Shopping: An upside down world

A new kind of map could change the way you see the world, writes Mike Higgins
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The Independent Online
"Sir, the noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London." All very fine for Dr Johnson, but navigating Britain's labyrinth of roads at speeds of 70mph with confusing directions has made the reality a little more frustrating.

"Just leave it to me ... OK, right, so it's left at the junction onto the ... er - hold on, map's upside down - the A38 and then right off the roundabout, NO left - got to turn it round - into ... um hang on ... something lane ... OK, WELL, YOU TRY READING THIS MAP THE WRONG WAY UP!!"

It's an all too familiar scene of hard shoulder mutiny which usually ends with the woman losing her way, losing her temper and losing the argument. Now that could be at an end thanks to a former double glazing salesman.

Turning the traditional road atlas on its head, 25-year-old Ashley Sims's Upside Down Map has given the cartographically challenged a reversed image of the UK's road system alongside a traditional set of maps.

Adding to the north's legendary catalogue of grievances, Ashley believes that getting down south with traditional road maps is a tricky business: "If you turn the map upside down, the place names are unreadable and if you read the map backwards in the direction you are driving, right-hand turns and places are on the left and vice versa."

The problem is not a new one for the Sims family. Trucking back from Scotland to Derby in the 1970s, Ashley's father, John, 52, was for ever turning right when he should have been taking a left ... right? Exactly. "Travelling north I had no problems. But I found the long journey back with the same map very difficult. I couldn't understand why anybody hadn't printed a map the other way round to eliminate the problem."

Highway highbrows may see the Upside Down Map as another example of navigational "dumbing down" - a low-tech accompaniment to increasingly common in-car electronic guidance systems - but Ashley's ingenious idea is set to make him a fortune. Though the major map companies told his father to get lost, Ashley decided to publish the maps himself, with the help of an pounds 8,000 loan from his parents. Deals with John Menzies and W H Smiths look set to make the young inventor pounds 1m.

Though cynics scoff that the Upside Down Map will only find its way into the glove compartments of befuddled Scottish women, getting tied up in Spaghetti Junction or disappearing into the Watford Gap affects everyone: each year drivers waste 80 million gallons of petrol getting lost, according to the AA. This week the RAC was noticeably more enthusiastic than its rivals in their approval of the new maps, as the AA admitted that it had once rejected an idea similar to Ashley's as "commercially unviable": "We know that people turn maps upside down on their journeys, so maybe this new book of maps will help."

The AA also added fuel to the debate over women's apparent inability to read maps as well as men. "We have done some research on it" a spokeswoman confirmed. "It is all to do with visual spatial skills. Men do tend to be better in unfamiliar surroundings. They are more likely to use a map, while women are more likely to ask for directions." Of course, which method gets you from A to B without going through Z, is open to question.

Professional women drivers are in no doubt as to their navigational talents, however. As a woman and a Scot, former World Champion rally driver Louisa Aitken-Walker has got a beef with both the Upside Down Map and the AA.

With the aid of female co-drivers and map readers, she has successfully traversed some of the world's least navigable terrain: "I've had no problem getting out of Scotland," she insisted. "Women only get lost because they've got their husbands screaming at them," she says, adding that some of the world's top male rally drivers choose to have female co-drivers. Travelling hundreds of miles every week in her company car, saleswoman Ani Sahakian dismissed the Upside Down Map as a gimmick: "I'm bright enough to know my left from my right ... I never, ever get lost."

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