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08/10/2019

The changing face of places

If the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged the word ‘cartophile’ that is indeed what Louise Brooke-Smith would be. Here, she applies her lifelong love of maps to the UK’s future.

I have always been transfixed by maps. My mother takes delight in explaining to anyone who is remotely interested that, as a child, I never liked bedtime stories. Instead, we used to play ‘Where in the world…?’ using a very old map that she had as a child and which had been put up on my bedroom wall.

This was a map that was issued by a popular daily paper, circa 1935, colourfully illustrating the ‘continent’, namely Europe, before various parties decided to move around some boundaries.

Every capital city had its own picture, every major river and mountain range was highlighted, and I took great delight in learning the key cities, waterways and highest peak in each country. Maybe that ignited my planning and travelling genes.

I saw maps as the faces of places. Over time those faces change, become bigger or smaller, more significant or fade into oblivion. But there is always a copy to be found, an old map lurking on a shelf, in a book or behind a picture. And there is always a new way of presenting a map – sometimes, if you are lucky, an as icon.

"I saw maps as the faces of places. Over time those faces change, become bigger or smaller, more significant or fade into oblivion"

Most people recognise the London Underground map, regardless of station names or coloured lines. Its shape alone is enough. The same goes for countries like Great Britain or Italy. Others are trickier, and when borders change as much as they have done across Europe over the past 100-odd years, winning that pub quiz round becomes near impossible.

Being a surveyor and a planner means I am doubly enthused and, indeed, proud that others before me have taken the time to walk, measure, record, draw, illustrate and circulate their hard work.

I didn’t realise until recently that as a result of the technological wizardry of the printing press, some of the most important maps for the UK were produced and sold, en masse, as long ago as 1677. Sales of William Leybourne’s A Large and Accurate Map of the City of London had a circulation on a par with John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. It was a hit because it identified every property and people simply wanted to know what was where. They still do. Being able to define the extent of your little piece of England was clearly in the blood.

Over the next few months, the map of Europe will change again. I am assuming that, by the time you read this, the current political shenanigans haven’t blown up into a major civil war and we haven’t already seen barbed wire dividing Gretna Green or Derry, with Scotland and Northern Ireland hived off and Wales close behind. But it is looking likely that the area of the EU will be a little smaller in mass, tinged to the left-hand side by a little bit of pink. Not as much pink as a hundred years ago, when it was claimed that the sun never set on the British Empire. Those days and the governance that went with them have, thankfully, gone.

“Over the next few months, the map of Europe will change again”

Who knows how the new world order in terms of maps will look like in a few years’ time? Will our little bit of pink have turned into another star on the Stars and Stripes? Will China have taken over most of sub-Saharan Africa and turned the map red?

Of course, there is far more to this than illustration and colour keys. In these times of 5G, digital mapping in real time can produce such accuracy in any format, that everyone can see who is doing what, where, and whether they have pushed the boundary too far.

So with the image of the cartographic introduction to Dad’s Army in my head and the march of the Axis powers towards Blighty, I return to my Mum’s map to remind myself of a time when places like Riga or Tirana looked like lovely places to visit regardless of borders or the colour of your passport.   

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

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