In praise of William Roy – cartographer.
Many moons have passed since receiving that joyful package by post – my prize – my road atlas. A local newspaper held a competition whereby one had to successfully recognise parts of the UK motorway network as a black line on a map. From memory, the M1, the M5, the M62, the M3 and the one I believe won me the prize being the M55, Preston Northerly to Blackpool and Britain’s first stretch of motorway.
I distinctly remember coming home from work to find my parents offering me this huge padded envelope with The Sheffield Star’s rubber stamp alongside that of the Royal Mail. Hands shaking, mind full of anticipation, carefully opening followed by a contented sigh of approval. My edition of the Ordnance Survey Road Atlas 1987. Navy blue leather bound with gold edging and an integral page marker in red ribbon. This was no glove box edition – this was the epitome of home based planning.
Having been in possession of a map fascination since childhood, this competition naturally aroused my interest. Maps have lines to follow, curves to navigate, details and symbols that need a key to define – practically, another language. Luckily for me and many others, the Ordnance Survey have a long and esteemed history at this cartography lark.
When the Scottish were giving the English a bloody nose in 1745, the government ordered a closer look at the lie of the land and gain a more informed understanding of terrain and how to use it. A twenty one year old engineer named William Roy was charged by the Board of Ordnance to carry out this task. Completed successfully, Roy was then asked for the British southern coast mapping, lest the French army pop over for another scuffle.
He described the map as more of a “magnificent military sketch than a very accurate map of the country”. With measuring technology improving, map making could be not only beneficial to the military but to almost anyone. With marked roads, hills, rivers, topography and selected buildings or settlements and towns, borders, demarcations and areas could now be easily ascertained. Forewarned is forearmed.
Having no intention of either invading or evading any military threat, I just wanted to explore. From the comfort of a dining room table I could lay out this tome and lead my index finger to wherever I wished. Plot a motorway route to cover huge distances. Or maybe head off at junction nineteen and take in those roads the Romans helped define with enigmatic names such as Fosseway, Ryknild, or Watling Street. How about a circuitous route? Link in places of interest, define some of those symbols; my word, is that a large bridge or a tiny church.
By tracing these ways and beginning to understand the naming system, I would see how far that one road takes you. The A38 or the A5 were immense in length. They connect long tracts by dissecting swathes of country. By the 1990s, bypasses were being built due to horrendous traffic gridlock in the towns and cities and the once navigable route by place or road name became fragmented by ring roads, roundabouts and industrial units and shopping centres, all with a dedicated symbol in the key.
Of course the daddy of the British road map is the Great North Road; the London to Edinburgh A1 with the Roman name, Ermine Street. I still call it thus. Passing through many a town or hamlet, this road grew out of all proportion – single carriageway here, dual there, even some motorway status in stages. Handy for those wanting to get on in a hurry, often a nightmare for those living in its environs. Noise from all that passing traffic, exit or entry slip roads often miles away from access to these now arterial routes. On the map though, all is serenely quiet in a scale legible with colour coded clues to reading this all-knowing paper trail.
I would spend hours taking in specific areas – one night might be emulating Roy’s initial foray – into Scotland and those myriad lochs, glens and mountain roads with passing places. I’d navigated the whole north coast of Scotland, taking in the castles, whisky and remote corners, years before the Aston Martin sponsored “official 500 mile route”. Another would see me touring the Lake District’s fells and Roman fortifications. The Cotswolds, Devon, Cornwall, Wales – and then there’s the place names.
This all seeing eye revealing such wonders as Barton in the Beans (near Nuneaton), Upper and Lower Slaughter (the Cotswolds), Great Snoring in Norfolk, Papplewick near Nottingham, Wetwang in East Yorkshire, Upton Snodsbury in Worcestershire and Essex’s own Matching Tye to name but seven. The Welsh alone could fill many pages. There are dozens more just waiting to be found by that tracing finger or by using the atlas rearmost pages, the alphabetical list.
Replete with small scale town centre maps, airports, and a two page London spread, voyaging and route planning were made easy. Thirty years ago, less traffic, few speed cameras and only the US Army having satellite navigation, my trusty road map had it all.
The only irony being when I won my atlas prize, I couldn’t legally drive, hence the table top route tracing. On passing the Department of Transport road test however, Roy’s roads were well and truly open. Although the atlas itself has rather unfortunately been lost in some house move or other, I still prefer to consult a road atlas and then use gut feel when heading somewhere. Most times, I’m successful.