September 2008

Are maps an endangered species? It would seem so with the current explosion of GPS units and Sat-Nav devices on sale. These are valuable aides to navigation in our modern society but they seem to be replacing our maps as the preferred method of finding your way.

The Nevis Range complex near Fort William has had its postcode changed as the previous postcode led people using a sat-nav up a single track road to a car park used by walkers heading for Ben Nevis from Torlundy. Apparently during busy periods the complex were receiving 100 telephone calls a week asking for the postcode. Even worse, when drivers were told not to use it in their Sat-Nav they were still doing so and getting lost.

When I used a company car, Sat-Nav was fitted as standard, but I always had a road atlas in the car with me, plus several A-Z street atlas’ for various parts of the country. If I was going somewhere I didn’t know I would always have a look at the atlas first before programming the address into my Sat-Nav. I viewed the Sat-Nav as an additional navigational aid not the primary one. I take the same point of view with my GPS unit, more often used to record where I have been and never used to tell me where to go.

I wonder if mapmakers have experienced a dramatic decline in sales since these electronic aids have gained popularity. I am certain they have.  Over reliance on these aids will surely result in the inability to use and understand a map. I learnt how to read a map (and use a compass) at primary school and this was reinforced by time spent in youth organisations such as the Scouts and Boys’ Brigade. With a crowded curriculum, a decline in youth organisations and a risk averse society that discourages people from taking young people out into the outdoors, we risk creating a generation that may never use a map in their lifetime.

How sad that a nation, through its seafaring exploits and the expansion of its empire helped mapped the world, may lose the ability to move from A to B without electronic intervention. How depressing that our world leading, Ordnance Survey, may one day only exist to produce electronic map data and no longer the humble printed map.

For the printed map is not only a navigational aid, but it is an item of beauty, it is a carefully crafted piece of artwork.  It is a piece of cultural literature, telling a story of life, not just of individuals but of towns, cities and countries. The printed map can be a history lesson, as you trace rod-straight Roman roads spoking out from cathedral cities to neighbouring towns, the original Latin names half-forgotten but preserved below their modern successors. Or take a mental ramble along an ancient path through medieval coppices the beacon like church spire guiding you to your destination. Or you can wonder at the magnificence of Earth’s geography as you gaze at mountain tops, look longingly down glacier-hewn valleys, follow rivers through bucolic fields until they reach salty estuaries and sail the seas past mighty cliffs and around treacherous rocks.

Come that dreadful day when the last printed map rolls off the presses, there will be a few of us, manning that barricade, compass held a loft crying Viva Ordnance Survey, Long Live the Map!

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I received a postal survey from Scottish Natural Heritage this morning, asking for my views about the responsible behaviour of recreational users in the countryside. From the covering letter it is clear they are also asking for the views of land managers as well.

This is a piece of research aimed at exploring changes to awareness and understanding of responsible behaviour in the countryside following the introduction of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

It seems I was randomly selected for inclusion in the sample as member of a group affiliated to the Scottish Mountaineering Club. I am always sceptical about the amount of money spent on organising these research surveys and then “analysing” the results but I have completed and returned it anyway.

One question asked how the right of responsible access has had an effect on the type and location of leisure activities I undertake in the countryside. I had to think about that for a long time as I had never encountered any problems walking in Scotland before the Act. Unlike in England and Wales where I have had plenty of access problems.

However, I know many people have experienced problems in the past and continue to do so. I do have a much better feeling that the law is there to protect me as long as I am behaving responsibly and that land owners can not prevent me from exercising my right to access just because they don’t want me there.  We all still come across problems when we are out walking from time to time. Locked gates or signs deliberately worded to put the casual walker off.

Whilst walking in Glen Lochay earlier this year with a small group, we came across a driveway that had previously given access to the open hillside and was now gated. Some (admittedly from south of the border) decided that we couldn’t go through the gate, along the drive and on to the hillside. We decided to make a detour and find a different way. We discovered there was a gate at the other end of the driveway that led on to the hill. On our return we decided to take this route to be confronted by a lady telling us to close the gate and to enjoy her garden we were walking though. In fact, the driveway skirted round the edge of the garden, set some distance away from the large house. She was perfectly polite but it was quite clear she was annoyed we were exercising our right to access. More timid walkers may have backtracked, we simply smiled and thanked her. At least she knew that we had that right and didn’t try to prevent us passing!