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In praise of OS maps

Trevor Ward
27 Nov 2019

In a world of GPS computer navigation, there is still something magical about a big, printed, fold-out map.

When the Ordnance Survey maps of half a century ago were plotted, surveyors were issued with a list of trusted sources for finding out place names. The surveyors tasked with compiling the 1954 ‘One Inch Seventh Sheet No46’ for the west of Scotland, for example, would only have settled on the name ‘Barrancalltunn’ for a farm near Oban after consulting either a clergyman, schoolmaster or doctor.

‘Under no circumstances were they to believe the people living there, especially if they were labourers or common people, as they wouldn’t have a clue and certainly wouldn’t know how to spell it,’ according to Mike Parker, author of Map Addict.

This degree of dedication to the art of cartography is why I love printed maps.

In today’s digital age where a street plan of Timbuktu is only a click away, an old-fashioned, printed-on-paper map is something special. Although GPS has made it unnecessary for cyclists to carry maps with them, I still get a buzz from unfolding an OS Landranger or Explorer Sheet on the eve of riding a new route.

I may eventually upload the GPX file direct to my Garmin for convenience during the ride itself, but before that I want to savour and anticipate every contour, cart track and coniferous wood ahead of me. You can’t do that with a microchip.

My love affair with maps started when my girlfriend and I cycled to the Sahara and back in the 1980s. These were the days when cycle tourists arriving in remote settlements were greeted by the local youngsters with a hail of stones rather than requests to swap email addresses.

If we’d turned up with a GPS unit on our handlebars we’d probably have been exalted as gods. As it was, our regular stops to unfold and consult a big coloured sheet of paper usually aroused sufficient curiosity to halt the barrage of missiles.

The side pocket of one of my bulky rear panniers was reserved exclusively for a set of Michelin’s yellow 1:200,000 maps. (The other housed my expertly curated collection of C90 mix-tapes, featuring mainly Prefab Sprout and Echo & The Bunnymen. I also carried a fold-up camping chair. The term ‘marginal gains’ hadn’t been invented yet.)

Each night, we’d sit around our camp stove – me in my camping chair, she cross-legged on the grass – plotting the next day’s route before the sky darkened. Unfurled to their distinctive oblong shape, the maps resembled ornate tapestries. Threads of red and yellow illuminated a patchwork of brown and green.

A map has a dual effect: it reminds you of your place in the world, but it also broadens your horizons. As the hero of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything Is Illuminated, puts it, a map ‘is a remembrance of that time before our planet was so small… when you could live without knowing where you were not living’.

Our Michelin maps were avec relief – instead of contours they had subtle variations in shading to depict undulating terrain. To calculate how much climbing the next day had in store, we’d look for pyramid symbols giving the heights of mountains and doulbe or triple chevrons indicating gradients of 'over 13%', while roads with a green shading signalled parcours pittoresque.

By the time we climbed into our sleeping bags, our imaginations were aflame. What would St Symphorien-de-Mahun be like? What was the autre curiosité denoted by a small black triangle in the middle of that forest?

The trip lasted four months and it’s testament to the beauty of those maps that practically every one of them made it back home intact (apart from a map of Italy which we ceremonially set alight on the ferry from Trapani to Tunis in protest at various linguistic, cultural and culinary indignities we had suffered).

Part of the attraction of a map is that you can have the world literally in your hands. It compresses the urban sprawl or rugged topography around you into a one dimensional, scaled-down form.

Though maps of today are largely the product of satellite imaging, their legacy dates back to an age of adventure when navigators braved perilous voyages to the edges of the known world armed only with a theodolite and a hold full of salted sardines.

More recent map-makers have endured hardships such as three weeks camped in snow at the summit of Ben Nevis or dislocated shoulders caused by attacks by Arctic skuas, recounts Parker. All of which should make us appreciate the finished product even more.

The first Ordnance Survey maps were produced in response to the threat of invasion by Napolean’s forces in 1790 and were designed to show the quickest routes for supply lines and artillery transport along England’s south coast.

Other maps have had the opposite effect – triggering wars thanks to inaccurately drawn borders or cartographic ‘land grabs’. But maps should be celebrated for their uncontroversial cornucopia of footbridges, contours and spot heights.

Above all, a map is a reminder of a time when the journey was as exciting as the arrival: when airlines still gave out free drinks in economy; when it didn’t require a physics degree to book the cheapest train ticket; when every self-respecting motorist donned a pair of calfskin driving gloves.

Maps are just about all that remains from that golden age of travel. And they still have the power to inspire and excite. Even when you’re travelling by bike.

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