The Angry Corrie 21: Jan-Feb 1995

The Best Maps in the World?

Old Square Eyes is back. TAC's self-styled, semi-gruntled, ex-OS cartographer, Alan Blanco, continues to mingle with the grid and the good...

We've heard a lot about the uselessness of Sheet 12 since TAC 16 started the campaign for its abolition, but how is it that Sheet 2 has managed to escape attention? This easily surpasses (underpasses?) Sheet 12, and must surely be the work of a demented cartographer or a resident of Out Skerries. Maybe both. An OS man who was Out of his Skerries at the time? Or maybe One Square short of a full grid?

Out of 1600 grid squares, Sheet 2 has only 520 not shared with Sheets 1 or 3. Almost 90% of these are pure blue holes. Only 59 of the 520 show any land at all, and only seven of these are not partly in the sea. Six of these seven grid squares contain inland lochs, so there is in fact only one square out of the whole 1600 which is full of land not shown on another sheet. It's HU5664 on the island of Whalsay, and it contains a road, four-and-a-half buildings, and something called The Houll (pronounced "the hole"). This doesn't appear to be anything in particular, just a name plonked there to pad out what would otherwise be a routine boring square - though one which does manage six contour lines. Sounds like a case for agents Mulder and Scully. I hope the dozen or so inhabitants of Whalsay and Out Skerries are suitably impressed at having a map all to themselves. Seems very unfair, as I have to share Sheet 64 with a million or so others.

Don't judge a map by its cover

On the subject of demented cartography, I assume most avid map browsers will have noticed the fancy new map covers now appearing in the shops. These have big lettering on the spine to spoil the symettry of your collection, and a rather ugly yellow motor caravan on the front, just behind a grey woman who seems to be wearing nothing except a map case, and an orange alien on a 19th century bicycle. What do you mean you hadn't noticed? Too busy looking at the spot heights I suppose. Anyway, to get to the point, make sure you aren't lured into buying one of these lurid objects by assuming that it's a new map. There are a few new ones, but most are simply old maps with a new cover. Always check the date of publication before buying. And another thing. The OS have finally admitted that for twenty years they've deliberately published maps showing the wrong heights for numerous hills. They do know the correct heights of course - as they include them on 1:25000 and 1: 10000 maps - but can't be bothered to update the spot heights on the Landrangers, continuing to show old survey details from one-inch sheets, with old (and often wrong) spot heights converted to metres. But what do you expect for 4.50? Accuracy?

Fabulous contourtionists

Well, the contours at least are extremely accurate (on Second Series maps), having all been resurveyed at 10m intervals. This means that in somc cases the (incorrect) spot height falls in the wrong contour ring. In such cases, the official OS policy has been to delete the offending spot height - much easier than having to retype the three or four digits required to update it. You might think I'm mtking this up, but it's all horribly true. This policy was outlined in a letter I received from the OS bearing a Charter Mark logo which was "awarded for excellence in delivering public services". For an example of a spot height in the wrong contour ring which they forgot to delete, see Meall Buidhe at NN427449 on Sheet 51 (Second Series).

This letter also claimed that "the heights are being changed gradudly as the maps are revised". This is an interesting use of the word gradually. Most of the 204 Landrangers have been through several editions in twenty years, yet heights are known to have been updated on only four: Sheet 115 (Snowdon) about ten years ago, and Sheets 23, 32 and 41 in 1994 (plus they changed Beinn Teallach from 913m to 915m on Sheet 34 as well).

So now we find that Sgurr Alasdair is officially 992m, not 993m, on all maps, that Sgurr nan Gillean is 964m, not 965m etc. Does 1994 therefore herald a breakthrough in OS policy? Not a bit of it. They've only bothered to change a few of the heights on the very few maps partially updated, and so numerous discrepancies remain, eg Sgurr na Stri is 497m on the 1994 1:50000, but 494m on the 1:25000. Leum Uilleim is 906m / 909m etc etc.

Albion's Plain thinking

So what is going on down there in Grobbelaarville? Do they think we don't care? Don't they understand how we cherish and memorise these numbers? And who do they think buys all their goddamn maps anyway?

Let's return to the subject of Sheets 2 and 12, and try to work out how the OS came to create such absurd overlaps. Ready to have your prejudices confirmed?

The illusion the OS get away with is to make us think their scheme started with Sheet 1 and was worked out southwards down to Sheet 204. But a close look at the back cover shows that the whole stupid arrangment arises from sheets 176 and 177 - which were evidently the first to be defined, as these two sheets alone have a helpful, small, symmetrical overlap with all adjoining sheets. Yes, of course... West London and East London. One of the few areas in Britain where Landranger maps are almost entirely useless, as they don't show street names, which is precisely why everyone in London uses an A-Z instead. Yet this indefensible Londoncentric behaviour clearly determines the end result everywhere else. The whole arrangement has been defined by starting from London and working outwards, and where it finished at the northern tip of Scotland they just bunged in an extra, redundant sheet or two, as it wasn't worth bothering to work out a sensible pattern for such remote parts. Then (the clever bit) the sheets are numbered from the north downwards so they can get away with it! And as a result we get huge overlaps where they're unnecessary, and none at all in cases where a small one would be invaluable - such as Beinn Eighe, Gulvain, Beinn Heasgarnich / Creag Mhor etc. We get an island such as Mull, almost perfectly sized for a single sheet, split between three instead. We get a map of the Isle of Man, which isn't part of the UK, but none of Northern Ireland, which is. We get Sheet 12 and Sheet 2. And we get out-of-date spot heights because these things are not important to people who live in London or Southampton.

The best maps in the world? Possibly. If you've tried hillwalking in Ireland or further afield you'll probably feel eternally grateful to the OS. But there's plenty of room for improvement. And improvement means paying more attention to getting the heights right, less to yellow motor caravans and naked grey women.

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