Get Cartographic: For the Love of Maps and the South Coast

Travel writer and planetary modeller David Angus recalls a childhood excursion to the south coast that helped shape a lifelong fascination for maps and their curious symbolism.

Holidays. Well, in a way infancy like retirement is one long holiday but there were the family holidays and, though we went to more than one place, the first long journeys I really remember and love when an infant were those holiday ones to the Isle of Wight.  A small island off the much bigger one where we lived.

First the bus ride to the underground gateway to adventure at Morden on the edge of that vast city called London.  There was the thrill of Morden tube terminus, that great hall for giant red worm monsters, then getting into one of them (underground trains) and being drawn with a grinding screech and clatter into those Northern line tunnels.  I used to watch the conduits and cables on the tunnel walls until they became a never-ending blur, then there were the dingy enclosed underground stations leading to unknown parts of the city.

Waterloo Station was where we emerged from the underground: a place much more enormous to an infant than even the tube terminus!  Full of further long helpful monsters – belching steam at the time – called trains.  When we’d settled within one there was the long relaxed ride out of the city into regions of green where there were few houses and towns but plenty of summer trees obscuring what lay beyond.

That journey ended in another city by the sea.  Portsmouth. I remember seeing its city centre from the elevated Portsmouth Station, the novelty of the beginnings of the sea lapping on the mud below the harbour station, together with its tang, very likely the first bit of sea I’d seen in my life in fact; also that big ramp at the end of that station.  Everything I’ve described is still there.  I remember the excitement of anticipation while not being able to see anything from my height back in the ’50s within the crowd waiting and shuffling down that ramp.  At last there was the adventure of getting to the lower end and scrambling up the wooden gangplank that was there then, on to the Isle of Wight ferry.  Of course I had no idea that towards the other end of my life I’d be seeing all this again and living across the harbour, although the gangplanks would go and the ferry would look more like something out of a science fiction comic.  The beginning and later part of my life was like a colossal full circle.

The Isle of Wight was an island of nice beaches and cliffs surrounding picturesque towns and villages amidst woods and hills.  I remember the long Ryde Pier and the sight of the sea from there, the Sandown Shanklin area, the coloured sands at Alum Bay and later Bembridge with its beach rock pools and miniature chasms between those rocks.  The most striking memory though might be the return journey through the Naval Review of 15th June 1953, according to my research.  Our ferry had to thread its way back to the mainland past warships.  Close by one in particular, a Russian battleship I was told.  The Sverdlov, according to internet research.  To an infant it was an awesome floating grey metal mountain looming above; of towers and turrets bristling with huge guns.

By the time I was 4 I had a friend called Andrew who lived in Langley Avenue.  I was told I would be making many more and learning a lot when I would be taken daily to a place where all children went to, called a school.

The most significant early education though involved maps and through that geography I guess.  I worked out how to read an Ordnance Survey (OS) map at 4 years old, really impressing my parents who bought me a book about map reading normally thought too advanced for my age.  Not for me.  It was the first sign of what became a future profession.

I managed that because I liked gradually running my finger along the course and curves of those sinuous black lines found on OS maps.  Curiosity led to the understanding that they were railway lines.  In this inquiring frame of mind it was easy to work out that bits of green with tiny tree symbols were woods, the coloured sharply bent lines were roads and the grey and black fragments and patches where they tended to meet were towns and cities.  But all those faint brown lines wandering aimlessly about on their own or bunched up close together running parallel but never meeting: well what was that all about?  Then I realised what they were when I realised what was missing.  Hills!  They were a guide to height and scenery called contour lines.

The OS map I taught myself on was the map for Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight.  I remember tracing with my finger the speckled line that was single track railway down from Fareham to Gosport.  Gone now I’ve found myself living here.  But I still have that map.

Photograph by Moshe Tasky