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Mapping the Roads, by Mike Parker

review published on January 29, 2014. Reviewed by jj redfearn

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A history of the development of the British road network as much as its one of the development of road maps this book has a brilliant cover. A pair of lost Roman legionaries embossed somewhere to the west of London peering at a map of the country, one of them pointing vaguely at the region of Elgin or Aberdeen. You can imagine the conversation: “I think we missed a turning back there”, “I said we should stop and ask someone”, “Marbles? No Marbles on this map” that sort of thing.

Despite the seemingly dull subject, road maps are hardly exciting, its a fascinating and easy read, stuffed full of useful little anecdotes lurking for use at the right moment. Take the London Congestion charge. Ken Livingstone apparently said “I’can’t conceive of any circumstances in the foreseeable future where we would want to change the charge, although perhaps 10 years down the line it may be necessary.” Nine years later it had already doubled. Or motorway service stations. When they opened there were premium priced restaurants on the over-road footbridges, so that diners could have a good view of the traffic. They quickly were overtaken by the fast and horrid food stops.

No coffee-table book is complete without pictures. This book is complete. Theres a profusion of pictures of maps for all periods of the last four hundred years or so, showing both how the road network has developed and how the maps of that network have developed alongside it.

I’d never really thought about what maps are for. Isn’t it obvious? How to get from A to B. But getting from A to B is depends on how you travel. When people walked there were virtually no maps. You didn’t need one. You probably weren’t going far. You knew the way. In a Post Coach things changed a bit but you still didn’t need to know the way. The coach went where the coach went. But if you wanted to use a small army to defend the country then you needed good roads and good maps. Maps developed a bit during the Jacobite rebellions and the Napoleonic wars. Then in quick succession along came the railway, bicycle and the motor car. You didn’t really need a map for the railways – the trains did the navigating and you walked at each end, just like the coach. But personal transport required maps. With bicycles and cars the days of how to get from A to A (the Sunday bike-ride/drive) and A to B had come. Maps developed rapidly into the formats we use today.

Another anecdote. Satnavs are not the only things that navigate you into dead-ends, rivers, dirt-tracks and footpaths. Bartholomew’s and the Ordnance Survey were just as guilty, showing roads that hadn’t been built yet or sometimes roads that had and would never exist.

It’ll be interesting to see how, now that we have Google, Bing, Apple and other free on-line maps, route mapping develops, and whether paper maps become a thing of the past. There’s a final, telling, comment from the man from Google. Along the lines of electronic maps are fine until you lose the signal, the internet drops out, or your power goes. Wouldn’t wannabe on top of a mountain when that happens.

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