What is the magic of maps? What is the special, secret ingredient that transforms a flat piece of paper into a complex, contoured landscape filled with hills and valleys, rivers and paths and trees? In essence, a map is no more than a piece of paper with lines and dots and maybe a bit of shading. But its beauty is in its simplicity – a mere piece of paper can help you to conjure up an image of exactly where you are in your street, your country, the world, or even the universe.
I’ve always loved maps – ever since I was a boy scout I have loved the idea that there, sketched out on a piece of paper, is a whole world that I want to explore. But more than that, I love what maps stand for – they represent an opportunity to travel, to explore, to discover somewhere that you have never been before. That is their magic.
Whenever I prepare for a journey I spend hours poring over maps to plan where I want to go, how I will get there, what I will do once I am there. Quite often there never is a “there”, the whole journey is about the journey. Sometimes there is a destination, sometimes not – a bit like Edward Monkton’s Zen Dog.
But it doesn’t matter whether I am travelling to another continent, another country, or just another corner of the woods down the road, it is a map that opens up all the possibilities. And that is the amazing thing about them, our minds adjust effortlessly to whatever they represent – scale all becomes relative. We can comprehend a map of the globe just as easily as a 1:10,000 London street map.
Earlier this year we moved from Kent to Dorset, which meant, oh joy of joys, that I had to invest in a whole new set of maps. I say a whole new set, because there is a small problem about the Ordnance Survey map of where we live – our village is right in the top left-hand corner of map 118. That means I need another three maps to get the full picture of the surrounding countryside. The Ordnance Survey does create bespoke maps with your postcode right at the centre, but they don’t supply a digital version, so you might as well just buy the four maps.
And yes, you read that right: I did mention that dreaded word “digital”. I am, at heart, a traditionalist. I prefer paper maps that can be spread out on the lounge floor to plan that journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats, or Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela. But there are times when digital is useful, and Ordnance Survey have picked up on this, because now when you buy and one of their Explorer or Landranger series, you can download a version onto a mobile device. That means you don’t have to carry an extra bag for all the maps you would need, but you’ll also have to make sure your phone battery doesn’t go flat.
Actually, I have joined more than just the OS digital scene. I use Memory Maps for route planning on my computer (after checking out the planning on paper), and I use open source maps on my Garmin. A bit belt and braces, I know, but that is called being prepared. And perhaps that is the boy scout in me. I remember well those many, many years ago doing my scouts mapmaker badge, when I was left on my own for a day to map out a bend in the Jukskei River, north of Johannesburg. (You wouldn’t leave a 12-year-old there on his own nowadays, but that’s another story.) But I got my badge, my first scouting badge, and it has stood me in good stead ever since.
And so, when I head off with friends on an adventure, it is always me that is assigned as Mowgli the pathfinder. And I am happy to lead the way, to take responsibility where others shirk it. Yes, occasionally I go the wrong way, but that just adds to the fun of it all.
Of course, in the car with the wife it is a totally different matter. She has the map and gives directions. She even tells the satnav that it is wrong. I don’t argue, I just keep on driving and let them sort it out between them.