Mapping the past, today: TV’s trend for treading the historical beaten track

I’ve been catching up on some TV this week, with two historical travel programmes that caught my eye. Firstly, there’s been a new series of BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys, the show in which Michael Portillo set off on the train with a copy of Bradshaw’s Victorian railway guide under his arm, using the text as a lens through which to explore the railway route then and now and stopping at various sites of Victorian interest along the way. This series has been of particular interest to me as the starting point for this route was High Wycombe, a stop on from my hometown of Beaconsfield (where the station wasn’t built until 1906), and the first episode saw Portillo travel to Leamington Spa and then on to Stratford-upon-Avon, stopping along the way to visit the Leamington Pump Rooms, Tennis Court Club, and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon (alas, no mention of one eminent Victorian’s visit to the area in 1838!).

There’s also a brand new series on BBC 2 called Map Man – in which as the website blurb says,

Modern explorer Nicholas Crane travels across eight maps that changed the face of Britain in a series of geographical challenges through some of today’s wildest landscapes, telling the story of British mapmaking from the time of Chaucer through to the current generation of cyber-mappers.

In episode 2, Nicholas Crane set off with John Ogilby’s 1675 road map, the first of its kind to trace a route as a linear journey (as it happens, I blogged about this map after seeing it at a V&A exhibition back in 2008).

Ogilby's 1675 road map
Ogilby’s 1675 road map

Crane’s journey of the trans-Pennine pass from York to Lancaster was fascinating in revealing many changes to the landscape that have occured in the intervening years: some of the route is now the course of the major A-road, but substantially diverged for much of the way; we saw how a river had been re-routed as a result of the coming of the railway in later years; and Crane searched for telling traces of the old roads that still remain alongside muddy paths and wooded undergrowth. I’m very much looking forward to subsquent episodes, and can’t wait to see which maps have been chosen.

Watching these programmes back-to-back led me to reflect on the use of maps or guides as a basis for a tv series, which seems to have become a bit of a trend in recent years: Julia Bradbury’s Canal Walks, Wainwright’s Walks, and Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys are a few other examples that come to mind, but I’m sure there have been others in a similar vein. Each of these takes a historical map or guide book and sets out to explore the route in its present form, using the map as a focal point through which to read and interpret the current landscape and open up discussion around points of similarity and change between then and now.

But why the fascination with the guide book? What is it about the old mapped route that is of such interest to us now?

Baedeker's Southern Italy, 1912 ed.
Baedeker’s Southern Italy,1912 ed.

On the surface, the appeal is easy to see: these routes give the perfect structure for a tv series, carving out linear yet episodic paths that develop nicely over a long series and work equally well as stand-alone episodes, bringing in multiple points of interest while maintaining a focused narrative. But there’s also something important here in having the map or guide as a locatable route which can be plotted onto the present landscape, and, vice versa, of using the guide as a means through which to read that landscape for its historical traces; there’s something in being able to directly plot past onto present, and experience space as a site of continuity with the past. And perhaps more importantly, there’s something in the process of following a mapped historical route as a mobile experience, of putting oneself into the shoes of a historical traveller in a way that seemingly validates or authenticates the journey and that seemingly brings one into closer contact with the historical site, following in the footsteps of those that have tread the same path – a point which interestingly resonates with the original use of guidebooks in the nineteenth century as a form of touristic authentification that gave security and satisfaction from the knowledge that you were following the same beaten track that every other tourist before you had trodden, seeing every important site through the interpretative lens of the guidebook.

It’s an act that resonates strongly with literary tourism, yet the guidebook/map offers a slightly different manifestation of this process, with a different set of interpretative possibilities and spatial/historical relations. There seems to be more to be said about how these journeys might allow us to re-read not just the sites described in the guidebooks for their historical resonances, but also of how the guidebooks might be re-read as texts through reference to the sites they depict. It’s a process about which I have more questions than answers at the moment, but fortuitously will have the opportunity to explore further – when I travel to Sardinia in April I’ll almost certainly be taking my 1912 Baedeker’s Southern Italy along to think more about how the guidebook-as-text might be repositioned within this set of spatial-historical-geographical relations that arise from the contemporary re-treading of its tourist tracks.

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