The Joy of Maps

Ever since childhood, I’ve loved maps. From my first world atlas to the road maps I’d look in wonder at to help pass long car journeys, I found them fascinating. My favourites have to be the Ordnance Survey (OS). What started as the one inch to the mile series, have now morphed into the pink covered Landrangers. From the broad sweep of a road atlas, that gives tantalising hints of the landscape, in the OS you swim in a lush, warm ocean of detail. Roads whose importance is denoted by their colour: blue, green, red, brown, yellow or uncoloured; place names, sometimes with a Latin annotation to denote a Roman settlement, that show the range of influences over the centuries (Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norse); rivers and other watercourses; battle sites; contour lines, densely packed or none; remote settlements and farmsteads with weird names (Dog-in-a-Doublet Farm near Thorney, Cambs has to be my favourite, and the strangest, Sodom in Denbighshire).

From my local sheet, number 118 for Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield, (which I’ve now had four of, the first of which is now very battered), which still holds much interest, to a growing number of other sheets I’ve acquired when I travel somewhere new. All can help pass a weary winter evening, poring over the Croesian richness of their detail.

Sometimes, just looking at how some places appear on the map makes me want to go there. On sheet 134 (Norwich and the Broads), a narrow swathe of white runs from Norwich for several miles south-east, with not a contour line to be seen and crossed only by numerous rivers and streams, picked out a thin blue. Either side of this, the contours pick up again, so this white and blue area leaps off the paper at you. In complete contrast, on sheet 9 (Cape Wrath), dense contours are punctuated by thousands of small lochs and only the very occasional road, where even the “A” roads are single track, and all the names are Gaelic. Seeing this, I just had to go there, had to see it. (Writing this, I had to pause to look at the map again, for the first time in years, and I want to go there, now). Maps like these can create adventures without ever having to set foot outside your door. Even so, I always like to take the map to the place it describes, take it home almost.

Fascinating though this wealth of detail is, sometimes you need the bigger sweep of a larger map. Then you see the long straights of Roman roads, scarce a bend for mile after mile (look at the A5 in the Midlands for instance). The A15 north of Lincoln follows the old Roman road of Ermine Street for several miles, and is, I believe, the longest piece of straight road in England. The effect is rather spoiled by a kink near Scampton, as if a giant was drawing the road along a ruler and accidentally drew round a finger. (The real reason is rather more prosaic, an extension to the runway at RAF Scampton). This reminds me of a story I read about when the Moscow – St Petersburg railway was being planned, Tsar Nicholas I used a ruler on the map and drew round a finger. He was so widely feared the curve was apparently included on the finished line just in case!

Mention of railways brings me to that fascinating, romantic mark on the OS “Cse of Old Rly”, or these days as “dismantled railway”. The faint dotted lines which also showed cuttings, embankments, and bridges, which often abruptly end where the old alignment has been lost to plough, new roads or building. Sometimes you can pick it up again nearby, but not always: the old Midland and Great Northern route around Caistor has vanished. If I come across such a route when I’m travelling, I will usually go and investigate it, see how much remains. The answer is usually not much, or nothing at all. You need an old map to see where stations were. Thankfully there are many resources online now to make this industrial archeology easy. There is also a company called Cassini that reprints old OS 1 inch maps realigned to the current Landranger sheet, and I have a few of these.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a collector, but whenever I come across a second hand bookshop, I will usually pick up an old one inch OS. Indeed, the first time I visited Holyhead, I used such a map from 1955 to navigate as I did not have anything newer. The first thing I look for will be former railways, seeing them marked in a black as open with stations and all the features intact, not the faint dots of the closed. Those maps even distinguish between open and closed stations and single and multiple track lines.

Many times, my mental journeys round the paper of the map has been to follow the “Cse of Old Rly”, and to wonder about the line, when it closed and what it would have been like to travel over. The internet has made this easier too, with satellite images showing the long abandoned earthworks. Much as I appreciate these technologies, they can never hope to surpass the thrill of expectation that comes from opening or unfolding a proper paper map.


My first copy of the Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield OS map


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One Response to “The Joy of Maps”

  1. juliecrombe Says:

    Cool post!
    Please check out my blog and let’s follow each other!

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