Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Map That Came to Life

On one of our recent visits to a local secondhand bookshop, my wife came across a copy of The Map That Came to Life, a book she read avidly when she was a child. Written by H. J. Deverson and illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life was first published in 1948, and was much reprinted. It describes how two children (and a dog) go on a walk across the English countryside with an Ordnance Survey map to guide them. Much of what they find on the way is marked on the map, whose symbols for roads, railways, telephone boxes, tumuli, and so on and on, turn to reality along the way. The reader, meanwhile, learns how to read a map, and how maps have much to teach us about the world around us.

In some ways the world of The Map That Came to Life does not exist today. These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance. They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners. Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic.

It’s different in other ways too. The villages through which they pass are well provided with the kind of facilities – shops, pubs, Post Offices, a forge – that we mourn the passing of today. Interesting antiquities, such as a ruined abbey and a castle, abound, giving me an excuse for including the book in a blog about English Buildings. If truth be told, all these ancient and modern details are probably rather thick on the ground even for 1948, because their purpose after all is to show us as many map symbols coming to life as can be reasonably encompassed in 32 pages.And not just the symbols, but what’s behind them. Joanna and John learn about ruined buildings, tumuli, tithe barns, and ancient churches. They listen to bird song and discover what kinds of trees grow beside rivers. They find out the relationship between contours and man-made features like railway lines and viaducts. And by helping to alert some farm workers to a fire in a wood, they learn about one potential danger in the countryside.

Sadly, this book would not be published today. For one thing, it’s very specifically British in its content, and publishers nowadays cry out for books that will work in an international market. For another, it’s not an outwardly exciting book – its information about the past contains no pillaging Vikings, no bombs, none of the opportunistic stink and goo of ‘Horrible History’. Yet in its quiet way it conveys a different kind of excitement – the excitement of finding things out, of being inquisitive about the environment, of thinking about what you see. And that is one of the best kinds of excitement there is.

10 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

Philip this is terrific! I think the book (it's one of my all time favourites) should be reprinted immediately in facsimile. Thankyou for reminding me about it. It also brought to mind another beautifully enriching book from my childhood called 'A Valley Grows Up'. It shows, through a series of superb paintings by Edward Osmond, the same bend of a river going around a hill- from prehistoric times to 1953.

Peter Ashley said...

Typically I didn't look at 'The Valley Grows Up' before making that last comment. In fact Osmond's pictures stretch from a phenomenal 5000BC to 1900. And 'The Map that Came to Life'is advertised on the back flap.

david said...

Lampitt's style has great appeal.

http://www.fulltable.com/vts/aoi/l/lampitt/city/c10.jpg

I'm curious to know how much you paid, as I'd like to get a copy. There seem to be few available secondhand.

Philip Wilkinson said...

David - Thanks for the link. I paid exactly £1 for my copy, which is in reasonable condition but is not a first edition. So there are bargains to be had if you're lucky.

david said...

I posted my URL incorrectly. It should have been http://diaphania.blogspirit.com - my thoughts on Lampitt there now

GeoBlogs said...

Just been writing about this book again - I have an article in the next issue of the Ordnance Survey's Mapping News which talks about this book and how it can be used as a tool for exploring modern day maps. Have a second hand copy, paid £3.50 for mine (I was robbed...)
Nice blog !

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for the comment. £3.50 well spent, I'd say.

I mean some time to do a post about Ordnance Survey maps and their usefulness to those who want to look at buildings. And perhaps another on my friend Kitty Hauser's marvellous book Bloody Old Britain, which is about O G S Crawford's life and work with the OS, in archaeology, and all the rest.

GeoBlogs said...

My article on the book is now available to download as a PDF from this link:

http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/education/mappingnews/previouseditions/35/p26-29.pdf

E Berris said...

In the same spirit ( but no colour pictures) is a much loved Puffin "South Country Secrets", in which the children stick a pin in a map and then set out to explore that place ( all in the south of England). By Barbara Euphan Todd and her husband "Klaxon" in 1947.
E. Berris

Philip Wilkinson said...

E Berris: Thank you. I'll look out for South Country Secrets.