The Angry Corrie 3: Sep-Oct 1991

Frontpoints: Why have Ordnance Survey maps become so expensive?

Seeing how the following two pages of TAC3 comprise a comprehensive, easy-to-use guide to the nuances and niceties of hill navigation, it perhaps makes sense to briefly raise what is, for many, one of the abiding mysteries of Scottish hillwalking: why have Ordnance Survey maps become so expensive?


The question, unlike many of those which furrow your editor's balaclava-ed brow, is not as facetious as it sounds. Whilst acknowledging that a familiar old pink-covered 1:50 000 sheet still costs less than a couple of fish suppers or entrance to the Jungle at Parkhead, and whilst nine times out of ten it will prove to be more pleasurable and of more enduring worth than either (particularly if Anton Rogan is playing), it has to be remembered that only a few short years ago the same map could have been picked up not for 3.90, but more like 70p.


It's certainly not the case that this exponential increase in costliness has been necessary to keep pace with inflation. If that were so, a pair of boots would now cost around 200 (yes, yes, we know some do), whilst folk would be taking out a mortgage on some of the snazzier tents. Indeed, the only comparable increase in prices in the hillwalking world can be seen on the SYHA's admissions tariff - and at least their punters have the option of giving it a miss should they decide not to cough up (as, sadly, seems to be the case with many indigenous walkers, the old cheap 'n' easy accommodation ethic having gradually drifted out of the window).


But the OS is a cartographical closed shop, a mapping monopoly, and we have no choice but to fork out our four quid odds each time a new area is visited. Nor is the quality even that great. Compared with the near-waterproof maps produced by Harveys of Doune (who cover only three Scottish areas - Strathyre, Galloway and Arran), OS sheets are little more than flimsy rice paper. Keep them in a mapcase and the folds and corners rapidly degenerate into dogeared-dom; take the advice of TAC1 to ditch your map-case and the sheet is then left open to all the sodding, soggy elements that the Scottish climate can concoct. Visit an area on a regular basis and you'll probably be getting through one map per year, or worse.


Whatever became of the simple-but-clever idea of giving each map its own transparent, made-to-measure plastic casing? This worked a treat, but vanished from the scene as quickly as a subliminal image of Norris McWhirter's head. Perhaps maps are like lightbulbs - capable of being made virtually un-go-wrongable, but deliberately tampered with at factory level in order to maintain supply and demand.


Yet whilst the fabric may be of dubious quality, it has to be said that with the coming of the "Second Series", accuracy and clarity in the actual mapping has increased severalfold. Gone are the days when contours looked like spirograph drawings and a 1000' crag would be represented by what appeared to be a handful of iron filings. Now, apart from unfortunate but understandable proofreading-type errors (wherefore art thou, Rowardennan youth hostel, sheet 56?), things have undoubtedly taken a turn for the better. It used to rile when even the minutest footpath in rural Derbyshire was precisely marked, whilst a beautifully engineered stalker's highway up a Munro somewhere never got a look in. At least that happens less frequently nowadays.


None of which answers the original question - why the mega, and regular, price leaps? Perhaps the real truth lies in the OS's oddly formal, crypto-military name - after all, the most persistent Scottish non-mappings are the likes of Faslane's nuclear anchorage and the rabbit warren of munitions in Glen Douglas. The "Ordnance" in the name holds sinister undertones, smacking of the Royal Ordnance Depot at Bishopton or the Woolwich Arsenal. Now there's a thought! TAC is ever on the lookout for chances to juxtapose football and hillwalking, and maybe it's no coincidence that the steepling of map prices has been paralleled by Arsenal's rise to the top of the English first division. Could it be that each time we dip into our pockets in Tiso's, Nevisport, WH Smith's or wherever, we go a little way towards helping sign the next Anders Limpar or David Seaman? Perhaps some beleaguered Highbury fanzine editor could enlighten us further...

TAC 3 Index