A lost landmark and a treasured map

EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER, I have been fascinated by maps and collected them. I cannot say exactly why I enjoy them, but one reason is that I get satisfaction from aesthetic aspects of cartography. Another reason is that when I look at them, I try to imagine the reality that they represent, a form of virtual travelling. Whatever the underlying cause(s) of my fascination with maps might be, it is irrelevant to what follows because what I want to tell you is about a shop that I used to love to visit. It was Stanford in London’s Long Acre, a street not far from the old Covent Garden Market and Leicester Square.

Founded by Edward Stanford (1827-1904) in the early 1850s, his business was one of the best specialist suppliers of maps in the UK, if not the very best.  His company’s store on Long Acre opened in 1901, having moved there from Charing Cross. When I used to visit the shop to browse the lovely maps on display in the 1960s, there were two floors open to the public. The ground floor was the main showroom with maps of popular destinations that appealed to the majority of customers. The basement was less attractively arranged but far more interesting to serious travellers and map collectors such as me. There were no maps out on display down there. One had to ask a salesman to show you maps of areas that interested you. I believe it was there that I bought a nautical chart of the extremely remote French island of Kerguelen in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, a place that I had no intention of ever visiting.

In about 1966, my interest in Albania was born. I have tried to explain why this happened in my book “Albania on My Mind”, which I published in 2013, 101 years after Albania gained its independence.   In those days, not much was known in the UK about this small country in the western Balkans. Maps of Albania were not available in most shops, probably because few people visited the place, or were even remotely interested in it. So, I took the Underground from my local station, Golders Green, to Leicester Square. Stanford was a few yards from that station. At Stanford, I enquired about detailed maps of Albania, and was sent to the specialist map department in the basement.

The only detailed map of Albania available at Stanford was a 1:200,000 scale map with the information that it was made:

“Auf Grund der Oesterreichischer-Ungarische Kriegsaufnahmen und der im Auftrage der Albanische Regierung Von Dr Herbert Louis gemachten aufnahmen sowie mit Benützung italienischer und franzoesischer Karten” (i.e., ‘On the basis of the Austrian-Hungarian war recordings and the recordings made by Dr Herbert Louis on behalf of the Albanian government, as well as with the use of Italian and French maps’)

The map, which comes as two sheets, was up to date in 1925. A small map alongside the main map shows which parts of the large map were surveyed by whom and when.        Between 1916 and 1918, the surveyors were the armies of Austria-Hungary, France, and Italy. Some information collected by Baron Nopcsa between 1905 and 1909 is included in the map, as well as data collected by Dr H Louis between 1923 and 1924.

Baron Nopcsa was the Hungarian aristocrat and politician Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933; see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-forgot-rogue-aristocrat-discovered-dinosaurs-died-penniless-180959504/), a founder of paleobiology and a specialist on Albanian studies. This one-time candidate for the throne of Albania created the first geological map of northern Albania. The German Dr Herbert Louis (1900-1985), whose name is prominent on the map, was no stranger to Albania. In 1923, he accompanied the Austrian geologist Ernst Nowack (1891-1946) during his research in the country, and in 1925, he was awarded a doctorate for his studies concerning Albania.

The map looked beautiful, I fell in love with it, and I knew I had to obtain a copy of it, but it was priced at 23/- (23 shillings: £1.15) for the set. That might not sound excessive today in 2021, barely the price of a small bar of chocolate or a cup of tea (in a scruffy café). But in about 1966, it was a huge sum of money for me, many times more than my weekly pocket money. I left Stanford, determined to save up for it and hoping that in the meantime the shop would not run out of copies of it. Eventually, I was able to purchase a set of these maps.

Delicately drawn, covered with contour lines, shaded representations of rocks and mountains, a variety of colours, the map shows how few roads there were in Albania in the 1920s. The tiny black dots, which represented buildings or small groups of them are often shown to be connected by tracks or footpaths, but many of them are a long way from any line of communication marked by the map makers. Most of the names on the map are in Albanian, but a few are also in Italian (e.g., Durazzo [Durres], Valona [Vlora], San Giovanni di Medua [Shengjin], and Santi Quaranta [Saranda]). Some words on the map are also in German.

I treasure this set of maps I bought at Stanford so many years ago and my memory of first being shown them in the basement of the shop. Yesterday, on the 15th of August 2021, first day of the 75th year of India’s independence, we walked along Long Acre, and discovered that although its name on the building is still there, the map shop is not. I had not realised that in 2019 this repository of records of landmarks and one of my favourite childhood haunts had moved from Long Acre to nearby Mercer Walk near The Seven Dials.