Tag Archives: Maps

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.

Locating the local in William Cobbett’s Rural Rides

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on the revised proposal for a co-edited collection on gender and rurality in the long Victorian period – the book, now titled Gendered Ruralities: Gender and Space in Britain, 1840-1920, emerged out of the Rural Geographies symposium held last year at Warwick. The essays cover a wide range of rural locations throughout Britain, exploring the particular ways in which gender is played out in rural environments – both shaping and shaped by the specific contexts of rural locations. Throughout the wide range of rural locations covered, in Britain and abroad, the collection builds up a multifaceted concept of rural gender identities, moving away from a static concept of “the rural”. A diverse set of perspectives on the relationship between rural and national identities also unfold, revealing rural places as points of negotiation between local, regional, national and international identities.

View of Dover in 1804; from http://www.dover-kent.co.uk/words/cobbett.htm
View of Dover in 1804; from http://www.dover-kent.co.uk/words/cobbett.htm

It seemed like a good time, then, to finally read the copy of William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830) that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few months. If you’re not familiar with the text, it’s a series of accounts of Cobbett’s rides through rural Southern England in the 1820s, charting the rapidly changing rural landscape as the effects of the agricultural revolution, urbanization and industrialization take hold. The writing moves between the detailed agricultural understanding of a rural labourer, the newness of a traveller’s perspectives, and the political outporings of one incensed at the government’s injustice towards rural communities.

Written just before the Victorian years, on which my research and the book collection focus, it’s been interesting to see how certain elements are anticipated and to get a detailed sense of the changes taking place in agricultural communities in these years. One thing that’s particularly interesting me thus far in my reading is the way in which Cobbett moves frequently between different points of perspective. His rides often move quickly through a succession of named places before arriving at a stop or point of interest that will prompt a longer observation, drawing the particularities of individual rural communities into a wider picture of the rural South, Cobbett using his perspective as an outside observer to make sense of the landscape as a whole.

In a similar vein, Cobbett frequently reaches viewpoints that afford a wider perspective on the surrounding landscape – I’ve come across 5 such instances just in the first 100 or so pages:

“we, having seen enough of the streets and turnpikes, took across over Merrow Down, and then mounted the ‘Surrey Hills’ so famous for the prospects they afford. Here we looked back over Middlesex, and into Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, away towards the North West, into Essex and Kent towards the East, over part of Sussex to the South, and over part of Hampshire to the West and South West” (p. 35)

“that chain of hills, which, in this part, divide Hampshire from Berkshire […] from which you can see all across the country, even to the Isle of Wight, are of chalk” (p. 65)

“[Beacon Hill] is one of the loftiest hills in the country. Here you can see the Isle of Wight in detail, a fine sweep of the sea; also away into Sussex, and over the New Forest into Dorsetshire” (p.77)

“the ground is pretty much elevated, and enables you to look about you. You see the Surrey Hills away to the North; Hindhead and Blackdown to the North West and West; and the South Downs from the West to the East” (p. 113)

“there is a hill which I came over, about two miles from Petworth, whence I had a clear view of the Surrey chalk-hills, Leith-hill, Hindhead, Blackdown, and of hte South Downs” (p. 116)

Each time the observation is focused not so much on the view, but on naming the counties or places that can be seen; only in a few instances does Cobbett give an impression of the landscape’s appearance or any indicators of aesthetic appreciation, instead focusing on giving a description which gives distinct, identifiable markers of place – names and directions. It serves to map out the surrounding area, almost plotting the coordinates so that we specifically locate each place and get a sense of its relational context to the surrounding area. These instances ensure that the wider perspective of the region, and nation, is always maintained, but they also focus on giving a very specific, relational sense of how each place is situated so that the view is at once broad and distinct.

The frequency with which these instances occur means that the reader is constantly called on to keep the wider map in view, repeatedly reiterating that the concerns of the rural locale are at once local, regional, national and even international – something very much at the heart of Cobbett’s writing, and indeed indicative of the way in which many rural contexts can most productively be understood.

Dickens and google maps

I’ve been using Google maps in preparing a paper for this weekend’s Dickens Day conference, I’ve been playing around with the “my places” function – I only discovered the other day that you can save places to create different maps. It’s been fun creating maps of the locations in a couple of novels I’m writing about (I’ve just been drawing on print-out maps until now); here are my maps of the places of Bleak House and David Copperfield.


(Click to enlarge. Yes, my graphics skills need a little work!)

Of course this is just a more hi-tech form of what Morretti does in Atlas of the European Novel, and a starting-point for ideas rather than an end in itself; but it’s nonetheless a useful way for stimulating ideas about location and place in individual novels, and indeed for re-thinking, revising, or even complicating initial readings of place.

In Bleak House, for example, it’s notable that the significant locations fall upon this linear North-South axis: from London, to Bleak House in Hertfordshire, and up again to Chesney Wold in Lincolnshire; and then directly(ish) down to Paris. A brief excursion to Deal breaks this, but predominantly it’s this movement up and down the country that forms the basis of the novel. In David Copperfield, this visualises what I’ve written about before about the tight, restricted geography of the text.

And in Little Dorrit, this is even more noticeable:


London (and the “suburb” Twickenham) is the only English location in the text; this is accompanied by a European narrative, but limiting the text to London locations opens up more questions about the relationship between those two parts of the narrative and how “Englishness” is represented in the text.

I’m not sure yet if I’ll be using these maps in the talk itself as my focus is on the movements between these locations; but as I’m looking at how mobility reshapes the space of the nation, these maps provide a useful and concise visualisations of some of the key ideas I’m presenting. This might also feed in nicely to my teaching on the English C19th novel, where we’re thinking a lot about place and nation, and (as Moretti’s work shows), mapping the places of texts such as Austen’s works provides a useful way into thinking about these ideas for the first time.

Mapping the city?

Just a quick post after this caught my eye in the Guardian last week – the “maps” of photographer Sohei Nishino, who collates thousands of photos of cities into a diorama. The effect is a fascinatingly detailed and intricate vision of the city, and I particularly love how the final image seems to play with its own un/reality; both suggesting “reality” in using close-up photographs that attempt to capture every miniature truth of the city, yet constantly revealing its own artifice in the patch-work effect that results from collaging each individual photo, creating a jarring from the joins between multiple fragments. The visual appeal, I think, is one of fascination from the continual visual readjustment that the image demands; from a distance, the strangely familiar yet oddly fragmented image draws one in for a closer look at the individual pieces, yet in looking closer I almost immediately want to move back out again, realising that the detail is made meaningful only in contemplation of the whole. And so on.

All this, however, is only from the computer screen – I’ll hopefully visit the Museum of London’s exhibition of London Street Photography to view this, and what sounds like a wonderful collection of other street photographs on display there.

(and as an afterthought, which was going to be my starting-point before I realised I didn’t have a response, yet: how, and in what ways, is this a “map”?)