An impassioned reader's guide to books new and old

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Reading the Signs

some of my latest acquisitions, destined for historical research - and other purposes
I don't just collect books, I hanker after maps, never go on any journey without making sure that I have one or more of the area I will be visiting. I do from time to time, when I withdraw one from the stash, realise that I need an updated edition. What's the use of using maps I inherited from my parents when they do not show motorways, or bypasses? I now even buy and collect old maps, the older and scruffier the better. Some are out of interest, to compare the then with the now (depressing at times). Others serve another purpose - see end of post below.

poor photo (mine!) taken of an area within the latest edition of OS Landranger 118. purchased online a couple of days ago so we can locate the campsite where we will be staying whilst visiting the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show
You can read maps in the same way you read books - you only have to learn to read the signs; instead of putting together letters to make words, and words to create sentences. A whole new world opens in front of you as you spread the map on the floor and plan your journey, knowing to avoid the the one-in-four Sutton Bank in Yorkshire with a caravan in tow (prohibited anyway) or that steep valleys facing north in winter are likely to be in shadow when you are planning an early-morning photoshoot, or that a footpath winding up a steep gradient will take far longer to walk than one through water meadows along a river. 

how I wish I could find my copy
I recall the time I was given the most eye-opening book as a child, for it taught me HOW to read a map. It is sadly now out of print - you can obtain copies second hand, for a price! It used a clever concept, showed an enlarged section of a map and then alongside it a visual representation of the scene you would be looking at; the scene was described in words as well, as if the two children were really going for a walk. Very clever, and I wish I knew what happened to my copy. Originally published by Blackie & Sons (I think) it was reprinted by OUP in around 1954. The pic is a screen grab so somewhat poor.

fair weather, cold-front cloud after the warm front has passed through - just as today, though this was taken some days ago
And when I bought the latest bundle of old maps from a local antiques shop (most a pound a piece), I came to thinking that we are reading signs all the time, often without realising it. Road signs warning of hidden dangers around a  bend, weeds in the garden (they often tell you about the nature of the soil), bird foot-prints in the snow and that a fox passed through the garden overnight.

pressure chart this morning
Landscape that indicates where a motte and bailey once stood, or a deserted medieval village (best seen from the air). Cloud formations help you to forecast coming rain, or thunderstorms - useful to pea-patch pilots, too, and sailors. Reading the isobars and frontal systems tells you far  more about the expected weather than any TV forecast. Wind-strength, too (the closer together the white lines, the stronger the wind will be; they are like gradients on a topological map. This is today's chart. Click HERE if you want to follow through the anticipated sequence for the next few days, and bookmark it if you want to refer to the site daily, as I do. (Email me if it doesn't work, and I will explain how to locate this section of the BBC's weather forecasting website.)

This is an old chart, so now out of date.
It shows part of the Manchester control zone,
as it was in the mid-1990s.
Specialist maps are an eye-opener: the charts we used to pilot ourselves around the country and abroad were read three-dimensionally, ensuring we did not fly through restricted airspace, or overfly conurbations at too low a height. My husband used to laugh at me when we flew across the channel - I always had my finger on the map; "reading the waves are you?" he would tease. I did so even when flying in cloud, worked out our position on speed, time and known distance - dead reckoning; I always like to know where I am! 

And as this is a Book-Blog, it's time for books! Here are two relevant to 'reading the signs' that recently came my way:

'The Natural Navigator' by Tristan Gooley, published 2010 by Virgin Books; ISBN 978-1-905264-94-0. "The perfect book for getting you started on your own adventure" says Sir Ranulph Fiennes - put away your map and look up from your GPS. Now there's a thought. According to the author, we are all natural navigators; starting with a simple question, "Which way am I looking?", he blends natural science, myth, folklore and the history of travel into the rare and ancient art of finding your own way using nature's own signposts, from the feel of a rock to the look of the moon. You'll learn how to find your way in the countryside by the shape of trees or how to navigate in a city by natural signs. TG is well qualified to write this book, for he is the only living person to have both flown and sailed solo across the Atlantic. Absorbing, teaching us to use our mind and our senses, and full of fascinating stories. (My first copy arrived in a battered condition, so is being absorbed into an altered journal, an allegory of self; the replacement sits by my beside for night-time reading forays.)

'You Are Here' by Katherine Harmon, published 2004 by Princetown Architectural Press; ISBN 978-1-56898-430-8. Subtitled "personal geographies and other maps of the imagination", this enchanting book goes beyond the boundaries of the real world. Evidently, the desire to make maps lies deep within us all, and this doesn't mean just maps of place, but of many disciplines - mapping the mind and ideas using images: a technique that is extremely useful even when planning an essay or a complicated project. It's a very visual book - obviously - but KH has admirably explained the provenance of each illustrated piece and the result is an absolute delight; I have fallen in love with it already. A book to delve into time and time again which will have you reaching for pen and paper, doodling, or taking out pencils, crayons and paints, or fabrics, scissors and threads. (I am indebted to whoever it was who mentioned this book in their own Blog, or on Facebook; I instantly got hold of a copy; it's a revelation. So much so that I am taking it away with me, and have this morning purchased a new sketch book with a shiny sea-blue cover, and already titled it 'Another Day, Another Journey'. Map snippets are printed, my art bag located, and whatever first comes into my head when I wake on Monday morning will be lettered onto the page.)

And those old maps I am currently collecting? I turn them into 'Travel Trails' - little concertina booklets backed with fabric in which I write brief notes or word-whispers, adding sketches and photos; a memory of a special occasion or visit to a beloved place.

a folded map, lightly covered with diluted acrylic paint and sprayed with diluted coffee, photos printed and adhered and stitched to cheesecloth, and a few words from my 2010 travels to Northern Ireland and Shropshire

Books mentioned can be purchased either through your local bookshop it online through Amazon. And I crave your indulgence: if you like this post, and the books listed, do please forward it to a friend, or mention it on Facebook, so as to support the authors and publishers who bring us such good reading and fascinating work.


  1. What an interesting post, Ann. I have a copy of You are Here. It is so fascinating. I also have a faint memory of the children's map reading book. My wife and I were very lucky. We were both taught to read by the Army. Knowing how to read the landscape is a very useful skill. One of my other favourites is Drawing from Life: The Journal as Art - some people are so good at journalling - yourself included, of course!

  2. Oh. and here is a link to a website that has scans of the whole of 'the map that came to life'. Enjoy!

  3. I just found you by blog hopping and am glad I did! The book recommendations are fascinating and I am sure I would enjoy them both. I really need to learn about natural navigation as I usually turn in the wrong direction when I come out of a shop! The second book appeals to my creative nature. I like your 'travel trails' too - very inspiring.

  4. I love maps too and have been meaning to look for old hebridean maps. my sense of direction has become a bit skewed since being here though. It has shifted 90 deg clockwise. xx

  5. That is soooooo odd. you commented on my blog today and I have never read your book blog before but imagine my surprise at your pictures of your maps. I mentioned I dropped off clothes at my local charity shop today. Well whilst I was there i bought an old map thnking it was going to be useful in my journal. I have never bought an old map before but I have spent nearly all day pouring over it as we cycled along a portion of one of it's old railway tracks last weekend. It is exactly like the ones you photographed today. There's a box full there so I might have to go back and get them!