fresh thinking

Charting my life through maps

Mark Hannant, 18th September 2020

Charting my life through maps

Between the ages of eight and 13, I lived in a small market town in the Lake District, a 2,362 sq. km. national park, in the north of England. Exam pressure was still a distant cloud rather than imminent storm. Free to roam, I spent much of my time in the wild, scrambling on mountains, or peddling around on a bicycle with little more than a puncture repair kit and waterproof jacket to protect the bike or me.

Keswick (54° 36' 4.594" N 3° 8' 4.942" W) nestles on the northern shore of Derwent Water in the shadow of Skiddaw, a dark mass of mountain often shrouded in mist. The lake stretches south into the rain-soaked valley of Borrowdale where the hamlet of Seathwaite is the wettest inhabited place in the United Kingdom. From here, intrepid walkers trek up steep paths to the high fells (mountains). As a Scout, I built log cabins from fallen spruce trees, fished from the lake’s jetties and rivers’ banks and set light to a hillside of dried bracken while left to tend a campfire. In this land of hills and valleys, lakes and landmarks, dry stone walls and ancient stone circles — I also learned to read maps.

It’s a handy language in a place like that, and a syntax I’ve revelled in ever since.

Map books and books about maps

An early fascination turned into a lifelong habit. I’ve been collecting maps for more than 40 years from parts of the world both familiar and unknown: city maps picked up at airports and in hotel lobbies with inky circles to show restaurants, music venues and galleries (and, I’ve learned it is wise to mark the hotel itself so as to make it home after a night of carousing in dimly lit bars); maps of Greek islands with paths from χώρα (village) to πλαζ (beach); a 30-year old map of Australia with dates and distances recording a month-long road trip from Cairns to Perth via the treacherous heat of the Nullarbor Plain; books with fold-out maps of the Himalayas used to plan a trip to the Everest region that never happened because of the lockdown.

Drawers stuffed with maps. Walls covered in maps – including a six-sheet world map that covers a whole bedroom wall, pasted on like wallpaper. Then there’s the atlases – in which you can see the same place through several lenses: geographic, topographic, demographic, political; and books about maps and even maps about books and maps rolled in tubes that I haven’t yet found a place for.

Maps serve many purposes. They’re practical. Even on fells I know well, I’ll carry a map just in case the weather turns, and I find myself disoriented and off course. In a new place, they provide context and orientation and much more than just a guide from A-to-B. Bought in advance – or these days accessed online – a map provides a chance to plan a trip, to schedule visits, figure out the transport and understand how things are connected. Maps tell stories of past civilisations and modern developments and shortcuts and hidden treasures. In their neat folds lurk memories waiting to be rediscovered—a monsoon trek in the Sayadhris that run along India’s western coast, or an autumnal walk across Brooklyn Bridge.

A universal language

Cartographers’ icons are complex systems of symbols, like alphabets of pictures. In the era of mobile phones and Google Maps, icons have become part of our common lingua franca. They are universal symbols.

In this sense, maps are the original infographics – a term that’s become part of our everyday language as the digital era has thrown open new forms of visual communication. In my professional life helping companies communicate, I use icons and ‘maps’ as the basis for corporate storytelling.

Their cross-cultural appeal and multi-lingual potential have immense power in a globalised world where we want to communicate with people from many cultures, and to represent great complexity and yet at the same time find simplicity. Maps allow for both nitty gritty detail (of hedgerows and gates, side alleys and private roads, population density and spread of infections) and simultaneously the big picture (the sweep of mountain ranges or coastal roads and the arbitrary carving up of regions into nation states as colonial powers retreated or victors carved up their battle spoils). All this, and much more, can be discerned if you can read a map.

The first map I read was the Ordnance Survey 1-inch-to-the-mile map of the Lake District. At about a metre square it’s a manageable size. I know both the map and the place well. Forty years on, I have a tattered version set in a neat frame on my office wall.

It takes me back to a place of joy – not just youthful abandon but more recent walks with family and friends, introducing my own children to the exhilaration and perils of mountains, discovery of hidden places, and rediscovery of past glories. At the same time, from the warmth of my office, I plot future adventures on windy fellsides overlooking magnificent lakes with the promise of a pint of Coniston Blue Bird at the end of the walk. Experience, and the language of maps, tells me to avoid places with ‘Edge’ in their name. They tend to be treacherous.

Maps don’t tell the whole story

There is much of course that can’t be found from a map on its own.

A map comes into its own when combined with other sources of knowledge. A Zagat guide (or now its online equivalent) will tell you that under Brooklyn Bridge is the best pizzeria in New York — Grimaldi’s at 1 Front Street. The map reference alone won’t tell you that since the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, it pays to get there early on a Sunday lunchtime.

A map of the Greek island of Crete will show you the road down to the quiet, stony beach at Kato Zakros and its Minoan ruins. A good map shows the homestay at the northern most end of the beach with half a dozen basic rooms overlooking the bay and a decent selection of Cretan wines. But, it doesn’t tell you that it’s a place favoured by nudists. That discovery is all part of the adventure!

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