Skip to main content
Read page text

| GEOGRAPHICAL reviews |

A classic story of exploration by RA Bagnold, the pioneer of motorised desert transport, updated in a new edition

An exploration of more than 1,000 years of humanity’s relationship with the sea and our attempts to come to grips with its might

A beatifully illustrated book that celebrates human diversity, making us fall in love with the world again



Book of the month

Our survey said...

The internet is home to many wonders. I can gaze at the paintings in the Uffizi with the click of a mouse; I can instantly locate a recipe for bouillabaisse; and I can install a nifty desktop gadget that keeps me apprised of all the latest cricket scores. All very welcome.

The internet also does a good line in maps, and I’m sure that tech-savvy ramblers enjoy the convenience of downloading all the information they require to their phones and portable devices. One can’t help but wonder if such progress comes at a hefty price, however. An entire generation is growing up that will hardly ever enjoy the satisfaction of finally managing to fold up a physical map after a five-minute struggle. They won’t know what it’s like to battle the elements as you try to spread out a map on the boot of your car. Some see this as a good thing; I’m not so sure.

A second factor was more amorphous but just as important. Hewitt sometimes talks about ‘the Enlightenment’ as if it were an easily defined cultural phenomenon. This is regrettable, but her basic point is still sound. There was undoubtedly a widespread 18th-century passion to study the natural world through increasingly rigorous methods: to calibrate and observe was to gain mastery, and it was the duty of every self-styled rational person to embrace the measuring and accurate depiction of the world. Good maps fitted this mentality extremely well.

By 1791, the year in which the Ordnance Survey project got under way, these notions were at their zenith. It was the perfect moment to embark on the ambitious project of accurately mapping the whole of the UK. The first offering (a map of Kent and part of Essex) hit the shelves in 1801. It would take another seven decades to complete the task.

There is something special about the maps on which parts of place names get lost in the creases, and none is more special than those produced by the Ordnance Survey. They are iconic, dazzlingly accurate and held in great affection by the British public. Rachel Hewitt’s book tells their tale. I’m not convinced that it represents ‘one of the great British adventure stories’, but it is still fascinating.

MAP OF A NATION: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt GRANTA, HB, £25

Hewitt does a terrific job of recounting the trials and tribulations of the doughty surveyors and the methods they employed. One of the most entertaining parts of the book explores the suspicion and resistance the early pioneers encountered. The whole project captured the popular imagination (it

Hewitt begins by exploring the 18th-century shift in British cartographic attitudes. We had always been quite good at producing serviceable localised maps (those of estates, for instance), but decent maps of larger areas (especially of remote locations) had been few and far between.

claimed many column inches in the press), but locals sometimes looked askance at the arrival of map-makers in their neighbourhoods. Perhaps they were spies on the lookout for political radicals or perhaps they were the harbingers of some new government initiative that would hike up taxes or enclose land that had been held in common for centuries.

An accurate cartographic representation of the entire island was an even more distant prospect. ‘National’ maps did exist, but they were usually exercises in propaganda (‘emblems of power’) rather than noteworthy scientific achievements. Hewitt identifies various factors that pushed us towards a new paradigm of map-making. One was military. Fighting Jacobite rebels in the relatively uncharted 18th-century Highlands helped to convince the powers-that-were that accurate maps of the nation might be an excellent strategic idea. Repeated run-ins with the French (who might have been thinking about launching an attack on our shores) only served to hammer home this point.

In the end, the fears subsided. Ordnance Survey maps became part of the British cultural identity, and people still tour the countryside in search of triangulation stations (or ‘trig points’): the pillars on which the surveyors mounted their instruments. There are apparently 5,000 of them, and tracking them all down can become a lifelong obsession.

That is taking things to extremes, but we should all be proud of the extraordinary achievement of the Ordnance Survey and Hewitt is to be commended for telling its tale with such elegance and enthusiasm. Even if you don’t buy her book, you should do someone a favour and buy them a proper oldfashioned map for their next birthday. JONATHAN WRIGHT

JANUARY 2011 65

My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content