Miles Kington: Tried and tested... Britain's best - and worst - road maps

The other day I was embarrassed to find a dotted blue line on an Ordnance Survey map saying, 'M5 - due to open in late 1970s'
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The Independent Online

Earlier this year I went to do a talk at the Windsor Arts Festival, a place I had never visited before and which I now realise is delightful, and would be even more so if it wasn't for lots of people like me coming to see how delightful it was. Nor did I realise it was the British headquarters of Honda cars. This was borne home to me well in advance, when the festival organiser asked if I would like a driver to fetch me from home and take me back.

My immediate instinct was to blush and say no, but it turned out the festival was sponsored by Honda cars, who would be offended if I refused, so I accepted gratefully and waited on the day for my limousine to arrive.

I had to wait a little longer than I expected.

"Sorry about that," said the driver when he arrived, "but the lanes round here are awful."

"Which way did you come?" I asked, as we settled down to go to Windsor.

"I've no idea," he said. "I gave the machine your postcode and it took me down these awful roads."

This was my first meeting with the perils of satnav. On the way to Windsor he gratefully switched off the tyrannous machine and followed the route to the M4 which I gave him, and which everyone around here knows. Now, the driver was not an idiot. He was, as it transpired, a retired executive of a major company (Young's Seafood, I think), had travelled around the globe and had many a hair-raising traveller's tale to tell. But even between Windsor and West Wiltshire this veteran had decided to entrust his life to a robot, and he now felt very let down.

Which? magazine agrees with him, it seems. In a recent series of tests, they sent out people to find their way using satnav, and another group of people using only maps, and the people using maps won hands down. I was delighted to hear this, because I like map reading and am quite good at it, and so does my wife, and she is quite good at it, and if there is any defect in our map-reading operations it is that the map reader is not always adept at getting the information to the driver, so that the map reader in our car sometimes says things to the driver like: "We have just passed the left turn I wanted you to take", but what I am here to say today is that after years of satnav-free route-finding by map, we have tried and tested dozens of maps and come to the following interim conclusions.

1. Although everyone says London A-Z is the map of London, they are quite wrong. It is not nearly as clear or helpful as Nicholson London Streetfinder, which has much better printing and layout. Over the years, I have accumulated dozens of copies of Nicholson's, for fear that, being so good, it will go out of print and become unobtainable.

2. The best road map of Britain is Philip's Navigator Britain, which seems to have much more detail than any other, and presents it very attractively, instead of in the aggressive fashion of others. We have used successive editions of this over the years and I can honestly say it is a pleasure to resort to it rather than a chore.

3. The Ordnance Survey maps are even better, of course, but you need several hundred to do what the Philip's Navigator does in one volume.

4. It is tempting to collect OS maps to try to build a complete set of the whole of Britain. It is a mistake, though. I have maps in my collection which ignore well-known modern road systems. The other day I was embarrassed to find a dotted blue line on an Ordnance Survey map saying, "M5 - due to open in late 1970s".

5. Warwick University is not near anywhere, let alone Warwick.

6. It looks on all maps as if there is a road going across the Avon Valley at Avoncliff, near Bradford-on-Avon. There is no road crossing. That thing on the bridge is a canal.

7. If you want an interesting tour of country lanes in the West Country, many going only to farmsteads, have satnav installed.

8. If you think British maps are bad, you should try local maps in America, which are dire.

8a. My wife, map-reading this piece over my shoulder, says she wonders if satnav was invented in America and whether it was for that very reason.