Are road maps making a comeback?

Carlton Boyce / 30 December 2016

Sat navs get you there fast, but do you miss the thrill of motoring with a map?

Ordnance Survey has reintroduced its classic 1:250,000 OS Road range of road maps after an eight-year gap, a move driven by customers who are, it says, fed up with the “restrictive” nature of digital mapping.

Nick Giles, Managing Director of Ordnance Survey Leisure, says: “Sat navs and digital mapping are fantastic for getting road users from A to B, but they can be very restrictive when it comes to more leisurely driving and discovering something new.”

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The solution to the problem

For many of us, poring over a map is a pleasure in itself; when you then take into account the very real benefits that a paper map offers in route planning and exploration, you can start to understand the niche that OS aims to fill with this new set of eight road maps.

As Nick puts it: “Since we last published OS Road, we have had a constant stream of customers telling us that the beauty of the road map is in laying it out on the table to study and plan with. So due to the overwhelming interest to see them return, we decided the time was right to bring these handy glovebox-sized maps back.”

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The definitive maps

Paper maps might only account for 5% of the Ordnance Survey’s income these days, but it built its reputation over the past two centuries as the producer and supplier of the definitive maps of the United Kingdom.

It all started in 1747, when relative youngster William Roy was asked to create a Great Map to record the roads, hills and other geographical landmarks of Scotland.

It took eight years to complete, but it laid the foundations for modern surveying, and less than 40 years later, his expertise was called upon again, when his position as map-maker extraordinaire was further cemented by an obscure dispute in 1784 between the Britain and France (quelle surprise…) over the relative locations of its respective observatories. 

Using a three-foot theodolite (three years in the making, no less), great care and simple trigonometry, he started the process that would eventually see the whole of Great Britain mapped to a previously unheard of level of accuracy.

Kent and the south coast was the starting point, a need driven by a military that was keen to hide its resources away from prying French eyes with a view to still being able to deploy them at a moment’s notice.

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The Retriangulation of Great Britain

Industrial development and the increasing urbanisation of our small island saw the start of the ‘retriangulation’ of Great Britain in 1935.

This huge project saw a flurry of activity and the erection of more than 6,500 concrete or stone triangulation points, or ‘Trig Points’, erected throughout the country, the majority of which are still in place today.

The modern metric system of grid references was introduced at the same time, as was the famous 1:25,000 scale, essentially making these the first of the style of OS maps we still use today.

The project was completed in time for them to be used in the Second World War; more than 342 million were printed in total in just six years, with more than 120 million used for the Normandy landings alone.

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Modern-day triangulation

Digital mapping started in 1971 and the first Outdoor Leisure map appeared a year later. This marked the start of the shift from military to civilian leisure use, a move that was consolidated in 1974 when the Director General’s position became civilian, rather than military, for the first time in Ordnance Survey’s history.

Ordnance Survey is now a thoroughly modern organisation making use of computer power to accurately map 460 million man-made and natural landscape features throughout Great Britain. It also produces mobile apps, downloads, and vast swathes of geographical location data, yet still finds the time to make up to 10,000 changes to its maps every single day.

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The first OS county maps were sold at the start of the nineteenth century for three guineas each, or almost three weeks’ wages for a labourer. The new road maps cost just £5.99 each.

Of course, a sat nav system doesn’t require a degree in origami to get it back into its original shape, but for everything else one of the new OS motorists’ maps might just be the solution you are looking for…

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