The Angry Corrie 55: Oct-Nov 2002

More like a lottery than proper cartography (OS Explorers)

The past couple of years have brought both the rolling publication of the Explorer series of 1:25000-scale maps and an increasing number of mutterings about omissions and mistakes. Ordnance Survey maps might traditionally be ranked among the best in the world, but this new series appears to be of a markedly lower quality than we have come to expect. Grahaeme Barrasford Young, a dissatisfied member of the map-buying public, decided to write directly to the OS when "his" new Explorer didn't even show his 18-year-old house.

I SPENT MY FIRST YEAR at Glenfinnan wondering far too often where, exactly, I was. The 1:25000-scale Pathfinder maps of the area had not been updated since 1978, so several major changes, such as significant tracks and houses, were not shown. The Explorer replacement (Exp391) was therefore greeted with some eagerness. My mistake. Two mistakes, in fact: not taking the trouble to look at the map before buying a copy from my wholesaler, and being eager.

Once Exp391 arrived, the most cursory glance showed that not only was my house (built 1984) not there, neither were others from the same period. There was, however, a proliferation of blue tourist information icons. None of this was, in itself, particularly problematic. I don't really mind if people don't know that I'm here, and while as a car-borne tourist I'd prefer a decent road atlas to a boot-full of 1:25000 sheets, that's a personal foible. Even so, Exp391 was labelled a revision and, at best, the revision was flawed. I therefore wrote to the Ordnance Survey to point this out and to ask why, if no house built in Glenfinnan in the past 25 years was shown, should I feel confident about using the map in the hills.

By the time I received a reply, (on 5 August, nearly three months after my original letter), I had realised that the situation was actually worse than I had thought, because some houses built since 1978 were shown. Some houses. Presumably on the same basis some bridges would be shown and some tracks, but at this stage I didn't believe that the new streamlined sales-before-accuracy OS could be that crass. Wrong again.

The first part of the OS response was bad enough. After apologising for the delay in replying, Sharon Allsop-Seward, the Southampton-based "customer relations co-ordinator", wrote: "In order to be included in this small scale series [small scale?], detail like estates and houses have to be of a minimum size or a significant navigational aid in order to be considered for inclusion." In some areas, such as the Cairngorms, individual boulders are shown, so you have to wonder how small houses are being built today. And the minor fact that in remote areas such as Glenfinnan every detail might be a navigational aid is, I suppose, of no interest to the customer relations people. "If a small development happens to be on the outskirts of a town," Allsop-Seward continued, "then it may be included, whereas a larger group of buildings, but within the urban 'sprawl' of a town, may be omitted."

Wordless, in Glenfinnan, at the desk, with maps. Allsop-Seward's lack of knowledge of the product was worrying. As I pointed out in my (quite polite) response, the terraced house I had recently left in the centre of a large town was delineated at 1:25000 scale by virtue of the garden boundary being shown. Also, all houses built in Glenfinnan prior to the last actual survey in 1978 were shown.

Things got worse, and I quote the customer relations co-ordinator's next paragraph in full. "'Revised' in this instance is not intended to indicate that a full revision process, including absolutely everything, has taken place, because it must be admitted that this would have seriously impacted on our ability to achieve the scheduled completion date for the Explorer series of 2003. Even in the best of all possible worlds a subjective selection of what to include is decided upon by the draughtsman."

There has been no proper 1:25000-scale revision for 25 years. Presumably, if the OS thinks that tourist ephemera on a large-scale map intended not only for walkers and climbers but also for planners and commercial users is more important than detail, then the maps are not likely to be revised for a considerable further time (except to include or remove such trivia). Getting the series out on time is deemed more important than putting such detail in. This is not entirely the the OS's fault: the government has told them to make a profit, so regardless that we can no longer trust their product, that's what they're going to do.

The best we keep until last: "a subjective selection"? I could live with an objective, properly informed selection of the sort that says: "I might safely leave out that feature halfway down Liathach because the only people to see it will be falling past it." But subjective? What does this mean? Leave out the M25 because it gets in the way of a couple of words? Don't put in that crag hillwalkers have bought the map to avoid falling over because the draughtsman is fed up drawing crinkly bits? And why the draughtsman? Surely the only person who should be able to make a decision on what to leave out, if anything must be left out, is the person who did the survey, who walked the land. Except that the person who did the survey is probably a satellite, and the only human near the map is the cartographer who draws it - who may or may not have an understanding of what is relevant to safety.

This is the crux of the matter. Whatever the OS now thinks, the point of large-scale maps outside urban areas is that people use them primarily to route-find and to avoid danger. This is just as true in the fields of Surrey as it is in Fisherfield. To suggest that at this scale the needs of the car-borne are as important as those of the walker is absurd. There are two roads on Explorer 391: the A830 at the top and the A861 round Ardgour. In between lie 500km2 of very wild country through which I can no longer trust the OS to see me safely, because I can no longer be certain that a bridge shown is a bridge there, or that a bridge not shown is a bridge not there.

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