I could be wrong. There might be scientists out there who are sent into transports of delight simply by looking at the periodic table. And why not? But, for me, it’s the map that combines practicality and imagination in such delightful unison.
No doubt for some, those lines on Googlemaps or Mappy do the job so why look for more? But for me it has to be the paper variety…the A to Z of London, the National Geographic fold-out special or, surely that great British favourite, the Ordnance Survey map. Who can resist the plethora of pathways, bridges and bridleways, rivers and ponds, the churches and chapels that the OS map offers up …all the while decoding the signs and symbols with the aid of the code-breaking legend at the bottom of the map, to find out if your church is with or without steeple? (Here in France, we have the OS equivalent, the IGN…originally l’Institut Géographique National, although it is now known as l’Institut National de l’Information Géographique et Forestière.)
Many years ago, in a classroom far away, I distributed some maps to a class of ten year olds. I had hoped that that they would share my interest (apart from the fact that it was on the curriculum, so it was hardly a case of free choice) but I was delighted to find that their enthusiasm far outweighed my expectations. The twenty minutes allotted to looking at the maps came and went as they identified where they lived, found the recreation parks where they played and the canals where they fished. Their eyes travelled along every little pathway and cul-de-sac while grubby fingers jostled for position on the roads and streets of their home town. Half an hour went by and then an hour until, finally, their magnetic draw to the maps was only broken by the bell for break. They sighed in disappointment and reluctantly packed them away, as if I had called them back from embarking on a journey to far-off places. Hey…come back!
‘Can we do that again, Miss?’ one child asked. Of course he would do it again, over and over through his life, fighting the wind for control of the map as he tries to find a petrol station on the Yorkshire Moors, or sitting at the café in a French square, discussing with his girlfriend how to locate the museums and galleries of Aix-en-Provence, or standing at the kitchen worktop with his wife, working out the best route for travelling through Europe by camping car…or maybe by cycle, as in Andrew Bowie’s ‘Peloton of Two’, or even on horseback, like Mefo Philips and her sister in ‘Horseshoes and Holy Water’.
Maps spread out over the table, we smooth out the folds of their regular squares, notebook at the ready and guidebooks at hand, scanning the motorways that span the country from coast-to-coast, leaning in to trace a country lane or footpath or ….am I alone in finding almost as much pleasure in planning the route as in doing the travelling? For people like us, unfolding a map is like unwrapping a present. Who knows what we might find? Where we might go in our minds or in reality?
Maybe then we can sense a fraction of the enthusiasm of the map-makers and cartographers who, over the centuries, have attempted to capture and embody every geographical feature, every hill and valley, every river and ocean, packing them away into a paper version of what they have seen, making it accessible to even the most sofa-bound would-be traveller.
Whether trudging through jungles, compass and notebooks in hand (such as Colonel Percy Fawcett portrayed in ‘The Lost City of Z’) or flying low over hills and plains, filming and noting en route (as my uncle did in Malaysia after the Second World War), or even driving through the streets of cities in the infamous Streetview vehicle, man does his best to record his surroundings. Back and forth, measuring and re-measuring the globe.
But even today that work is still not complete.
When earthquakes hit rural areas, such as Nepal in 2015, the lack of accurate maps suddenly becomes of life-and-death importance. Fortunately, there are people like Nama Budhatoki who saw this need and had already thought of a possible solution. A solution which could accord vital information when a crisis hit and emergency aid was needed in the right place in the shortest time possible. Just as anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, Nama realised that a similar system of open data and crowdsourcing could be employed in helping to map these vulnerable areas. He founded KLL – Kathmandu Living Labs – a non-profit organisation, and put out a call for help. Several thousand people responded and the work they did and still do makes a vitally important contribution in making areas such as Nepal accessible, something that is particularly valuable in times of emergency such as earthquakes or floods.
In this case, it was, of course, the electronic version of mapping which carried the lion’s share of the information, a system I can sometimes be guilty of sneering at, which would be utterly wrong as it not only helps and informs travellers but can be essential to their survival.
There is, however, a special place in my heart for the paper map. I have a drawer full of maps of a range of places from the Isle of Wight to the Isle of Sardinia, from Newport Pagnell to Prades and Perpignan. Not to mention the smaller maps, given out by the Mairie or the Office de Tourisme of each and every town or village that I pass through.
Calling into a Tourist Office for information with a friend on a recent visit to a town we knew quite well, we were offered a town plan.
‘I don’t think we’ll be needing that’, said my friend to the smiling assistant.
‘We might,’ I added, taking it and pushing it into the bottom of my bag, ready to add to my stash later on.
A previous boyfriend also had difficulty in understanding this obsession, as we settled into our hotel room… he occupied himself in sorting a week’s worth of polo shirts into colour order while I was scouring the OS map for oddities… ‘Look, there’s a chapel right on top of this mountain’… worried response ‘Were you wanting to visit it?’ But I am visiting it, for those few minutes (often more) that I have my head buried in a map, I feel that I am there, standing on that summit, walking alongside that river or admiring that ‘diverse place of interest’ or ‘notable monument’.
‘Visiting’ from the security of my armchair leaves me open to ridicule, I realise, but I feel that this form of touring with the eyes has its own value…it can be a pre-cursor to an actual trip, a practical preparation or an appetizer to get you out there on the road. It can be a souvenir of trips past, looking back along the roads travelled and recalling the puncture in a rainstorm or that rainbow stretching over the moors. It can transport you to far-off places when you feel the need to escape. We all know that travel broadens the mind but the map plays an important part in that, in opening up both horizons and possibilities, extending a hand of invitation to come explore…with your feet or with your eyes.
As Proust said, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.’
Photographs by Deborah Alexander