Maps Are Looking Lost, Tim Dawson (2009)

First published in The Sunday Times 13 September 2009

Standing at a tiny crossroads in west Suffolk the other day, I found myself completely lost — despite the map strapped to my handlebars. Worse than my directional difficulties, however, was the quickly dissolving faith in one of cycling’s great institutions — the Bartholomew’s half-inch-to-the-mile map.

Let me explain. Bart’s map series was long known as the best map for serious pedal pushers. Each sheet covered an area of roughly 60 miles across — most corresponding to an entire traditional county. Different colours, from green to brown to white, showed where the hills were. And in the early days, members of the Cyclists’ Touring Club helped keep the cartography up to date.

The real half-inch maps disappeared in 1974. So when I learnt that a new series was in production, my heart quickened. Published by Goldeneye, they are squarely aimed at cyclists, with National Cycle Network routes clearly shown, as well as other suggested cycle routes. The maps are laminated in protective plastic and, like Barts of old, the folds lend themselves perfectly to cycle touring.

None of which made my search for the road to Hawstead, and thence to Shimpling any easier. Because although a half-inch-to-themile scale suited cycling during the century that Bart’s maps were in production, the same is no longer true. Way back when, it was perfectly plausible for cycle tourists to travel on main roads. Fifty years ago, anyone seeking to journey between Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury, as I was, would have taken the A134. On that road today, you will be passed by upwards of 30 cars every minute — hence my search for the tiny parallel route. For that kind of navigation, however, the old Bart’s scale is all but hopeless.

Finding a small road — particularly coming out of a town, or when you have gone a mile or two off track — is near impossible. The problem is, the detail is just too tiny. A slightly tricky road layout — say, where you need to go right and then immediately left — is all but impossible to pick out, particularly if you’re trying to glance down at the map without stopping. I gave up. Using the sun, I headed east, hoping to find the signposted national cycle route 51.

It may be, of course, that I’ve been spoilt by sat nav. These devices are not suited to every kind of cycling, but for making quick progress on unknown roads, they are a revelation.

I use the simplest, a Garmin Geko. It’s not specifically for cycling, but you can buy a handlebar mount for it. The OS 1:50,000 maps are resident on my computer, on which I pick out the route that I want to take. This is a slightly laborious job (some of the more cycle-specific models come with more pre-loaded maps) but the rewards are great. Upload the route to the mobile-phone-sized sat nav, clip it to the handlebars, and once it has locked on to the satellites, an arrow appears in its screen. Then it is simply a case of following the arrow as it guides you through the landscape. It counts down the metres to each new junction, and then points you which way to go.

It’s true that no map has ever run flat its batteries — as my sat nav has. But in every other respect, it is a far more effective aid to speeding through the car-free countryside.

TD Sep 09

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