Maps That Changed the Shape of Great Britain: Geography and Maps Are as Inseparable as History and Dates. over the Past Year, Nicholas Crane Has Been Working on Mapman, an Eight-Part BBC2 Television Series That Explores 'Masterpiece Maps' of Britain. Part One of His Exclusive Feature for Geographical Takes Us from the Middle Ages to a 17th-Century Coastal Chart

By Crane, Nicholas | Geographical, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Maps That Changed the Shape of Great Britain: Geography and Maps Are as Inseparable as History and Dates. over the Past Year, Nicholas Crane Has Been Working on Mapman, an Eight-Part BBC2 Television Series That Explores 'Masterpiece Maps' of Britain. Part One of His Exclusive Feature for Geographical Takes Us from the Middle Ages to a 17th-Century Coastal Chart


Crane, Nicholas, Geographical


The first great flowering of British cartography occurred during the Middle Ages, when maps recorded remembered, rather than measured, geographies. As Britain was surveyed over the following centuries, a paper trail of maps was left behind. A select few of these maps marked watersheds in British mapmaking--breakthrough moments when cartographic evolution took a sudden, modernising surge.

BBC2's Mapman series looks at eight such 'masterpiece' maps. But how do you narrow the choice to the eight that are best suited to telling the story of British mapmaking? How do you weigh Saxton against Speed, the London Underground map against the A-Z? At the Glasgow HQ of the Mapman production company Tern TV, a score of contenders was whittled down to an irresistible octet; each a milestone in British mapmaking, and each a masterpiece in its own right. Led by the accomplished director Michael Waterhouse, the Tern team filmed a series of adventurous journeys across these maps, which revealed how and why these great works came to be created. Through a long and very wild British winter, the maps led us to the summit of a Scottish peak at night, into the depths of a Somerset coal mine and onto the pitching deck of a square-rigged sailing ship. We filmed on Norfolk church towers and gale-battered Welsh peaks. On one occasion, I found myself presenting from a coracle and, on another, from a bicycle.

In the course of the filming, we were able to uncover many fresh insights into the way maps have reflected changes in British landscapes since the 1300s. In this issue of Geographical, I'm going to write about the earliest four maps we chose: the mediaeval 'Gough' map of around 1360; Saxton's country atlas of 1579; Ogilby's road atlas of 1675; and Collins's Coasting Pilot of 1693. In the next issue, I'll describe four more remarkable maps that brought Britain into the modern age.

One of the most enigmatic maps of Britain was drawn more than 600 years ago with pen and ink onto two skins of vellum stitched together to make a panel slightly wider than a modern Ordnance Survey sheet. Seen from a distance, the Gough map could be mistaken for a piece of grubby pub carpet. It has a patchy green colour wash, a variety of tears and a series of peripheral holes where earlier owners have nailed it to walls. The lower edge is darkened by centuries of greasy elbows. Peer more closely, however, and an extraordinary image of mediaeval Britain emerges.

The surface of the map is speckled with place names and veined with rivers. More than 600 settlements are marked, many of them linked by red lines that are annotated with distances. In common with other mediaeval maps, it depicts Britain lying on its side, with east at the top, but the island is still immediately recognisable. So advanced was the Gough map's geography that no better map of Britain was produced until the 16th century.

The author of this astonishing map is unknown, and it takes its name from the antiquarian Richard Gough, who bequeathed it to the Bodleian Library in 1809. Today, it's kept at 50 per cent relative humidity and 21[degrees]C in a protective vault. "This is one of the library's crown jewels," says Nick Millea, the Bodleian's map librarian. "It's the most important mediaeval route map of Britain."

So who could have produced such a masterpiece. And how? And when? The density of place names in eastern England has led to conjecture that the mystery mapmaker lived near the Wash, perhaps in Lincolnshire. He certainly had access to a library, for the map has been compiled from a wide variety of written itineraries and from portolan charts used by seafarers. He could have been based in a monastery, and he would have required royal assent to produce such a comprehensive image of the kingdom.

The mapmaker's choice of place names has dated his work to around 1360, although there are reasons for believing that the map in the Bodleian is in fact an updated copy of an original that had been created 70 or so years earlier, during the reign of Edward I. …

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Maps That Changed the Shape of Great Britain: Geography and Maps Are as Inseparable as History and Dates. over the Past Year, Nicholas Crane Has Been Working on Mapman, an Eight-Part BBC2 Television Series That Explores 'Masterpiece Maps' of Britain. Part One of His Exclusive Feature for Geographical Takes Us from the Middle Ages to a 17th-Century Coastal Chart
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