local colleges, out of town retail parks, etc, and there were coach companies that could have provided some support. But in both cases time was very much against us at that stage, and generating the sort of capacity required proved a step too far. This was very much compounded by the need to then create a Safety Management Group, the stakeholders of which would necessarily include Police, Fire, medical support and two local authorities. Whilst the parking plan was contained wholly within the estate, this had not been necessary. To get the buy-in and approval of all these stakeholders in a 24 hour time-window was always likely to prove challenging, at the very least.

Comments have been made about the relative remoteness, and hence suitability, of the venue, including the alleged lack of easy road access. It is perhaps worth noting that the main A5 runs all along one side of the park, so it is perhaps not as remote in terms of road links as some may have envisaged. Contrary to some reports, it is not sited on a flood plain. It is very well established, rolling parkland, and not particularly prone to flooding.

The estate roads were considered as a parking option, but they lacked the capacity to make this feasible. Many of the estate roads are actually little more than single-track, and even the widest road (Shrewsbury Drive) is of varying width, and would form the main access and egress route for emergency vehicles during an event such as this.

The Future

As many have noted, park and ride was provided at this winter’s relays at Mansfield, and worked well. The move to this system actually resulted from proposed development within the park, and redesignation of some of the grasslands but in the event, it served the ECCA very well and for a first time effort things went smoothly. We are already looking at options for a similar system for this year’s relays, so the ECCA committee is most certainly not averse to adopting such a system where necessary. But in the case of Weston Park, local knowledge, right up until the last minute, had never suggested that this fall back would be warranted or needed.

By way of a further footnote, this year’s problems come on the back of the parking issues encountered at Bolesworth last year. On that occasion, the venue insisted on their preferred parking company being used, and they were able to evidence the fact that they had coped adequately with several thousand vehicles in a limited time-window at their fireworks display that year. For reasons to which the ECCA are not privy, they then chose to change their proven modus operandi in a couple of ways at the very last minute, and the result was the chaos which then ensued on National day.

The inevitable social media commentary that has resulted from the demise of the event has included many constructive suggestions as to how things might beneficially evolve in future. Fair to say, these had, for the most part, already formed part of ECCA discussions, and will receive ongoing consideration (plus any additional ideas are always welcomed). To conclude a close study will be made of venues to be used in the future to make sure things explained above does not happen again.