Saturday, 2 February 2013

Ocean liners, waterfalls, surgery and snakes

More than books, I love old maps, specifically old Ordnance Survey maps at the one-inch scale or larger, in as many editions of each sheet as I can find. I have been collecting these since I was a child. My sources nowadays are usually secondhand bookshops, where occasionally I can pick up several, at something like £2 a map, so it isn't an expensive passion. But altogether I must have spent a lot of cash on my map collection over the last five decades, mostly of course since I began to earn money in 1970. But I well recall spending precious pocket-money on maps and guidebooks when I was still at school. A map or two was the usual 'birthday present' I asked for from Mum and Dad from age ten onwards.

The attraction didn't have much to do with building up a 'complete set' of maps in a particular series. It wasn't a collection just for the sake of it. It was a way of getting close to a distant area that I might never have the chance to visit, and that indeed is why I have ended up with large-scale maps of various parts of the world, and not only the far-flung bits of Great Britain.

At some stage, as I acquired more than one edition of the same map sheet, I grew interested in how things changed as years went by: what shape towns had before being bombed; changes in the road and railway systems; the expansion and decline of industries; the inter-war and post-war spread of suburbs; new towns. So a 'social history' element crept in, which I still find fascinating. And, very occasionally, my possession of an old map has answered someone's question as to 'what used to be there' - which you might just want to know if buying a house, for instance.

Let me show you what I mean. I have for instance an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map of Liverpool published in 1946, just after the war, and this shows something curious: a very long tunnel under the city centre, from Edge Hill in the east to the railway goods station at Waterloo Dock:

There is also a Riverside passenger station, obviously important. A later 1969 OS one-inch map clearly shows that the trains must have gone down the tunnel, through the goods station on a tight curve, and then on into the Riverside station:

But a still later 1976 OS 1:25,000 map shows the Riverside station closed:

I sensed a story connected with ocean liners and ships to Ireland! I was right. A little research on the Internet quickly revealed the history of Riverside station. See for instance, and Liverpool is now just beginning to get back into the cruise liner trade, but of course much of its dockland has been turned to other uses, and Riverside station, last used (by troops) in 1971, is no more, although it lingered on in an increasingly derelict condition until after 1990. I was in Liverpool in 1984, and took this shot from the Mersey Ferry, with Gerry and the Pacemakers' Ferry Cross the Mersey singing in my mind:

The roof of the old Riverside station can be made out to the right of the Isle of man ship on the centre-left edge of the picture. Oh, all right, here's a closeup I took of the Royal Liver Building too:


I enjoyed my couple of days in the Liverpool area. I was attending a Revenue course in Bootle on the tax treatment of trusts and settlements, and staying at a hotel in Blundellsands, travelling in by train.

Back to OS maps. This time, three country places. First: a bit of the North Yorks Moors north of Goathland, at a place called Beck Hole. A pair of 1:25,000 maps published in 1948 and 2008:

It's chiefly about railways again. The 1948 map shows a seemingly pointless branch line to Beck Hole, where there is only a pub and a nearby foss, or waterfall. But again curiosity will lead you to an answer. There was originally no adjacent main line. Beck Hole was on the main line. But it was way too steeply graded for trains, and so another line was built a short way off to the east, and the section south of Beck Hole abandoned. The remaining section saw no regular passenger trains after 1914, but lingered on till 1951. I bet it was an advanced state of romantic grass-grown ruination by then. See

Miles away to the west, tucked away in the High Pennines of West Yorkshire is Kettlewell. And here are two OS 1:25,000 maps which illustrate how few changes may occur even across fifty-odd years. The first map is from 1960, the second from 2008:

Essentially nothing has changed at all that would show up on a map. The OS's map style has become more attractive, with a modern typeface, rights of way indicated, 'access land' coloured in, and tourist features specially marked; but of course this all means a busier, more crowded map that some would say is harder to read. If you like, information overload. But that's modern life in a nutshell, isn't it?

'Kettlewell' is engraved on my heart. I was there in Fiona on 24 September 2010, sitting in the village car park, when Liz Hills phoned me from the Brighton Nuffield Hospital to arrange exactly when I was going to come in for my pre-op assessment with surgeon Mr Thomas. You don't forget things like that.

Finally, the desolate moor west of Princetown, on Dartmoor. Princetown is in the very centre of Dartmoor, deliberately so, because of the infamous prison. A notoriously bleak and inhospitable part of Devon. A railway was built to the little town, though, and in the top 1:25,000 map of 1947 vintage you can see it wiggling around the contours. But in the bottom map of 1994 it has vanished, reduced to a gravel trackbed:

The Princetown line was closed in 1956. I suppose that if it had survived a bit longer, it might have become a preserved steam line, but it was not to be. Perhaps it simply didn't have enough potential. The Dartmoor weather is often dire, which is why the Army regards the moor as a suitable place for trainee soldiers to undergo hardcore endurance marches. Apparently the passengers on the very last train to Princetown saw absolutely nothing because of the thick, damp, enveloping fog.

In summer though, it can be nicer. At isolated Ingra Tor Halt (bottom left in the top map), a stop used only by intrepid walkers, there was once a notice warning of snakes. Poisonous adders basking in the sun, presumably. Wikipedia mentions this - see - and I've seen the same reference to snakes in other sources too. But I haven't yet found a photo of the famous snake notice, which is odd, because it would be exactly the kind of thing that I'd take a picture of, if the notice hadn't put me off stepping out of the train!

If you really, really, really want to read about the Princetown line then see this:

So that's a quick (?) tour through my interest in old maps. As you can see, picking up a map can set you off on many a byway.


  1. One thing I like doing is browsing historical maps, though I spend no money doing so and I don't collect them. When I look at a map I imagine what it must have been like at the time it was drawn and if I have later copies of the same area I like to see the changes that have taken place. An historical journey if you like because I am into history.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Thank you, Lucy, for a fascinating post. I share your interest in old maps and have a modest collection that date from my teenage years.

    My most treasured possession, however is a battered copy of the first AA Road Book to be published after World War 2. It has a page explaining the 'new' classification of roads, introduced by the Ministry of Transport in 1919, 120 pages of Itineraries that give recommended routes such as Leicester to Walsall and Derby to Llandudno. There's also a gazetteer of every significant town and city in England and Wales and a road atlas that shows wartime road closures (mostly where airfields were established). There's a nice map of Liverpool too; the railway lines to Riverside Station are omitted, but the adjacent Princes Stage and Floating Road are shown.


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