I’m beginning to worry, just a little bit, about the Ordnance Survey. Specifically, the brightest star in its cartographical firmament, the Landranger map. This is an institution. You fool about with it at your peril. Yet fooling-about is going on.
This is a serious matter. Maps, I just love them. Doesn’t everybody? Maps pretend to be non-fiction, to be truthful, to be accurate, but they are also full of possibilities, are fantasy worlds. A map cannot tell you what a place looks like – only where it is, relative to other things. Maps release the imagination.
I pick up maps and pore over them – noting the disused railway lines, the restored canals, the transmission masts, the sudden appearance of Millennium projects, the steady march of housing estates, the equally steady growth of native woodland. I may not necessarily intend to go to these places, but in Mapworld, even the dullest parts of the English Midlands might just turn out to be Narnia.
I have an equal, but different passion for Michelin’s yellow maps of continental Europe. Michelin’s standard 1/200 000 map is, logically enough, a motorist’s scale, with no fine detail. The nearest French equivalent to the Ordnance Survey is the Institut Geographique National, and its 1/50 000 Orange series maps are the Gallic answer to our Landrangers, only 40 per cent cheaper. Somehow they make this scale cover the whole of France in exactly 1000 sheets, thus proving that metrication is the natural order of things. But I don’t like them, and never buy them. When in France, I sometimes buy both the larger and smaller-scale green and blue IGN series, but I still prefer the yellow Michelins. In Britain, however, only the 1/50 000 Landrangers will do. Why is this?
Partly because Britain is smaller, which suits the Landranger scale. This in turn may be to do with its origins as a slightly inflated Imperial measure – derived from the old one-inch-to-the-mile OS maps, which somehow felt right. What you get now – two centimetres to the kilometre – is roughly one and a quarter inches to the mile. Our roads, of course, are still not marked out in kilometres and metres, so this is meaningless, but let that inconsistency pass.
Mostly, the appeal of a map comes down to its graphic style. In the end, this is why you buy one map rather than another. The yellow Michelins have a thoroughly congenial style, clear and companionable. The IGN maps of France lack warmth, are too academic. But the Landrangers always used to strike the right balance. So why am I worried?
I ordered a boxful of the latest Landrangers, the March 2002 edition. The moment I opened the first one, it was clear that something was up. The maps have a slightly washed-out feel. Colours are paler, black-line edging is thinner, than recent editions. Trunk roads have suddenly become green, having previously always been red. There are more of those blue tourist-information symbols, the latest ones signifying gardens open to the public, visitor centres, and walks/trails. The last one is the worst. It’s meant to look like a footprint, but instead comes over as a fat exclamation mark. It’s not clear what sort of walk it represents, but it’s not a long-distance path, since this has a separate symbol consisting of big red diamonds. What with those and the big green dots marking long-distance cycleways, the Landranger appears to have broken out into a rash.
For purposes of comparison, I pull out the oldest OS map I possess: the Stafford one-inch map of 1963. The map is beautifully clear, its archaic flowing typeface more readable than today’s fainter sans-serif face. It has its famous symbols – windmill, church, pylon and so on – but it is entirely free of clumsy and irritating tourist markers. With some necessary exceptions, it describes what is on the ground, and nothing else. Since you don’t find blue exclamation marks or big red diamonds on the ground, they are not there.
Of course, the old map is as much a work of fiction as the new one – roads were always indicative, for instance, their true widths never divulged – but it was an elegant, intelligent work of fiction. Today’s Landranger is more the equivalent of an airport bonkbuster. Map readers are assumed to be stupid. Tourist information is confused with cartography. Highly legible, intrusive symbols are offset by generally reduced clarity on the other. These great maps are steadily becoming dumbed-down. Luckily, the underlying mapping structure is still strong. But there is less scope for the imagination.