Smart phones are killing the art of map reading – or are they?

I read a piece in the Metro today about a new survey which claimed that reading a map is a dying skill – along with writing letters, tying knots and using proper grammar. It went on to helpfully suggest that youngsters should ‘reach out’ to a grandparent to brush up on these (clearly pre-historic) skills. So not patronizing at all then.

I’m a map enthusiast – you’ll always find me with an Ordnance Survey Landranger if I’m on a walk. It’s not so much a means of finding your way – although that’s obviously quite important and always very satisfying, it’s the ability to see where you are in relation to your surroundings. What’s that building in the distance? Can we divert to have a look at that nearby lake? I love all the context, the landmarks, the contours, the weird symbols. The first thing I remember about being shown OS maps as a child was that the square church symbol meant a church with a tower and the round one was a church with a spire. It was like a secret code, I’m sure that was what appealed to that small boy, but I was hooked. Incidentally, why is a church with a spire shown by a circle – would a triangle not be more appropriate? And why has that only just occurred to me?

Anyway, back to the Metro: In spite of the survey complaining about map reading being a dying skill, it’s always been a minority passion. Most people I meet out walking are using a book or a walk guide with directions – often with the most basic map (Guides – use a proper one, the Ordnance Survey could use the royalties!).

But here’s the thing, when you use a sat-nav or Google maps, you are still reading a map, and while they have that crucial extra piece of magic that shows you where you actually are, the basic principles of following your route on a map are still there. So kids finding their way around with their phones are really completing ‘level one map reading’. It’s not such a massive step to move on to the real thing.

Maps still have their drawbacks. When you’re driving, finding your way with a map has always been completely impractical – as well as dangerous. In pre-sat-nav times most of us had a carefully researched sheet of instructions stuck to the dashboard. My dad even had a specially mounted clip for his notes (as I would, I fear, if it were still needed). Back then the biggest breakthrough to navigation was the post-it note. When the early Tom-Toms appeared, I was intrigued. They were amazing things – but I regarded it as cheating. A couple of completely frustrating days getting lost looking for client premises soon cured me of that. Also, for urban navigation you need a street atlas, not an OS map. I still use an A-Z when planning trips in London, I just don’t take it with me, the phone is easier to carry. Hybrid navigation. Use all the tools available – and choose whatever works for you. But do give the Ordnance Survey maps a go, you’ll be opening a whole new world.

by Simon Turner

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