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Metric Doodle Bug Strikes the Ordnance Survey
Yardstick, April 2001, contributed by Steve Tamblin

If, before the mid-1970's, you sat a geography 'A' level exam, you will be familiar with them. If you took your family holidays in Britain, you very probably purchased one. If you regard them with the affection that many people do, you almost certainly possess one or more. They are the One Inch maps of the Ordnance Survey.

The OS map was not just a driver's navigational aid. It was a portrayal of the landscape and, dare I say it, a minor work of art. So much was to be found in so little space and only occasionally did it become a little overcrowded. Take, for instance, sheet 187 (Plymouth, 1961, revised 1964). This informed the hardy walker returning from Dartmoor and making his way between Lee Moor and Penn Moor (grid square SX5963) that he will pass an 'Enclosure & Hut Circle', and an 'Enclosed Hut Group', a 'Cairn Circle' and a 'Stone Row', before coming across more recent human activity at the Lee Moor china clay works. Here he would find not a slurry pit or lagoon but a 'Mica Pit'. Such precision!

And not only in the descriptions but in the drawing too. A One Inch map had a crispness of style that pleased the eye (even if it was sometimes necessary to resort to a magnifying glass to identify the remote farmhouse you had chosen for your holiday.) 'A' roads strode boldly across the sheet, vividly depicted in a truly arterial red. The sun shone, the world turned, and the dreaded Exeter by-pass lay ahead… My late father's 1960 sheet 163 (Barnstaple), purchased for a 1963 holiday in North Devon, may be stained brown by ancient Sellotape, soiled by childish scrawl and creased and crumpled from being creased and crumpled into pockets and holdalls, but after 37 years it remains attached to its buff and red paper cover. My First Series metric sheet 164 (Oxford) has long since shed its cover, perhaps too ashamed to reveal its true identity. The first OS metric maps were an exercise in deception, a photographic enlargement of One Inch maps in washed-out colours, with metric spot heights and contours at absurd intervals - 15 metres, 30, 46 (150 ft to you and me), 61 (200 ft), 76 metres (250 ft). The scale might have become 1:50,000 but they were still visibly One Inch maps. [As it happens, 1:50,000 is very close to 1¼ in: 1 mile anyway!]

Then came the revised and redrawn Landranger series. I suppose the new name was needed because '2cm to 1km' does not fall so lightly off the tongue. Given the larger scale, one might have hoped that the new maps would set new standards in clarity, but no. Townscapes are a fuzzy blur and roads are crudely delineated by lines thick and black yet unable to prevent their colours from leaking onto the verges. Footpaths and cycleways, National Trails and Long Distance Routes criss-cross chaotically. The contours, now at 10 metre intervals, are so feint that the landscape recedes before the eyes - a landscape in which, apparently, there no longer exists 'rough pasture', although I suppose we should be grateful that we are informed of the presence of a 'spoil heap, refuse tip or dump', if only to avoid it as we hike along the pink-dashed footpaths.

Nor is it only the large-scale folding map that has suffered the attention of the conversion maniacs. A minor bastion of imperial measures, the popular OS Motoring Atlas, has also fallen recently. In the 1999 edition, spot heights are converted to metres and the relief colour shading key, although retaining its curious imperial divisions of 600, 1000, 1400 and 200 ft, was turned upside down in the legend to give precedence to the metric conversions of 183, 305, 427 and 610. This latter change has been reversed, but the modern metricator has nevertheless left his mark. The scale of this atlas is 1:190,080. .The legend on the inside of the front cover of the 2001 edition informs us that this is 1 cm to 1.9 km. Well, almost so, give or take the odd 80 centimetres, but in reality it is exactly 1 inch to 3 miles! To be fair, we are informed of that fact too, but the metric conversion is given precedence. It is on the front cover that our 80 centimetres go missing, as here the scale is rounded down to 190,000.

Perhaps the cartographers were confused by their 1997 edition which proclaimed itself as 1:200,000 and 3 miles to 1 inch on its cover, yet inside, in the legend, as 1:190,080 or "about 3 miles to 1 inch". Such muddle and confusion! I shall leave the reader to ponder upon the obvious contradictions that exist in an atlas where spot heights are given in metres while contours are measured in feet and distances in miles. And, of course, the maps have been redrawn in an inferior style, most apparent in the indistinct relief colouring which fades into the background in the same manner as the contours on the folding sheets, with which the parallels are clear. I should not wish to insult the intelligence of the reader by pointing out that a map should inform the user of the nature of the terrain as well as the ways through it; but maybe the modern motorist knows only the motorway. Both are oblivious to the landscape through which they pass.

The modern Ordnance Survey does more than produce maps for motorists and walkers. It offers a wide variety of mapping and geographical data services to national and local government, educational establishments and private businesses. Paper maps account for a decreasing proportion of its turnover and perhaps that declining importance is reflected in the quality of its current products, although it is possible that their new chief executive might show a new attitude towards these publications. I recently suggested to the OS that a revival of the One Inch series might be a worth-while venture, but they replied that they "did not see that this would be a practical or financially viable option." And yet only recently I discovered a new one-inch map. True, it was drawn in the modern style, but its scale was1:63,360 and it bore the OS logo. It belonged to the 'Tourist' series and seemed such a curious find.

The OS boasts that computerised mapping techniques allow more accurate plotting and more frequent updating. How unfortunate that these techniques do not permit more accurate drawing. The Landranger series are not so much maps as sketches, diagrams, doodles in pastel shades and gaudy pink - and metric to boot.

So, almost 40 years on, let us return to our walker and his pink pathfinder. He will discover from sheet 202 (Torbay & South Dartmoor) that the Lee Moor works have expanded enormously, depositing numerous 'spoil tips' and obliterating the 'Cairn Circle' and 'Stone Row'. The 'Enclosure & Hut Circle' and the 'Enclosed Hut Group' are downgraded to mere 'Settlements'. The 'Mica Pit' is now a nameless feature, having expanded to engulf a farmstead. A mile of moorland road has disappeared and with it an easy walk from Tolchmoor Gate to Cadover Bridge. But the sun still shines and the world still turns, even if the Exeter by-pass is now just a busy ring road, long superseded by the M5. And in your local library, the One Inch map has been moved from Reference to History.

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