The end of the road for paper maps

Ordnance Survey plans to end routine production because of poor sales. Luckily, Rosie Millard has found a new sense of direction

As my husband says, I don't "do North". Or any other cardinal points, actually. When I get a road map out, I usually interpret it as if we are proceeding straight along, the way I'm holding it. I get quite nervous thinking about holding a map in general, at least those that are to be used when a car is in motion.

There is first the unfolding, which requires various wrist-snapping twists around a ludicrously large piece of paper. Then, the fact that your destination is bound to be on a crease. Plus the crazy font used, the baroque "legend" of tiny symbols and those red, wobbly concentric circles, familiar from Geography detention, when miscreants were given the task of erasing pencil marks off them. My parents were ardent hill walkers, and rain-spattered Ordnance Survey maps were a fixture of my youth. I'm not nostalgic. The unfurling of an OS map, or indeed any road map, almost sends me into a Pavlovian sensation of wet feet and the need to find a loo.

I suspect I am not alone. Indeed, I know I am not alone, because OS has just announced that poor sales figures will mean the end of routine production of paper maps covering the whole of the UK. Popular hiking areas will still be mapped, but the nationwide phenomenon that started when the English government of 1790 ordered maps of the southern coast of England in readiness for a Napoleonic invasion, is coming to an end.

It appears that, rather than fighting with groundsheet-sized bits of paper and deciphering symbols for churches with spires, people simply prefer to use their smartphone or satnav to get about. Not just on country walks, either. Sales of road maps and city directories have shrunk by a third in just a decade. Now, I am as fascinated by an ancient map as the next person, and indeed own a lovely set charting obscure corners of the former French Empire, but I greet the news that the road map has had its day with unalloyed joy. For me, road trips will now take on a wholly different character. No more grim moments in the passenger seat when I turn the map wildly around, realising with horror that I have been reading it the right way up, which is in fact the Wrong Way. No more cold sweats as I switch on the passenger light, inspect the map and realise I've been heading for Bradford on Avon, instead of the other one. My inability to read a road map caused me to once send Mr Millard, at the time behind the wheel of a colossal RV (with four children under seven in the back), the wrong way en route to the Grand Canyon. Let us just draw a veil over the resultant four-hour diversion in the midst of Arizona. At night.

Whereas with a GPS device, and hence no need for spousal comments about compasses and Broads, I am unstoppable. Last year, I managed to direct everyone across Rajasthan, in a Morris Minor. There are no road maps in India, and very few road signs. But, with GPS, the crazy world of Indian roads was a mere bagatelle, albeit one featuring the odd elephant.

Oh, I know that people such as Jeremy Clarkson will probably mourn the passing of the ceremonial unfolding of the map over the egg sandwiches, but the fact that satellites can now chart all the extant roads on our planet, and deliver that knowledge to anyone with a smartphone means that thousands of remote communities can feel connected. No longer will people have to wait for some orienteering expert to plod around plotting a map, then publish it. All you have to do is switch on your phone or satnav and then follow the route.

Maps symbolised power; as the recent BBC programme on Captain Cook revealed, the country that was first to chart the coastline of a new country would be able to claim it. Now they have been superseded by a more democratic and far easier system. The only crucial thing I would put in the Millard Smartphone Map Legend is: remember to keep your battery charged.

Life and Style
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