I know exactly where my obsession with maps began. My beloved grandfather passed on many traits, including a love of history and an engineering mindset. But the most tangible legacy is my ‘thing’ about maps. When I was about 5 (and he was in his 70s) he treated himself to a new world atlas, and passed the old one on to me. I adored that atlas. It was huge, hardback, bound in chocolate brown cloth, its pages thick and sturdy. Nowadays, with online maps available through every mobile phone, mapping is familiar and cheap. But in the 1970s, a world atlas was a precious thing, the only real way of engaging with places around the world, seeing how they related to each other, learning how to use the index to find places I was hearing about on the BBC World Service: Tehran, Guyana, Buenos Aires. I can still remember the excitement of opening the heavy cover and exploring the treasures within.
In my teens, when I was preparing for my Geography ‘O’ level, I was introduced to Ordnance Survey maps. This was mapping at a whole new level! The detail – down to individual buildings – was mesmerising. The contour lines allowed me to visualise the rise and fall of the land. It was the start of a love affair which has lasted to this day.
The Ordnance Survey’s somewhat military name refers to its original purpose, which was to map Scotland after the suppression of the Jacobite uprising against the Hanoverian monarchy in 1745, and more generally to provide accurate maps of Britain during the Napoleonic wars. Now mostly producing digital maps, the OS continues to publish paper maps, many aimed at walkers and others who use the countryside for leisure. I own quite a few of these…
To me, maps are not simply two-dimensional representations – I have learned to imagine them (especially Ordnance Survey maps) as three-dimensional landscapes. This makes me a better than average navigator! Sometimes, if I have spent a long time with a map, it can feel almost as if I’ve actually been to the place. My grandfather’s world atlas helped me feel connected to parts of the world I had never seen, and helped me to conjure mental images of places I would probably never visit.
My obsession with maps is now a standing joke with my partner. If we are going anywhere, I have to look at the map. In the car, even if my partner knows how to get to where we are going, I have to look at the road atlas to orientate myself. Without a map, I feel as if I have been blindfolded and spun around – I lose my bearings, feel confused, get disorientated. Wherever I am, I use maps to relate where I am to other places I know. At some very basic level, I seem to need maps to know my place in the world. Each time I move to a new part of the country, my first purchase is a 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map of my new habitat. You can imagine my delight when I discovered, a few years ago, that you can order customised OS maps centred on a location of your choice! And I was even more thrilled to discover that there is now an OS app, giving me access to maps wherever I am (providing there’s 4G). I also use Googlemaps a lot, and especially the satellite and Street View functions, particularly when I’m going somewhere new. It’s a rare day that I don’t consult a map.
That world atlas is, sadly, long gone. It finally disintegrated, and by then atlases, like dictionaries, were being replaced by the internet. The smartphone has taken over the functions of the reference book. But whatever the format, I’m never happier than when I’m engrossed in a map, and for that I have my grandfather to thank.