Maps and the Malverns


Staying with the family down in Cheltenham for a few days, a decision was made to go to Worcester this morning. That wasn’t of any great interest to me until I realised that I could be cheeky and engineer a run for myself along the Malvern Hills. They were all in far more of a rush to leave than I was myself, until I realised there was fog about. I then became the one chivvying everyone along and out the door.

I brought quite a few maps down south with me but not the one for the Malverns. That didn’t really matter as it’s impossible to get lost on the ridge. On the other hand, it was a strange experience not to be plotting a route to my drop-off point near Little Malvern and being forced to follow directions at the whim of the Satnav Lady, who found some decidedly quirky road choices.

Maps have always provided me with a strong sense of place. I spread a map out and orientate myself, immediately able to see how everything is connected. It gives me an overview. A map gives me context. It’s something I feel a need to do whenever I turn up in a new part of the world, or even revisit a familiar part of the world.

Neither of my sons feels that same need. Physical maps are going out of fashion and I worry that I’ve let the boys down by not having taught them how to cherish and read a map. Their phones, like the satnav, provide only a snapshot of their immediate locale and where to go next. It appears to be enough for them. They’re content to deal with just the strictly necessary. For me, maps offer up possibility. They provide questions as well as answers, allowing me to join up A to B in my mind and then form a desire to connect those points physically on the ground, encouraging me to turn two-dimensional cartography into three-dimensional topography.

I can’t help but feel that the snapshot view of the world as seen through a screen is changing our relationship to the landscape. Those small windows on the world are unable to prompt the kind of exploration that a map does. I feel like a dinosaur when I unfold a map these days, but it serves to place me in the landscape as a whole, giving me a picture of where I am and limitless options as to where I can go. Opening a map is the start of an adventure, even if it’s one that only ever stays in the mind.

I left the family in the fog and was picked up a couple of hours later in Great Malvern, returned to the fog again. Satnav Lady directed them, as if by magic, to the cafe where I was enjoying a well-earned pot of tea. With only minimal visibility, the family had no sense of how my start and finish points related to one another. There had just been fog and a blind following of directions left and right. For me, they were joined by a linear trail that was bathed in almost continuous sunshine. I experienced another kind of magic!

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