528 The discreet charm of maps

I am fascinated by maps. This surprises me, as the visual arts are more or less a closed book to me, and the graphic arts only make an impression when they are really striking.

I can remember, from when I was six years old, a souvenir programme of the Coronation. I didn’t read the text, and I hardly knew what the Coronation was all about, but I loved the sumptous colours, mainly crimson red and royal blue, on the cover. You see similar colours in the stained glass of church windows, and these are the only strong reason I have ever had for entering a church. When we went on holiday by coach, I always hoped the company would be Royal Blue Coaches (a kind of predecessor of National Express) because their coaches were, unsurprisingly, royal blue. When we took the Crosville (a cheaper rival company) coach to Liverpool I was disappointed to find their coaches were a drab mustard yellow; and Crosville is a less pretty name.

So I was delighted to discover maps; the splodges of green depicting woodland, the blue of rivers and canals, the spiky cross-strokes indicating railway lines, and, later, the pairs of strident red lines that showed a motorway. To this day I can quite happily peruse maps of places I shall never visit, and perhaps have hardly heard of, just working out how areas relate to each other and how everything fits together. Town maps are particularly suited to this.

A newly printed map had lots of other attractions. As you unfolded a map, something the size of an average paperback spread out to be big enough nearly to cover a table. There was the crisp feel of the new paper, and the smell of fresh ink. For some reason present-day ink seems to be quite odourless.

But of course maps also contain information. That is, after all, their primary purpose; though clearly this is not the whole story as for a thousand years and more cartographers have spent long hours making their maps look attractive as well as useful.

I discovered the usefulness of maps in the early 1960s, thanks to the Enfield Gazette and Observer. They used to publish a country walk (by one “John Overstile”) in each issue; and, taking up half of a broadsheet page, it was literally the biggest article in the newspaper. There was a verbal description of the walk and a diagrammatic plan of the route. Almost every weekend I would cut out the article and do that week’s walk. It had to be that week’s walk; if I missed a week I passed over the walk in question. I set great store by staying rigorously on the route as described, and following the directions correctly and without misunderstanding. In the course of doing this I saw some interesting things; the countryside around Cuffley (before the building of the M25), the Theobalds Park Estate (not easy to get into), the crumbling remains of Temple Bar; or further out a walk along the River Lea between Ware and Hertford; with occasional sorties to Hadley Wood and Epping Forest. Eventually the walks stopped appearing, so I devised walks of my own, aided of course by the magnificent local Ordnance Survey map, a work of art if ever there was one.

Not satisfied with this I created imaginary maps for my own amusement. Later in life I was surprised to find something of the kind in Rabelais. My memory of this has faded, but I think there was an imaginary country based on a hugely magnified version of Rabelais’ home village (corrections or completion of this would be welcome). I did something similar as a child; for example, starting with a plan of the allotments near our home I imagined this perhaps 100 times the size, and it became the plan of a small town. The paths turned into roads, the individual plots became parks, areas of housing, factories, and so forth, and there were bus routes and railway lines as needed. And of course the Merryhills Brook which ran through the allotments became a mighty river with two imposing bridges (in reality wooden planks) crossing over it. Had I invented Second Life 40 years too early?

When I was a little older I took up bus-spotting; I was drawn into this by schoolfriends. But for me the interesting part was the travelling about. There was some fun to be had in sneaking into bus garages, or finding side entrances which revealed ancient museum-piece vehicles that hadn’t gone anywhere for years, or mysteriously-shaped Service Vehicles used for unimaginable occult purposes. I liked trolleybuses best; they were so quiet and seemed to move of their own accord with no obvious means of propulsion. But really bus-spotting was an opportunity, or excuse, to get to places I had only previously seen on maps. For the derisory price of a one-day Green Rover ticket you could travel the whole extent of the London Country bus network, which until privatisation and deregulation stretched from Letchworth in the north to Crawley in the south, and from Brentwood in the east to Maidenhead in the west. Initially, along with a tubby timetable booklet, I had the Country Bus map, which confidently showed a dense network of routes visiting all sorts of towns and villages; though when you consulted the timetable it often turned out that some useful-looking route only ran on the second Tuesday in the month. I had missed by some years the classic detailed map, which had a complex array of symbols, with the route numbers in squares, lozenges, circles, and diamonds, according to which days of the week had a service. One was even a diamond with a circle inside it. Now that really was information science.

I’ve never been so taken with the London Underground map; the reason is that it isn’t a map, it’s a diagram. It isn’t drawn to scale, and stations on different lines which are within walking distance of each other appear to be many miles apart. It’s useful for finding your way and that’s all.

The next great map-reading event was the epic cycle ride from Bordeaux to (almost) Budapest in 1966, which is a whole chapter in itself. As I went along I bought the relevant Michelin 1:200000 maps, quite plain but informative, and attractive in their own way, and I marked the route travelled on the map. I still have these maps, but sadly not the Youth Hostel card which would tell me where I stopped each night.

After that the map-reading got down to a more mundane level, with a couple of cycle tours in France and some day trips while I was working in Rotterdam. And after marriage and domestication most journeys were by train. But even now when I am about to cycle somewhere, even somewhere very familiar, I get out the map and check the route.

P.S. Yes, I do know and use Google Maps; they don’t have much aesthetic appeal, but they are practical, and the zooming in and out is fun. Street View, by contrast, is just voyeurism. And of course with SatNav you don’t need maps, you don’t need to know the way to where you’re going, and you need know nothing about the places inbetween. You will of course miss a lot of nice places in the process.

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