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  • Martin Castle

"Men read maps better than women ..."

I love maps - a book of maps charting the changes in boundaries across the world fascinated me from a young age as the shapes on the maps changed colour over time and as each page was turned. My fantastic geography teacher at school, Mr Nicholls, would draw outline maps for continents and countries and regions on his blackboard whilst facing us. The outcome was, unerringly, an exact depiction of what you would see in the best of atlases. I well remember the blank outlines I created for the banda machine (hand-cranked) for my geography lessons in my first teaching post.

Ptolemy's map of the world in the 2nd century AD

Maps first appeared on cave walls, mammoth tusks, and clay tablets then explorers drew maps on paper as we began to understand the shape of our world. Maps simplify complicated information; GPS can get you from point A to point B but it does a poor job with helping you visualize where you are in relation to everything else; maps help with spatial thinking; maps can save your life; maps are a window onto

history giving a glimpse into how people understood their world at the time the map was created; maps connect you to memories; maps make you happy - a 2010 study noted it’s the planning and anticipation

that makes travellers the

happiest!; maps give stories (and accounts) context - for instance the maps that form the end papers of The Lord of the Rings and the opening credits of Game of Thrones; maps inspire - imagine the amazement of the medieval mind when viewing the map of the world as seen at the top of the text - the Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral. In my last house I created a wall made up of bits of maps that showed everywhere I had lived - it was a strange but very personal landscape.

In the UK the official map-makers are the Ordnance Survey and I've never lost the delight in unfolding a map and spreading it out flat seeing the 3-D world represented in a 2-D format; a picture of the ground under one's feet laid out and extending beyond the line of sight at 1 inch to 1 mile, to reveal what might lurk beyond - just over there! I just about remember new OS maps being made of linen before paper took over and eventually the all-weather maps especially coated to keep the elements from turning your map to soggy crumpled shreds.

In cubs and scouts I learned the code that allows you to decipher the symbols so that you could describe the shape of the ground, its elevation, structures (both natural and man-made) that would be visible as you navigated from point to point. The maps of my downland environment in Kent made you look closely at your surroundings and made me marvel at the effort that must have gone in to creating the accurate representation held in my hand. Much later I spent a morning with map-makers adding a new building that had been built at a school to the system - a small pad connected to a satellite that did all the calculations and before my eyes added the shape to the existing map.

A treasured memory is sitting with my dad at Caesar's Camp and on Sugar Loaf Hill near Folkstone (above what is now the Channel Tunnel terminus) with map in hand connecting paper to earth. We sat there a long time prising more and more detail from the map and locating it on the ground and spotting odd shapes, building and spaces on the ground to see if the cartographers had missed anything - of course they hadn't - after-all this was the OS we were talking about!

William Roy

The name Ordnance Survey hints at how it all began. Britain’s mapping agency has its roots in military strategy: mapping the Scottish Highlands following rebellion in 1745. It was an innovative young engineer called William Roy who was tasked with the initial small-scale military survey of Scotland. Starting in 1747, it took eight years to complete what was known as the Great Map at a scale of 1:36 000 (1.75 inches to a mile). Roads, hills, rivers, types of land cover and settlements were recorded.

If you want to learn about the Scottish rebellions the BBC ran an interesting 3-part programme called the Blood of the Clans presented by Neil Oliver.

When the French Revolution occurred on the other side of the English Channel, there were real fears the bloodshed might sweep across the waters to Britain so the government ordered its defence ministry of the time – the Board of Ordnance – to begin a survey of England’s vulnerable southern coasts. Until then, maps had lacked the detail required for moving troops and planning campaigns but accuracy was achieved using triangulation with a baseline on Hounslow Heath (now Heathrow Airport) and the ancient warning beacons becoming new triangulation points. When the was re-triangulated after 1935 (being completed in 1962) some 6,500 trig points/pillars of stone or concrete were placed on points of high ground across the UK. Now defunct due to satellite imaging they remain both on the ground and on the maps. They do, however, make a good backrest after a hard slog to the top!

Trig point on Red Screes, the Lake District

The Survey takes its birth from 1791 but the name is not used until 10 years later and only appears on maps from 1810 - a survey of the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire. The first maps were sold at three guineas (£3 3s) per county survey, which was between one and three weeks wages for the average person. It was thought that 50 years would be long enough to map the country, but the entire first series of maps wasn’t published until 1870. Colour came to OS maps in 1887 whilst crazes like cycling and rambling and the development of the motor car created a huge new market for map sales and maps of various scales were created. The National Grid system was now used on all Ordnance Survey maps to identify the position of any feature. It breaks Great Britain down into progressively smaller squares identified first by letters and then numbers - along the passage and then up the stairs was how I was taught to remember that you read across the map (eastings) before reading up the map (northings)! So my location could be easily identified by a primary aged child down to a space 100m square and with a bit more thought a 10m square!

In 1974 the venerable 1 inch:1 mile was replaced by the metric 1:50,000 and the wonderful 1:25, 000 scale to create Outdoor Leisure Maps - my favourite - with a clear and comprehensive legend. By this time computers and satellites were making the need to climb the peaks to triangulate a thing of the past and today there are all kinds of gadgets to help you navigate electronically. I have to say I'm a bit of a dinosaur and cling to my maps - giving a bigger picture than my phone screen and not requiring battery or signal. There's nothing better than sitting, tea and cake to hand and reviewing your route, planning the next step and identifying the distant views with a map spread out in the sunshine of a lovely afternoon.


Whilst you're relaxing studying your map that would be the time to partake of a local Norfolk recipe:

Nelson Slices


500g/Ilb stale bread

75g/3oz sultanas

100g/4oz brown sugar

75g/3oz raisins

½ tsp nutmeg

grated rind of ½ lemon

75g/3 oz melted butter

1 egg, beaten

2 tbsps marmalade

1 tbsp rum


1. Soak the bread in water for 1 hour.

2. Squeeze out the water then mash until creamy.

3. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and beat well.

4. Pour into a well-greased tin about 8” or 20cm.

5. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 180 °C/350°F

6. After baking cut into slices.

Some recipes for ‘Nelsons slices’ sandwich the basic bread pudding between two layers of shortcrust pastry.

ps: "Men read maps better than women because only men can understand the concept of an inch equaling a hundred miles.” ― Roseanne Barr

pps: Are men better map readers than women? I was once told (by a man) men were more successful because their bodies contain more iron and that somehow aligns them more with the Earth's magnetic field! Recent research points to a different view point and the best map I know reader is called Pat (as in Patricia).

ppps: I remember Mr Nicholl's consternation when the colour for motorways was changed to blue - previously on OS maps blue always and only represented water. There's a point on the map a little way north of Rugby that has canal, railway and motorway all sharing the same box on the grid - he worried about drives attempting to turn onto the motorway and finding themselves driving down a canal - madness, madness he felt!

Word of the Day is ...



n. The art or technique of making maps or charts.

French cartographie : carte (map) from Old French; from Latin charta, carta, + -graphie, (writing) from Greek -graphiā.



Map out your future - but do it in pencil. - Jon Bon Jovi

"Maps encourage boldness. They’re like cryptic love letters. They make anything seem possible.” ― the artist Mark Jenkins

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