Thursday, 24 April 2014


Some years ago, when GPS was still had an air of witchcraft and novelty about it, I was hiking across the top of Kinder Scout, in the Peak District, with the group of friends you’d expect.  Kinder Scout is hellish.  The summit’s plateau is a bog stained, trench riddled, hostile, bleakly miserable place to trudge through the relentless drizzle it attracts ninety percent of the year.  The inevitable low  cloud, peat gulleys and lack of marked paths make it particularly tricky to navigate.  Many times, I have ended up in ever-decreasing circles, trying to circumnavigate a large expanse of sucking bog yet not actually making any progress forwards.  This time, though, it was going to be different.  This time, John had a GPS tracker.  ‘Linked to up six satellites,’ he proudly announced, tuning it in at the waterfall’s top where we would leave sensible walking and enter the labyrinth. 

Less than five minutes later: ‘Er, slight problem guys,’ John called. ‘I’m out of battery.’

This is why I like physical maps.

They’re tangible and reliable and any failing is almost certainly down to the user, not the map itself.  I can fully accept me getting something wrong, that happens all the time.  I am significantly more irritated when a service paid for buggers it up.

Reading Rachel Hewitt’s memoir of the Ordnance Survey maps in Saturday’s Guardian, I felt a nostalgic pang.  I am a dedicated fan of OS maps.  The chest that lives on our landing is packed full of OS maps from Kent and Surrey to the Norfolk Broads, down to the surfing beaches of Cornwall, the Devon coves, up through most of Wales, the Chilterns, into the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and on to the Northumbrian Coast.  Each evokes memories of a holiday or weekend break around the country, coloured contour lines and over-sized blue pint glasses tracking time spent.

OS doesn’t seem in any danger of disappearing.  The majority of its business comes from maintaining its MasterMap, the most accurate and detailed representation of a country anywhere on Earth, updated 10,000 times a day and used to inform everything from housing stock indexes, road planning, defence to postcode districts.  Actual maps, physical or otherwise, sold for use account for just seven percent of business.  So, OS seems fine, but there is a decrease in the use of maps generally.  From road atlases to A-Zs, people are increasingly shunning paper in favour of the screen.

This is an argument my fiancée and I regularly have:  I don’t use a sat-nav, but I do have a road atlas in the car.  My fiancée gets car sick, so I may be driving and simultaneously grappling with the map on my lap to check the point for the final turn.  She doesn’t like to look at the atlas, because it makes her feel sick, but will always offer to use the mapping software on her phone and I will always decline.

Quite why I turn down the offer of help is unclear even to me.  I am luddite, I prefer books to e-readers and physical music to downloads, both of which are largely aesthetic decisions (although I maintain that physical music sounds better than downloads), and I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that replacing maps to be used in the middle of nowhere with an App on your phone is a sensible idea – not when issues of battery life and reception that can be disrupted by low lying cloud remain – but why the affection for road atlases and A-Zs?

It can’t be accuracy.  My London A-Z is from 2000 and large swathes of it are completely wrong.  Streets that are now one-way are marked as two way, housing estates in Peckham long demolished are still present, the A12 triple lane bypass exiting the East End marked by dotted lines of the proposed route.  My A-Z captures not an accurate representation of the city around me but a relic of what it was like when I first moved here.  I keep it for nostalgia reasons and, despite its inaccuracies, I prefer it to electronic versions.  It makes me think more.  It makes me more aware of my surroundings.  It prevents me becoming ones of those people I overtake on the motorway at night, their satnavs plugged to their windscreens, showing forever straight onwards.

OS maps are the same.  They require you to concentrate, to read the map and translate it into the topography around you.  It’s more rewarding than simply turning left when prompted.  Maps help you to learn and remember.  I can usually find a route after using it once because I’ve been paying attention, because I understand the world I’m passing through not just obeying instructions delivered in the voice of an ironic washed up eighties icon or by an arrow hesitantly on a screen in my rough location.

Maybe it’s only a small step away from the hogwash being spouted by Grant Morrison.  Maybe instead of fiction suits a map allows you wear a geographical suit.  You blend into the landscape, urban or rural.  A little bit of magic takes place.

I just need to keep it in perspective else there be another slight problem, guys.



  1. As a geographer and map fanatic myself, I really enjoyed reading this post, David. Especially since I'd missed the OS article you mention. Will look it up. Next time I see you I must tell you about my visit to the OS HQ in Southampton last summer. It was a bit of a pilgrimage and was every bit as exciting as any map geek could have hoped for.

  2. Thanks, Lucy. Back when I was selling exhibitions space to companies trying to reach the housebuilding market, I once tried to pitch to OS on the basis that the MasterMap service was a valuable tool for developers, but really I just wanted to go to their offices. They never went for it, so I'm jealous that you've been to the Southampton mecca.