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13 April 2016 1 comment

More Than Just a Map

Correspondence Friends Bicycles Art & Design Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
By Jack Thurston
More Than Just a Map

If it feels like we’re in the middle of a bike boom, it’s nothing compared to the 1890s. This was the decade when the world first went bicycle crazy. Bikes had evolved from a unwieldy and dangerous penny farthings with solid tyres to the now familiar bicycle with two equal sized wheels, diamond-shaped frame, chain drive and inflatable tyres: a bike that anyone could ride.

It meant people could travel further and faster than ever before. The only question was where to go, and this turned out to be quite a conundrum. For a start the roads were in a terrible state and road maps were years out of date and little more than sketches that failed to show if a road was bowling green smooth, boneshakingly rocky or an impassable quagmire. It was therefore fortunate that the same advances in engineering that gave birth to the bicycle were also revolutionising map-making. What's more, many of the new maps hitting the market were designed specifically to help cyclists explore the countryside.

As well as showing the quality of the roads, a good cycling map must show where the hills are. Most road maps of the time ignored hills altogether or else depicted them as cartoon-like hillocks reminiscent of the days when medieval map-makers would liven up a large expanse of water by drawing in a few sea monsters. One popular map style of the time was the strip map. These showed a single route in considerable detail but failed to give a sense of the road network as a whole.

A nineteenth century strip map. Beautifully drawn but designed for the wealthy gentleman riding in in a stagecoach than for the independent bicycle traveller:

New and improved strip maps for cyclists added elevation profiles, like this German map. It's Paul Hildebrand's Radfahrer-Reisebuch: A cyclist's strip map with elevation profile, 1895

One clever cartographer combined elements of the elevation strip map with a standard road atlas by adding tiny elevation profiles alongside the roads in this cycling map of Switzerland from 1900. Click to enlarge:

But the really big step forward was made by Scottish map-makers John Bartholomew. Its “Reduced Survey Maps for Tourists and Cyclists”, first published at the height of the 1890s bike boom, are a triumph of cartographic genius. They took the British government’s own Ordnance Survey maps and made them both easier to read and half the size. The most obvious way these maps stood out from the crowd was the way they showed elevation using a richly coloured scale. The technique of layer tinting dates back to a hand painted map of central Italy by Leonardo Da Vinci yet it had never been used in commercial map-making.

Bartholomew's half inch series really brings the landscape to life and makes planning a bike trip a pleasure - click to enlarge:Colour was not the only thing 'Barts' maps got right. The scale of a half inch to the mile (or 1:126,720) is perfect for anyone travelling by bicycle. It is detailed enough to show every road and track, as well as pubs, hotels and local points of interest, yet large enough to give an immediate sense of the lie of the land. One map sheet covers an area a hundred miles across - enough for a few days touring. Compare this with the Ordnance Survey's current 1:50,000 Landranger maps. These are stunning pieces of cartography but a week's touring means carrying a dozen map sheets. Another advantage was that Barts maps were continuously updated, not just with official survey data but with reports crowd-sourced from cyclists themselves, through a formal arrangement with the Cyclists’ Touring Club. For decades the maps sold in their millions.

As well as viewing them at the excellent online archive of the National Library of Scotland I have a small but growing collection of Barts maps (there were so many sold that they're not rare or expensive). They are beautiful objects in themselves but they are also a portal to a lost era, a two dimensional time capsule from the last days of Britain before the motor car changed everything. Over the course of a few decades the car turned towns and cities inside out, filled quiet roads with streams of traffic, shrank perceptions of both time and space and disconnecting travellers from the realities of the landscape. To look at a Barts map is to see the country as you might cycle it, as Ernest Hemingway put it, sweating up the hills and coasting down them. I confess a feeling of nostalgia, or perhaps more accurately, saudade, for this golden era, even though it ended long before I was born.

Compare the rich detail of a Barts half inch map with Google Maps - click to enlarge:

My small but growing collection

As successful family businesses of the late Victorian era John Bartholomew of Edinburgh and J.B. Brooks of Birmingham have a lot in common. Both excelled in engineering and design, blending traditional craftsmanship with the latest manufacturing technologies. Both made products that people found to be highly functional, extremely beautiful and unexpectedly intimate. A well worn map is as personal and individual as a broken in saddle and can it be purely coincidental that the only other product of the 1890s bike boom that stands comparison with Bartholomew's half inch map is the Brooks's B17. No other bicycle component has remained in production for as long, nor matched the B17's immense popularity and Brooks is still cranking out its flagship B17s in its Smethwick factory to this day.

The Brooks B17: a design from the 1890s that's still going strong:

Sadly, Barts half inch maps did not fare so well. Demand shifted to less detailed maps aimed at motorists, and Bartholomew faced fierce competition from the state-owned Ordnance Survey's excellent leisure maps. In the end, Bartholomew discontinued the half inch / 1:100,000 series that was once its pride and joy. This has left Britain, the country that sparked the very first bicycle boom, without a high quality map at a scale that's right for cycling, a gap in the market that remains unfilled.

Lovely article. Happy memories of cycling with a Barts map. Yes, they were just the right scale and it was easy to adjust a route to take account of the strength left in your legs by looking at the colour contours -though I have to admit that the small scale sometimes meant that the colours didn't show some fierce little ravines. You failed to mention a notorious feature of the Barts map which is that the small white roads were just as likely to be a glorious quiet shortcut or an impassable boggy track -ideal for the gambling personality.
Childbacktandem 23 May 2016 at 20:31