The traveller Rosita Forbes noted in the 19th century that maps hold “the magic of anticipation without the toil and sweat of realisation”. Certainly I love the hours pored over my own maps.
Working out where to go, the route to take and what you may encounter on the walk is one of the great pleasures for us map fans. There is a charm about a map, an acknowledgement of history and an awe in its detail.
The other day a fellow map lover was pouring over a map of Knoydart and Glen Dessary (one of the remotest areas of Scotland) trying to work out a walking break for him and his friend. Between us we followed valleys up and down, looked at remote hills that were possible and worthwhile to climb, places to pitch a tent (or find a bothy) and where (weather permitting) there was potentially the best views . The great thing though was that looking at the map we could picture the walk and the scenery. Knowing the relatively rough nature of walking and climbing in the Highlands helps of course but we were able to work out to a certain degree of accuracy how long he would take and what he would be confronted with.
Almost the first thing I do whilst running navigation courses is take people outside the door, let them unfold their map and orientate it to the landscape that they see, Then they can point out various features, hills, buildings and rivers and start to gauge distances between them. Looking at a map opens up a whole raft of possibilities and potential adventures with a map really just an extension of the outdoors. Just as a good book conjures up a picture so should a map.
There is an awful lot to a map which needs to be understood first if a person is going to fully enjoy it. There is a raft of symbols to learn, contours (an invention of the 16th century but only used on a map in the 19th century) to understand and relate to and of course footpaths to follow. What is a tarmac road, what is a bridleway may be pretty straightforward but less clear is the difference between a Public footpath and a Permitted one and even more critical, a public footpath on the map that just does not seem to be on the ground! They may be marked on the map, and whilst climbing Pen y Ghent they are fairly obvious, however when you are in the lands of of the northern Howgills they have in many cases just disappeared! No signposts, no foot marks…nothing!
Of course a map cannot replicate the exact nature of the ground itself and in particular our weather has an enormous effect on any walk. At home we would plot a walk over terrain that would in reality be a sucking bog, knee high heather or a boulder field filled with snow. Alternatively a wind would make unfolding a map at best a chore and when it whips in to your face a real pain and almost impossible to use (the one and only benefit of a GPS system in my opinion). Mist or cloud create a problem as well but this is where compass work becomes important, that and an understanding of the general lie of the land taken from a map so weary steps do not take you off a cliff face or stumbling in to a stream.
So a map is not perfect, there will always be an element of incompleteness about it, the unknown which drives the imagination; however it is a critical tool for setting forth in to our great outdoors. Not just critical but fun as well. I loved geography at school and still believe some kind of navigation assessment should be a compulsory part of the syllabus, but as it seems only to be touched on I like to teach the skills that will help anyone enjoy the fells and dales. Whether it is the 1.25,000 Ordnance Survey maps I tend to use or the 1,50,000 ones that led me up the Munros of Scotland or Harvey maps which I know many people enjoy, we have the best in the world, the detail is fabulous, the accuracy astonishing and the enjoyment high
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Great article – thanks – I share your love of maps. Shame that in our satnav-obsessed world, real maps seem to take second place.
One thing, though – don’t ‘pour’ over maps – they tend to get wet and soggy! ‘Pore’ over them by all means! 😉
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