Magazine article The Spectator

'Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain', by Joanne Parker - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain', by Joanne Parker - Review

Article excerpt

Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain Joanne Parker

Cape, pp.224, £16.99, ISBN: 9780224102025

Picture the map of Britain. Its strangely cadaverous shape, blobs of population and routes between them seem as familiar as our own faces; there is only one definitive map, surely? Not according to Joanne Parker, whose Britannia Obscura aims to tease out less corporeal cartography. Hers are not quite 'maps of the mind', for they exist as truly as a crisp new Ordnance Survey, but they are largely out of sight: above us, below us or otherwise in the shadows.

Each of her five chapters takes on a different map: of our cave and canal networks, overhead air routes and patterns of megalithic remains. These four are clearly real enough; the fifth, a map of ley lines, rather less certain. Yet they are all vague to most of us, and that is what interests Parker; like so many cartographers of old, she is hungry to map terra incognita .

Yesterday's imperial African or Arctic derring-do is today's hunt for cave systems suspected but yet to be proven, canals long vanished or earth energy lines that may not exist at all.

This desire to find places still metaphorically mapped as 'Here Be Dragons' is all the more urgent, Parker says, in today's minutely measured, exhaustively surveilled Britain. A declared aim of the book is to remind us that the country is far more spacious, layered and interesting than the one 'we know from road atlases'. It's a good point, as are her thoughts on whether our east-west divide is greater than the notorious north-south one; the unfailing symbiosis of geology and wealth; and the highly blurred, even artificial, boundary between urban and rural. Boundaries stalk the subject of mapping, and while Parker states that she hopes 'to argue that there is no one centre, no absolute peripheries, and no objective borders', her evidence suggests otherwise.

Parker deals playfully with this eternal collision between our sense of adventure and inherent parochialism. She shows, too, how our view of the land, and the maps we use to decipher it, are as subject to the politics and fashion of the moment as are any more ephemeral sides of life. All resistance was swept aside in the heady excitement of the canal builders and pioneer aviators, while the 18th-century embellishment of all things druidic was as much about forging a shared heritage for the newly-minted Union as it was about any stones or tumps. …

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