Interface Images
Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2009

Lost without a map

With a title like this you may expect this to be a tale of mountain disorientation but it is not – what it reflects is that my life would much less rich if I were to be robbed of access to my collection of maps. They have become intertwined with my pastimes – not only walking but also photography and reading. I recently re-read the excellent story  ‘Kidnapped’ but this time with maps by my side to follow the journey, with them my appreciation of the tale was so much greater.

I think it all started at Primary school. I was brought up in the early days of the Queen’s reign and her world tours were frequently in the news. This provided great topic material for our teachers and I soon became familiar with all the pink areas on the world map that constituted her commonwealth. A tour of Africa was one I particularly remembered because we cut out a huge map and collaged it with all the news items & places she visited. Show me shapes of many African states and I can place them but with independence for many and changes of title I can’t actually name them all.

The interest grew with secondary school and a key family acquisition. For my parents 25th Wedding anniversary someone bought them a subscription to Reader’s Digest and the promotions for other products flooded in. On the basis that it might help my schoolwork they bought “The Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World”. I was totally entranced by its lavish presentation and superb interpretation of earth facts as well as spending hours poring over the maps. It soon came into good use as well for an early homework was to learn the capitals of Europe from a list that we copied from the blackboard (Not educationally PC today I suspect). I was terrible at remembering them but my Mum dug out the Atlas and got me to copy a map of the area and put in the required facts. I got 20/20 on the test that we did. We still have the book today and pre-internet it was frequently referred to for information. When we planned an expedition to Afghanistan in 1975 it was the best map we had until we visited a specialist shop in London and when I wanted a picture to illustrate a talk on our trip I photographed the appropriate page suitably marked up with our journey.

In my early teens we started to be a bit more ambitious with holidays and my job was to navigate using a second Reader’s Digest purchase – “The AA/RD Guide to Britain”. It was a combination of map book and tourist guide and I read it at home as well as when – I think it was this that gave me such a good knowledge of our roads that makes me spurn Sat Nav today.

The map shelf - English section

I first met the much loved OS maps at school while doing ‘O’ level Geography and I took to them immediately – I just loved the detail & precision of them. There was always a map question on the paper and we prepared from past questions then did a mock exam. I got full marks on those questions every time – this was in contrast to getting 4/25 on a test of Human Geography of Wales for which I got the slipper & detention to re-take the test.

When I first started walking I followed others but after a frustrating day going round in circles in The Peak District I  resolved to do my own navigation in future and so bought my first OS map – Snowdonia 1” Seventh Series No 107.
As the years went by I collected maps of areas I went to & wanted to go to. I switched to the 1:50000 scale as they came available and tried to understand the quirky contours which were in metres converted from feet in 50 ft intervals so 396m was followed by 411m then 427m! My shelves were soon converted to the pink covered mines of information. My 1:25000 map collection began with several small blue maps covering only a few kilometres square but my first Brown cover was my beloved Peak District Dark Peak map which I still have today – albeit in pieces as it disintegrated. Gradually the Yellow covers of Outdoor Leisure appeared then the Orange Explorers with a smattering of Green Pathfinders for areas outside their coverage. One of the great joys of exploring new areas was the evenings spent planning the trips from a pile of maps on the dining room table. I felt that I had been to many new places even before setting foot in them as I had absorbed so much from their study.

There was one hurdle that I found hard to overcome – the 1:25k maps were bulky and some were double sided and cumbersome on the hill – I had to cut them into smaller pieces. This seemed like an act of heresy to butcher such beautiful artefacts but it was done and I soon had a manageable collection of smaller sheets (All covered in sticky backed plastic) ready for the walks.

A few years ago I was given an unwanted set of 1:50k Anquet maps of Scotland on disc and I warmed to the digital revolution and the ability to print out small areas. I still buy 1:25k paper maps as their cost on disc is extortionate – besides which my set of old Outdoor Leisure maps plus a few of the OL Explorer series gives pretty good coverage of my walking haunts. Swapping discs began to get really annoying so in this years January Anquet Sale I bought the downloads of Scotland and upgraded to the latest reader.

Having such information so easily to hand makes planning so pleasurable and reminds me of something that struck me early on in my study of maps. The intensity of information in symbolic form on a map is mind boggling – imagine taking a 1 km square and trying to describe in words what that area contains. It just doesn’t bear thinking about. I now spend hours on the laptop just studying the landscape of Scotland plus it also allows me to follow the trail of David Balfour & Alan Breck Stewart across that landscape with much greater ease than with a table full of maps.

© September 2009

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