Roy’s Roads

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.

Image via eBay

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

23 thoughts on “Roy’s Roads”

  1. Thank you Andrew; a superb piece for a Sunday morning. Being ever so slightly older than you, it was a Bartholomew’s road atlas that I spent many hours engrossed in – followed by Ordnance Survey 1-inch maps, which I have been collecting ever since. Along with OS 2½ inch, Barts ½ inch, in fact any maps which take my fancy. Not that it’s an obsession, of course….. Sat-navs are all very well and probably essential tools for delivery drivers in large conurbations, but if you’ve never looked at a map, let alone learned how to read one, how on earth do you know where you are in relation to anywhere else? I despair at the general lack of geographical knowledge or sense of direction which now seems to be normal human behaviour.

    Keep up the good work – we’re a dying breed!

    1. Good morning Andrew, and to you, John. I share your concern about, not just the lost art of map-reading but, more generally, about what I perceive to be an increasing ignorance of the geography of the World around us. One of the most delightful books in my parent’s house when we were children was the Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas, a magnificent tome that was beautifully illustrated with maps, astronomical diagrams of the solar system, and fascinating accompanying text. It was bought for my sisters and me and we spent hours engrossed in it.

      It seems ironic when people now travel far more frequently and widely than any previous generation that many seem resolutely incurious about the world around them. Some years ago I overheard a conversation between two young adults that went as follows:

      “Where did you go on your holidays?”


      “Where’s that.”

      “Don’t know, we went on the plane.”

      Sat-nav, like the London Underground schematic diagram (which is not, strictly, a map at all) gives you almost no clue as to relative positions and distances. It is extraordinary when HGV drivers follow their sat-nav lemming-like down ever more narrow country lanes until they become impassible. As professional drivers, where’s their common sense?

    2. Even as a little boy, I “went travelling” with my parents’ street maps. Through years of practice, reading a map has become second nature.

      The fact that young people cannot read a map has not only been the case since the advent of the many electronic “aids”. In my time in the Bundeswehr (army) there were a lot of comrades of the same age who couldn’t do anything with a map.

      And yes, as Daniel has already written, often people have no relation to positions and distances because they have never read a map and the electronic aids nowadays only make that worse.

      Wherever I have travelled, I have arrived at my destination with only a road map – no matter on which continent.

      On many trips to previously unfamiliar destinations, I didn’t even need a map on the road because I had read the map before the trip.
      And often you can see on a map that you can’t get lost at all on the way to your destination.
      I remember, for example, my first trip from Munich to Cannes: through Austria over the Brenner Pass, Verona on the right, Brescia on the left, past Piacenca towards Genoa, shortcut over the Raccordo, at the sea on the right and always straight ahead. Exit Cannes. You can’t miss it.

      When we moved here from Munich to the north, I explored the area with a map.
      We have local friends our age here (born and raised) who have completely “forgotten” their homeland because they only use electronic navigation to get from A to B. If a (rural) road is closed, they are unable to find an alternative route without electronic help.

      During our trips to get to know our new home, I often had a typical conversation with my wife.

      “We have to turn right at the next crossroads.”
      “How do you know?”
      “Then we’ll have the sun at our backs and we’ll be heading east to get back home.”

      Even after all the years we’ve known each other, I get that look from her.

  2. The future for maps may be brighter than you think. My six year old has spent a number of weeks at school “doing” maps.

    It has involved looking at and understanding maps and the symbols used and culminated in creating a map from a walk, noting the features as we went along.

    He may just have a map-obsessed teacher (a major positive) or it may be part of the national curriculum. There is hope!

    1. Funny you should mention hope, Ben. It reminds me of the old North Derbyshire joke about “Live in Hope; die in Castleton” – Hope being a village on what is now the A6187, a road which ends in Castleton. However, on my first OS 1″ map, Sheet 111, it is the A625, continuing westwards up the side of Mam Tor and on to Chapel-en-le-Frith, before the highway authority gave up repairing land slips.
      But it’s good to hear that maps haven’t been entirely abandoned yet!

  3. Forget paper maps – why not get one of these new-fangled sat navs?

    I have quite an attachment to maps, as I’ve had to use them so much to plan journeys pre-sat nav. I still have a look at maps, online, to make sure I have a vague idea of a new route before programming the sat nav.

    If you like maps, ‘Map Men’ on YouTube might appeal. They do short, light-hearted, histories of map-related subjects.

  4. I have to confess that my favourite toy over the last couple of years has been the OS maps subscription
    All of the 1;25000 and 1:50000 maps on my phone, laptop and tablet, at any time. I do still love a paper map, but for £24 a year I think the subscription service is great. In case you’re wondering I have no connection with OS, I’m just an enthusiastic customer.

  5. Salut la compagnie
    Ah, je ne suis pas seul à avoir une passion pour les cartes routières !!
    Le simple fait de les regarder me fait voyager … et je sais pourquoi :
    Mes parents m’avaient collé sur les murs de ma chambre 5 cartes routières Michelin comme sure cette exemple :

    Je pense que pendant toute mon adolescence, il n’y a pas un jour où je les ai examiné avec plaisir .

    Conseil au parents d’aujourd’hui, faite le pour la chambre de vos enfants 😀

    Google translate :
    Hi everyone
    Ah, I’m not the only one with a passion for road maps !!
    Just watching them makes me travel … and I know why:
    My parents had pasted me on the walls of my room 5 Michelin road maps as on this example:

    I think during all my teenage years there was not a day that I looked at them with pleasure.

    Advice for parents today, do it for your children’s room 😀

    1. Hi Alain. My brother and I had a framed map on the wall of our room when we were children. I remember spending long moments standing on the bed matress staring at it and thinking of imaginary travels!

  6. Afternoon all

    Indeed there is hope if there remains a love of maps. Great to hear that schools are involving kids.

    JTC: Excellent joke which will always make me smile. I’ve been on the Mam Tor section of road but a very long time ago, a bus school trip as I remember. Not long after the mountain had another shake and as you say, the Highways authorities thought better of trying to repair a road that had slipped some thirty to forty feet away.

    Charles: How dare you! That four minute wheeze made me laugh out loud. The ingenuity must have been quite something back then when car accessories were all the rage. “Can you get me the tape that goes from Scarborough to Holyhead via Aberdeen, calling at Lands End, please dear?” Must look up your Map Men recommendation, too, thanks.

    Adrian: I understand perfectly what you mean. There’s nothing like having that rustling paper with you , be that glovebox or out on some Misty moorland jaunt. They don’t respond well to wet weather so that modern version on your devices keeps Roy’s spirit alive nicely.

    Salut Alain
    Merci beaucoup pour vos gentils commentaires. C’est une carte majestueuse – pas étonnant que vous ayez envie de voyager ! Voir cela me donne envie d’enfiler des vêtements appropriés et de partir vers de nouveaux horizons. Délicieux.

    Hi Alain
    Many thanks for your kind comments. That is one majesterial map – no wonder you feel like travelling! Seeing this makes me want to don appropriate clothing and head off to horizons new. Delightful.

  7. I agree about large wall maps – as well as being works of art in their own right, there’s something very cheering about looking at a map and remembering past trips, or imagining where one could go.

    On a related note, I enjoy visiting the UK-based ‘Roads’ website, from time to time. One thing I find particularly interesting is abandoned / scaled-down plans for roads or, less commonly, seeing where roads once were but have now been returned to countryside.

    1. Charles, forgive me if you are already aware of it, but a very readable publication on the subject of abandoned/re-routed roads is “The Great North Road Then & Now” by Chris Cooper, published in 2013 ISBN 9 781870 067799. It covers the full length of the A1 from London to Edinburgh, giving a fascinating insight into how much the road has changed, not least during rather less than one life-time.

    2. Hello JTC – I wasn’t aware of it. That does look interesting – thank you for the recommendation.

  8. Maps? Sat-nav? Map sense?

    I started using highway maps to plan trips when very young. When I started collecting fish in the tropics I used oil company maps (remember them?), then moved on to topographical maps, both USAF Tactical Pilotage Charts and national topo maps. I think I still have the full set of Paraguayan topo maps, bought from the army map store in Asuncion. Obsolete now.

    My first GPS receiver, not a sat-nav device, told me where I was and that’s all. Very useful for making accurate and precise field notes.

    My first experience with digitized maps was equivocal. In the US, the Census Bureau’s TIGER maps were the first available and were used by Microsoft’s Maps & Trips product. Very useful for planning long trips, but because of problems with coding the maps — the software and database didn’t always connect highway segments — routes had to be checked against paper maps for sanity.

    Now I use a nice Garmin sat-nav device with maps supplied by Garmin supplemented by free maps from for countries that Garmin doesn’t have or charges too much for. I also use Garmin’s BaseCamp (free!) to plan trips. When I travel I carry a laptop with BaseCamp and the necessary maps installed to see, when necessary, more of the map than the device can display and to check the device’s preferred route for sanity. I’ve found the laptop very useful in the field.

    Re sanity, nowadays when planning fieldwork I use satellite photos/maps to find places that have water and are accessible by road. It seems that the maps are derived from satellite photos by software. Some are, unfortunately, insane. For example, RD-2 crosses the Rio Haina at the western edge of Santo Domingo. Bing Maps, if I recall correctly, shows a second bridge carrying a city street across the Haina parallel to and just north of the RD-2 bridge. There’s no second bridge. Bing Maps’ software misinterpreted a pipeline as a street and assumed a bridge.

  9. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about maps are nautical charts. My parents had a yacht when I grew up, so many weekends and holidays were spent there. However, I don’t have a strong connection to road maps. I’ve been using sat nav on my phone since 2009 or so and never had the desire to keep maps in the car since.

  10. Excellent article Andrew, thank you. I’ve been to Upper and Lower Slaughter several times when staying in the Cotswolds. I too prefer a proper road atlas to sat nav when on holiday. I like to find all the little roads taking us through great little villages and great routes. Pity you’ve list the original atlas though.

    1. Not to feel outdone, Ireland can hold its own when it comes to amusing (or puerile-sounding) placenames. Not too far from here is the West Cork townland of Gaggin – (it’s probably no more repressed than anywhere else, but at least they have the nerve to state it openly). Muff in Co. Donegal is also highly amusing, if not to its residents and as for the town of Hospital near the Limerick/ Tipperary border, at least one feels quite well looked after in its environs. (But that’s not important right now…) However, nowhere can hold a candle to Co. Wexford, where to name just a few of the more outstanding placenames, we have Mauldlintown (and nearby Slippery Green); then down the coast, just South of Tomhaggard is nearby Bastardstown – any putative correlation between any of the above being well beyond my remit.

    2. By an amazing coincidence, we have a bottle of the town of Muff’s own Irish potato gin in our drinks cabinet:

      Note the name of the company…

    3. And this village in Kent is highly amusing to small boys of any age:

  11. Hi everybody! I can attest that when I use GPS sat nav I sometimes feel detached from the geography, that is, I tend to only follow the sat nav indications and not be aware of the surrounding land, etc. For some time now, when I’m planning a trip on the sat nav, I’ve made it a habit to zoom out of the map now and then so I can get an idea of the geography and general directions.

    1. Hi Cesar. Good idea, but there’s something very satisfying about the tactile quality of a good map…until you come to fold it up again, of course:

      Q: What’s the best way to fold up a map?
      A: Differently.

      My partner has an unnerving habit when navigating by map in the car of turning the map to face in the direction of travel (exactly like a sat-nav) even if that means he’s then trying to read it upside-down!

  12. “My partner has an unnerving habit when navigating by map in the car of turning the map to face in the direction of travel…”

    Haha, I do the same thing! There should be an “Upside Down Map Reading Society” where we can all support each other and share tips such as “How to turn your map around without blocking the windscreen?”, or “Right is left, left is right, up is down, and down is up…, when will this nonsense stop?”.

  13. Another enjoyable article Andrew so thank you. Like most of your readers I always had a large scale road map in the car and only stopped doing that quite recently. I also enjoyed going through our holiday journeys and marking up the routes in ” highlighter” with post it notes to take you from one page to the next in the correct sequence.
    Using Ordnance Survey maps for more local excursions, once you had arrived at your destination, was also something I enjoyed too.
    Like you I found the “Tomorrow’s World” very funny but clever too.

    Life doesn’t seem quite the same when you are unable to input the full UK post code into the Mercedes Comand system in my C Class!

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