In this era of sat nav, it seems as though the entire map is known and that you can just get the bit you need coughed up on request. Here to there, with smooth precision. You are more likely to make mistakes and get lost when using a physical map, especially if you’re inexperienced, so why be old-school about it when there’s technological solutions to be had?
Once upon a time, when a map maker didn’t know everything about the map, they’d add creatures, and the wonderful ‘here be dragons’. Older maps show the known and the unknown. On your sat-nav route, almost everything aside from the roads or paths you’re following, become unknown. Unremarked upon, and invisible to you. Set out to drive in this way (something I’ve done many times as a passenger – I can’t drive!) and no one mentions the dragons. The countryside and the cities whizz by, devoid of features aside from the little that can be gleaned from signposts.
A map tells you what’s behind the hedge, what happens if you take the scenic route, and what you might want to stop for. The sat-nav journey is all about getting from A to B at the greatest speed. This is not the only way to travel, and we may be losing the art of poking about, being curious, stopping for a look. The journey is no longer about the journey, and we are the poorer for that.
Maps hint at the unknown. They show the places you won’t see from the road. I’m a big fan of the ordinance survey, with its habit of including ancient sites. I’ve had many a walk to a spot found on a map. Around here, there are many hidden valleys – places it’s hard to see from anywhere else. The map reveals them, as does the willingness to get out and ramble without a fixed route in mind. Where motorways and railways cut up the land, it is maps that you need to reveal the secret passing points, the ways of defying progress to cross the road.
Maps can be a source of delight without even having to leave your home. They raise questions and offer imaginative journeys. They reveal place names, and often in those names is a dash of history, or a hint of the stories that might be held within the land. Old stretches of Roman road are immediately visible, information about the relationships between places, too. Road networks can have a really distorting influence on how we understand landscape. They inevitably restrict journeys to certain kinds of routes and places, missing out the steepest, the wettest, and with that often the most direct. Maps show us the possibilities before we get out there and take the risks.
The map can invite over-planning. Too much insistence on careful use of the map can remove the scope for adventure, and the curious pleasure of getting lost. There are landscapes in which getting lost is a bloody stupid idea, but in tamer places, a little low risk confusion is good for the soul. If we become too focused on the map, and the pre-determined route, it stops us from following whims and asking what’s over there… For the nervous and inexperienced walker, the physical map may at first be a necessary crutch. For the person in a wholly unfamiliar landscape, it may seem vital – there are other ways of dealing with this, and I’ll be back to them later.
My preferred method is to pour over the map at home, and leave it at home while I test off to test what I’ve understood on the ground. Then, on coming back, I’ll go back to the map to see what I did, how it related to what I’d intended, and to find out what I’ve learned.