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).
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.