Maps: icon to icons

The maps we loved: the Vale of Glamorgan 1970s, mapped by Ordnance Survey

Last month, Apple came under fire for the poor quality of its new Apple Maps app for iPhone and iPad. The reaction showed how our idea of what a map is has utterly changed. A visitor from the 1970s would be baffled by the idea of a computer company producing a map – let alone the concept of having a map on a phone. They’d have thought it as crazy as a television making a cup of tea.

The map that opens this blog post is a section of the oldest map I possess. It’s the very first Ordnance Survey metric map of the Vale of Glamorgan and the Rhondda. (This 1:50,000 series replaced the much-loved 1 inch OS series.) It’s striking (for Wales) for its English-only place and geographical names: Cowbridge, for example, is unaccompanied by its Welsh name, Y Bont Faen, unlike on more recent OS maps. The map is titled The Rhondda, which is a curiously misleading description of a sheet that covers almost the whole of the Vale as well as many of the valleys of the Glamorgan uplands.

I was given this map as a birthday present in 1977. I used to have the earlier 1 inch OS map of Cardiff (a very different place 35 years ago), along with an even older map of Cirencester, showing the railway lines that closed in the 1960s. (I had fun comparing it with the 1990s equivalent.)

Paper maps have a special quality. In the dark, cold nights of January 1995, I plotted a cycle holiday from Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester, to the English Channel at Beer. It was a warming experience lying by the fire choosing villages and quiet coastal roads to explore the following summer – with a beer. Five months later, I took pride in the fact my friend Richard and I got lost just once in 325 miles when we followed that fireside-plotted trail.

But I mustn’t sound too wedded to the joy of the old over the new. I carried a dozen OS maps on that holiday. Twice we arrived at a promised (by the map) pub to find it didn’t exist. How we’d have loved the idea of carrying maps for the whole journey in our pockets. Along with B&B lists and reviews, weather reports, newspapers, music players and books… It would have seemed a miracle.

The BBC news website’s magazine (a great read, by the way) has a fascinating feature on the subject today. It’s a tad sceptical about the move to electronic maps:

“Digital maps may be shrinking our brains. Richard Dawkins has suggested that it may have been the drawing of maps, rather than the development of language, that boosted our brains over that critical hurdle that other apes failed to jump.”

That seems to overstate the case. But I do vividly remember drawing my own spidery maps of Lakeside and Cyncoed, Cardiff, soon after we moved home to Wales when I was seven in 1971. It was my way of making sense of my new hinterland. Most of the houses were less than 10 years old. Street names such as Farm Drive hinted at a more rural past (and there was a surviving farm house close to where Eastern Avenue now crosses Lake Road East).

Lakeside, Cardiff – by Google Maps. My version was more spidery

I’ll end on a cycling note. As I blogged in February, I love having digital maps on my handlebars, in the form of my Garmin Edge 800 GPS. But I’ll still treasure my printed maps. They’re part of my past – and my future.

6 thoughts on “Maps: icon to icons

  1. I like to think that I helped with your passion for maps – they have always been something in which I (and Julio) take pleasure. your nieces and nephew were encouraged to make maps of their area, just as you did at 7 (when I was doing my A level geography homework) and of the garden – at what point do plans become maps?

    One of my favourite tasks in O level Georgraphy was to make a relief outline of a section of map – lay a piece of paper on the map, mark the contour lines alog it, then draw a graph to show the ups and downs and steepness. I still do it sometimes for fun (or interest!)

    Going back to maps – we have been stuck in a car on a mountantop in mid Wales (the map said the road carried o to the outskirts of Aberystwth – it didn’t; it peetered out in a field), and for years I wouldn’t let Julio drive down roads that had grass in the middle!

    We always buy a “proper” map when we are on holiday – especiallly the yellow Michelin ones in France.. We have at least 3 copies of varying ages of the one for the area around Pas de Calais, and at least half a dozen of St Malo! We have to buy an up-to-date road atlas, and it came as a big surprise when the national Spanish one came with a CD to load onto the pc (before the days of sat nav!).

    Ah – that leads me on to sat navs. Very useful, particularly for the last bit of the journey. I can remember, in the days when I would travel the length and breadth of the country on my own in the car, that I had 2 methods of navigating (map reading and driving at the same time not being a good idea). Both involved planning the journey in advance using maps. Then I’d either record the journey onto a cassette tape, put it in the car’s player and turn on to hear the next instruction (carry on to Exit 12 and take the Thatcham turning) then off until I got there, where I listened to the next one. The other version was basically the same, but using post -it -notes that could be removed one by one.

    We love Google maps and get distracted at work when planning an engineer’s visit (they’re off to Castleford today), It’s a bit like looking something up in an encyclopedia or dictionary – one thing leads to another, and then you’re miles away from your starting point (both geographically and metaphorically).

    I particularly enjoy guiding someone at the end of the phone when they are lost or needing a diversion to traffic jams.

    Another pleasure – we’ll go out for a drive (prefereably somewhere unfamilair; we know lots of places like the back of our hands) get ourselves “lost” somewhere by taking it in turns choosing left right or straight on at junctions, then finding ourselves on the map uaually having stopped at a pub or cafe for a drink) then getting back. great fun, and it can last as long as you like!

    So – in praise of maps, in all their forms. Is there a club or society we could join?

    Your big sister, Bev

    PS I read the piece in BBC magazine too

    • Hello Bev – thanks for the comment. You certainly did spur my love for maps. In fact, you may well have given me that Rhondda OS map in 1977! You definitely explained contour lines and triangulation points. Happy days.

  2. Pingback: The Ordnance Survey map addict | Ertblog

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