Me and maps

MY LOVE OF MAPS started soon after I was able to read. I was given a book that fascinated me for many years. It was called “The Map that came to Life” by HJ Deverson and R Lampitt. First published in 1948, it follows a couple of children walking through the countryside with their dog, guiding themselves with an Ordinance Survey map. On each page, there is a bit of their map and an illustration showing the terrain which is on that portion of the map. Not only did it teach me something about map reading but it helped me to visualise in three dimensions what is being represented in two dimensions on a map. It was one of my favourite books during my childhood.


From the age of eight years onwards until I was thirteen, I attended the Hall School, which is near to Swiss Cottage (in northwest London). Although there was a lot that I did not like about this academically top-rate establishment, I am grateful for at least one thing. One day when we were learning about Ordinance Survey maps in a geography class, our teacher gave us an exercise that stimulated a hobby that lasted until my late teens. The exercise was to draw an Ordinance Survey map of an imaginary place making correct use of the various symbols that appear on the real maps. Of all the academic tasks I was required to perform at the Hall School, this was the best.

Inadvertently, our geography teacher had sparked off a new craze for me. That was drawing maps of imaginary places. I was inspired not only to emulate Ordinance Survey maps but also to create maps of imaginary places in the styles of the ever-increasing number of maps that I had begun acquiring as a passionate map collector. I drew these maps using pencils, water-colour paints, biros, and fine-tipped Rotring pens (such as are used by architects and technical draftsmen).  Drawing maps occupied much of my precious spare time, time which my friends spent socialising and meeting members of the opposite sex.

After a while, I began drawing maps of an imaginary country, a socialist republic behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’. In addition to creating maps of my geographic invention, I produced illustrations, tourist brochures, and so on. Be patient because  I shall say much more about this imagine land in future postings.

When I began studying at university in 1970, my map drawing activities ended. However, my fascination with maps has never diminished. While sorting things at home, I have found the maps and drawings I made during my teenage years. Gradually, I will share some of these with you, dear readers.

I began this piece with a mention of a book that described a map that came to life. It was first published before I was born. Today, the authors’ concept has almost become reality with Google Maps. This useful service provides fairly detailed maps, which at the click of a ‘button’ become aerial views of the area that has been mapped out. At the click of another button, you can travel (virtually) along the streets on the maps and see the buildings and other things along them. While the maps do not really come to life, the Google mapping service has brought us closer to that happening for real. Let us wait and see what the future brings in the way of remote realisation of life in places on the map.

A track in Ireland

ONE OF THE JOYS OF driving a car is that you can go wherever you wish. To get from A to B, you can either take the most direct route or find a more interesting one. We often opted for the latter.

We used to do driving holidays long before ‘satnavs’ and Google mapping were available to ordinary motorists. We relied on maps and atlases, always trying to find the most detailed available.

In Easter 1993, we sailed from Swansea in Wales to Cork in Eire. After a superb breakfast in Cork, which included some of the best black pudding I have ever eaten, we began driving towards Kilshannig near Castlegregory on County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula.

Armed with a detailed Michelin road map and with a whole day ahead of us, we opted for a picturesque, but less direct, route.

Two interesting features of Irish roads soon became evident. First, there were bifurcations or t junctions where the same destination was on signs pointing in opposite directions. This was not a joke to confuse but simply an indication that both roads eventually met in the same place, maybe, for example, having skirted around different sides of a hill. The other thing is that we would be driving along a road and spotted a sign saying it was ‘5’ to the next village. Soon after that, another sign would inform us that it was ‘7’ to the same place, even though we knew for sure that we were going in the right direction. Ireland was busy converting its road signs from miles to kilometres, but many of the signs failed to include to which unit of measurement they referred.

We turned on our radio and listened to a programme in which someone was describing how to improve one’s skills when playing the game of curling. Every now and then, the presenter would say something like:
“Now, you hold it like this, see?”
The only problem was that there is nothing to be seen during a radio broadcast.

It was a lovely day and we were driving with the roof open. We drove past a golf course when suddenly there was a sharp clunk on the strip of roof between the car’s front windscreen and the open roof window. A poorly skilled golfer had made a poorly aimed shot. His ball had struck the car. Had it struck any where else, there was a good chance that it neither hit one of us nor shattered the windscreen.

Eventually, we reached Kenmare, having passed through Bantry Bay. Our most direct route would have been to go from Kenmare to Killarney via Muckross. However, my wife had discovered an alternative route on the map. It was marked on the map using the thinnest white line, which on Michelin msps denotes the most basic rustic thoroughfare. It was the road across a mountain pass called the Gap of Dunloe.

At first, the picturesque narrow road, not much wider than our Volvo saloon car, was easy to negotiate. We notice no other cars on it, but plenty of walkers and cyclists.

Soon, the track began to ascend, but not in a straight line. It wound up in a series of tight hairpin bends with very few passing places. After a while, we met a car coming down in the opposite direction. It was clear to me that my driving skills were better than the other. So, I had to reverse around several hairpin bends to reach a passing place.

We made it over the summit of the pass, and reached our hosts, Rober and Margaret at their cottage at Kilshannig, on a spit of land almost surrounded by sea and distant mountains: some of the beautiful scenery I have seen in Europe.

After welcome cups of tea, we told our hosts about our journey from Cork to Kilshannig. When we told them that we had driven across the Gap of Dunloe, Margaret exclaimed:
“But, that’s a footpath. We have often thought of visiting it, but we were worried that neither our Land Rover or our car would be able to cope with crossing the Gap.”

Some know, others don’t

I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.

London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.

In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.

I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.

It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.

One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”

I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.

So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.