Category Archives: Maps

London’s mapping renaissance

The growth of online mapping – as seen by the excellent London Mapping website, which collects some of the best digital maps around – has not meant the end of paper maps.

Image of Untamed London

I’ve mentioned Herb Lester‘s lovely themed maps before with reference to their 1960s map of London’s West End, Wish You Were There, and they continue to add new maps to their range, branching into different cities and themes while maintaining an impeccable eye for design. Untamed London, for nature-lovers, is their latest offering.

I’ve also finally got my hands on the Museum of London’s Londonium map and it is hugely impressive. This has been produced by MOLAS, the Museum of London Archeological Service, and is a huge map of the City, with the Roman topography superimposed over a plan of the contemporary city – a little like a paper version of the technology used for the Time Travel Explorer app.

Key Roman finds are listed, with an explanation of what they are and how they can be accessed, while the reverse side has a potted history of Roman London, with many illustrations. The map is printed on good thick paper so won’t tear easily (a constant problem for frequently folded paper maps), and works beautifully as both a decorative item and a practical plan for hunting down the existing remains of Londonium.

It costs just £6.25 and should it prove to be a big seller – which I imagine it will – I hope the Museum can persuade their friends at MOLA to produce more maps along the same lines.

One for the Olympic Park at around this time next year, perhaps?

London accessories

I fear this purchase may mark the moment when future biographers decided I tipped over into self-parody.

Next stop, a manbag version of this. I’m sure it can be done.

District Moquette Handbag

Nature: an apology

I was born in Epsom, one of those places on the fringe of London that mark the very boundary of the city, the point at which tarmac gives way to soil. As the picture below shows, just a few hundred yards from my road, Hookfield, the country begins in all its greenness.

This never much interested me in my youth. I was always more attracted by town than country. Nature passed me by. When I moved into the city proper, I took little notice in the pike or herons I saw from my boat on Regent’s Canal, or the ring-necked parakeets and woodpeckers I later found in Brockwell Park. If somebody told me they saw a badger in Regent’s Park or a cormorant on the Thames, I cared not a jot. And who needed peace and still when you had Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park nearby, even if I rarely actually bothered to go there.

A month in the Scottish Highlands changed that. For the first time I was able to observe hedgehogs, adders, shrews, woodmice, weasels, deer and eagles in the wild, and see traces of badgers, pine martens and wildcats. The sheer scale of the country was extraordinary, from the peaks of the Munros, to the endlessly unfolding glens. It was eye-opening and life-affirming.

Returning to London was difficult. I had previously viewed the city’s numerous parks as pastoral paradises. Now they seemed liked scratty scraps of green, a sad imitation of the real thing. The battering noise, smell and greyness of London was overwhelming.

But nature is still here, if we look for it. It’s there in the foxhole that occasionally appears at the bottom of my garden. It’s there in the resilient, remarkable weeds and visiting birds, as lovingly chronicled in Richard Mabey’s essential London wildlife book ‘The Unofficial Countryside‘. It’s there in Tales Of The City, the blog of Mel Harrison, in which she charts encounters with owls, snowflakes and brambles. It’s there in Herb Lester’s Untamed London map, which records those places ‘where nature still runs wild in the big city.

As I walked home from taking my daughter to nursery this week, along the horrible, traffic-clogged hill that takes cars from Herne Hill to Camberwell, I heard a faint, familiar sound as I passed a bus stop. It was the chirruping of a grasshopper. I stopped and looked and found it on a hedge. It looked at me, quite unmoved, before continuing to sing (or stridulate) defiantly. We gazed at each other for a minute, while commuters bustled past on foot and in car, and then quietly, and more contentedly, I went about my way.

Small is beautiful: maps and models in London exhibitions

I’ve written before about my dislike of blockbuster exhibitions so was interested to read this piece by Stephen Moss the other day about how the age of the blockbuster may be coming to an end.  It may be wishful thinking, but support for his view comes from some surprising places.

Ken Arnold, the creative force behind the Wellcome Collection, recently told me that ‘Blockbusters are a depressingly greedy way to view exhibitions’. Arnold criticised the idea that any institution would want to cover a subject so definitively it left no avenues for others to explore, and also bemoaned the very experience of a blockbuster, which is often so unfulfilling for the spectator, who is shunted in and out on a timed ticket, having only seconds to view key works of art from behind a throng of tourists and daytrippers.

Small exhibitions might not get the column inches and posters on the tube, but they are often far more thoughtful, unusual and creatively curated. There are two crackers on display in London at the moment, and I’ve reviewed both of them. The Petrified Music of Architecture at the Sir John Soane Museum is a wonderful collection of tiny Victorian models of European cathedrals – I wrote about it for the New Statesman.

The Hand-Drawn London exhibition at the Museum of London is even better. Curated by the Londonist website, it features 11 idiosyncratic maps of London drawn by locals, and is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a while. I reviewed it for the Independent.

Go and see them both.

Secret London: the Mail Rail

A group of Urban Explorers have managed to get inside what some people consider the holy grail of subterranean London – the Mail Rail. This is the mini-underground railway that used to take letters along tracks to different station/sorting offices located deep beneath London streets.

The Mail Rail stretches from Paddington to Whitechapel and is still more or less intact, despite having been mothballed nearly a decade ago in 2002. Silent UK managed to gain access and then explored the full length from the track, investigating and photographing nine stations along six miles of track.

Read the lot here – it’s an extraordinary story.

You can watch a film about Mail Rail here.

Maps round-up

A quick post on maps. I have a small piece in the Independent about the Museum of London and Londonist’s forthcoming collaboration, Hand-Drawn London. This exhibition, opening on April 21, features maps drawn by Londoners.

I submitted a map drawn by four-year-old daughter of her daily walk to nursery, but it was harshly rejected. I have reproduced it here.

I have also been posting fairly regularly on maps at the Time Travel Explorer blog. Recent posts have included one on London’s first lido and another on London’s forgotten exhibition.

London in maps

This was a piece I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Metropolitan magazine.

In July, the Mayor of London introduced a scheme that allowed the public to rent bicycles from 300 docking stations in different London. Within days, maps could be found all over the internet showing exactly where each docking stations could be found and which were the most popular. These maps were largely unofficial and all free, created by tech geeks for fun and copied to internet forums for the use of cyclists, tourists and map lovers. It proved once again that Londoners will map anything. There are maps for free wi-fi hotspots, maps that chart where the most Twitter activity comes from and maps that find the nearest toilet. One of my favourite maps is this 1970s version of the knitted football tribes of London.

 

This love of maps is engrained in London’s psyche, the result of living in a chaotic and unplanned metropolis. Two of the city’s favourite icons are maps: the A-Z, that portable atlas which even seasoned Londoners carry in case they get lost; and the Tube map, a design classic that has been copied by transport networks all over the world and is regularly ‘mashed-up’ by artists, replacing stations with footballers, philosophers, films, authors and anagrams.

In 2006, the British Library organised a ‘London: Life In Maps’ exhibition, curated by Peter Barber, the library’s Head of Maps, who thinks London’s love of maps is far stronger than anything you might find in Paris. ‘The French have a very cool attitude towards maps,’ he says. ‘They don’t, on the whole, use them and there is no comparable market in old maps to the one we have in London. You have to give away old maps of France. Maps in France are associated with authority – they were tools of administration and control. Whereas in England maps were commissioned privately and so are not perceived as being so menacing.’

The Lost Map

Barber names the key maps of London’s past –the Copperplate map of the 1550s, the Morgan map of 1682, the John Rocque map of 1746 and the Horwood map of 1829. Barber makes a distinction between two kinds of maps. There are functional maps for getting you from A to B (or A to Z) and there are maps that work thematically or artistically to present information or ideas over a cartographical plan. The thematic map has been popular in London for centuries – the most famous is Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889, which colour-coded streets according to income. Another is ‘The Modern Plague’ of 1886, produced by the National Temperance League, which showed pubs in central London. These maps are designed to transmit an idea, not aid mobility, and are fascinating to study. One of the first was John Snow’s map, tracking cholera outbreaks in Soho.

Such maps are now getting easier to compile. ‘It’s said that 80 per cent of all knowledge is spatial, and you can geo-reference any phenomenon and plot it on a map,’ says Barber. ‘With digital mapping, the techniques to do this are within the range of everyone. Digital mapping isn’t new, what is new is the ease with which it can be done and the extent of the information that can be plotted.’

Simon Foxall summarised this in his book ‘Mapping London’, writing: ‘Maps have been made to do things they were never expected to tackle and, in doing so, have exposed patterns, connections and ideas that were as interesting as they were unexpected. ‘

Straddling these two types of map is Bill Visick, a former manager at IBM, who has developed the London Time Travel Explorer (TTX) app for the iPhone. This features four maps of London dating from 1746 to 1862 and a contemporary map of the city. Using GPS technology, the user can fade between old and new maps to see how the street on which they stand has changed. It’s virtual time travel.

Visick had been collecting maps of his Kensington home for years, but smart phones allowed him to take this to another level. ‘What sparked it for me was realising that the street I lived on contained the first buildings ever built in Kensington,’ says Visick. ’I was standing outside my door and thinking, “blimey, that was a hedge and that was a field”. So the first thing I did was put this old map on my phone and walk around looking at it – that became the prototype and that’s where the idea of TTX came from. It happened almost as soon as I realised the technology would allow it.’

The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has spoken about ‘our craving for interactivity’, and that is something the artist Stephen Walter is also exploring through maps. In 2008, he created The Island, a vast, exquisitely detailed map of London, crammed with cultural and political references and in-jokes. ‘People have been suggesting I do an app,’ says Walter. ‘The British Library did a brilliant browsing tool for the map and people have suggested I do something for a phone or tablet computer. I’m interested to see if there’s a way people can leave their own tabs on the map, personally configure it with their own information.’

The Island is modern in its outlook, but Walter was following a long tradition. ‘There’s a huge, strong history of map-making in London and we do like to beat our chests about it,’ says Walter. ‘It’s a bragging thing, a celebration of history and size. The Island was a spoof of a medieval map. The twist was that a lot of it was very personal and also a contemporary reaction to the city, whereas at first glance it looks like a pretty conservative world map.’

It has long been understood that the map is subjective, reflecting the views of the maker, although rarely as blatantly as in The Island. In ‘Mapping London’, Foxall writes, ‘The map, as a scaled replica of the entire city, presents a choice to its maker: not what to include, but rather, what to exclude. The mapmaker, like a sculptor, must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.’

Barber expands this point. ‘Different maps show different things and your judgment of a map depends entirely on what you want from it. In some cases you could draw a direct contrast between the map the man in the street wants and the map the expert says is best. The A-Z is a complete travesty of mapping because the streets are grotesquely enlarged and the open spaces much reduced.’

The irony of the growth of digital mapping is that it comes at the expense of the old-fashioned kind. People no longer need A-Zs, because they can use GPS or SatNav. ‘I spoke to somebody the other day, a businessman in his 60s, who no longer takes directions,’ says Visick, with one example that stands for thousands. ‘He knows he can get anywhere on his phone.’

And into this breach step the digital mappers, who offer information in a manner that all of us can understand. London can be a daunting city to comprehend, so a thematic map that breaks the city down into easily absorbed chunks of information located spatially is very helpful. As Walter muses, ‘It seems the more complicated life gets and the easier it gets to traverse the landscape, the more maps become all about ourselves.’

Moonlighting

I am going to be blogging current affairs type stuff over at Snipe, in the illustrious company of Adam and Darryl.  

My first post about the Old London Underground Company can be read here.

You can also read more of my stuff over at the Time Travel Explorer blog, which is devoted to maps and history. My latest piece is about the constancy of one London burial ground.

Pussyfoot Johnson and the London mob

My review of Ink And The Bottle, an exhibition about cartoons and alcohol, appears in the Independent.

One of the cartoons at the gallery is based on the story of William ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, an American who was active in the temperance movement and came to London on Nov 13, 1919 to give a talk.

Johnson was leader of the Anti-Saloon League and after success in America, he headed to the Old World to spread the anti-drinking word. He argued, ‘There is more bootlegging and more moonshining in Europe than in the whole United States.’

He may have been right. This temperance movement map from 1886 attempted to show the scale of the problem by depicting all of London’s pubs in its ‘Modern Plague of London’ map.

Modern Plague, London

Pussyfoot earned his nickname for his habit of amending laws by stealth, and this did not go down well with the London mob. As one anti-temperance advocate told the New York Times, ‘You know how the majority of Englishmen look upon prohibition and Mr Johnson’s activities? The thought of not being able to have the well-known pint of bitter fills them with horror. The war was terrible enough but it was something that happened before. There have always been wars. Taking away the drinks is attacking the divine rights of the Britisher. I can tell you they don’t like it!’

They certainly didn’t, and decided to do something about it. While Johnson was speaking at Essex Hall, he was captured by medical students from nearby King’s College who dragged him out the buildin, poured a bottle of beer over his head and marched him around the West End chanting ribald songs. It was noted that the police ‘seemed lacking in sympathy with the missionary’.

Johnson was hauled hatless on a stretcher around Regent’s Street, Leicester Square and Oxford Street while the students chanted ‘What won the war? Rum!’ and ‘We’ve got Pussyfoot meow, send him back to America’.

Such larks, what fun and games! 

And so what if Johnson lost his right eye in the incident? The lesson was learnt. Not many people have tried to take the Britisher’s beer away from him since.

Mapping Sixties London

This exquisite map of the 1960s West End is one of the most interesting ways I’ve seen of making tangible that fascinating era that remains tantalisingly out of reach and hard to comprehend. Produced by Herb Lester Associates, Wish You Were There is a fascinating physical attempt to bridge the gap in time, to fill in some of the blanks.

It is also a beautiful artefact, a fold-up map that offers a ‘retrospective guide to London’s shops, clubs, boutiques and sundry diversions, 1960-66’. Included are such diverse pleasures as Better Books, home of the Beats, the offices of promoter Don Arden and restaurants like Cranks and The Nosh Bar alongside better known clothes shops, bars and venues.

On one side is a map of central London, and on the other a written guide to the 130 locations, padded out with period advertisements.

Wish You Were There can be purchased here for a bargain £4.