Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The empire takes hold and expands

Nothing sinister meant here! I refer to my growing collection of digital Ordnance Survey mapping, specifically the 1:25,000 10 km x 10 km tiles you can buy online and download to your handy mobile device. They are priced at £1.99 each, and sometimes only £1.49. You hardly notice the cost, if you buy just a few at a time.

Ever since last autumn I've been snapping these up in small batches, whenever I've found myself with a little cash in hand, so that I've now got 151 of them. That's 15,100 square miles of detailed mapping, the sort you'd use for walking about, exactly the same sort you get when buying one of those orange-coloured paper OS maps in bookshops. But each of those paper maps now costs £9.99, and typically covers quite a large area - 20 km x 30 km - not all of which you might actually want. The much smaller 10 km x 10 km tiles let you focus on the restricted local areas you are most interested in. So there's no 'wastage'. And no paper is used. It's green then.

Well, that's the rationale. But being a map lover I couldn't resist building up a block of tiles covering all the south coast of England from Devon to Kent, and the hinterland to a depth of thirty miles or so. Three days ago I began to plot my purchases onto a base map. I used a OS Map Index of 1990 vintage:

As a rule I don't like marking maps, even something like this, but I couldn't find any equivalent online for downloading. Anyway, this is the result, the current extent of my digital-only, paperless coverage:

You can see why I think it looks like a spreading 'empire'!

2015 purchases are in pale yellow, 2016 purchases are pale orange. I'd found a box of colouring pencils Dad had bought some years back. Just right for my purpose. Now I have an overview. And I can see which areas need to be 'invaded' next!

But this is not a 'collection'. This mapping is for practical use, and I won't be buying tiles for localities I won't ever want to visit and walk about in. I do collect maps, and have done so since childhood, and it's an impressive collection, but they are proper paper maps. Nevertheless, as you might suppose, every kind of map is catalogued in detail on one or other spreadsheet, these tiles included.

There's nothing of course quite like a paper map. It's an historical document, it reveals social history. It has a sheet name and number, a survey date, a publishing date, and many other individual characteristics. You can touch it and spread it out, and fold it up. It has a cover, often something of a 'period' artwork. The map itself is a tangible artwork. And when using it, you get the wide view: you can examine the countryside for miles around, and not just what is shown in the little rectangle that is your mobile phone screen - as clearly illustrated in this shot of the area around Barry in south Wales, with my phone placed on top:

But the small screen is fine if you don't need the long-range view. And if the light is poor, as you might get on a dull winter's afternoon, it's much easier to see the detail on that backlit small screen!

And you can tweak the magnification with your fingers, making it all even easier to see:

Indeed, with these 10 km x 10 km tiles, you can zoom in as much as you want to, because your £1.99 buys high definition (660dpi). The money also buys ongoing periodic updating, to show new roads and buildings and other changes as they get put in. The latest 1:25,000 paper maps do include a free digital download, but it isn't high-definition (so you can't zoom into it much) and you don't get that updating.

For sheer clarity, there is no contest between ordinary definition and high definition. HD is orgasmically superior. And that's why my HD empire of 10 km x 10 km tiles will continue to expand, gradually covering everywhere in south and south-west England, apart from utterly boring places of no possible interest, plus a few outlying spots that I must have for romantic reasons. The only practical limits on this expansion are (a) what I should sensibly spend; and (b) the amount of storage space on my phone. I reckon I can afford to install another 150 tiles, making about 300 altogether.

So it's quite important to plot what I already have, in order to plan what I can still fit in. The last fifty or so map tiles will be the very hardest to select - some careful thinking to be done there! No dross. No tedious places of stultifying ennui and irredeemable banality. Only places that call to my wilder passions. So I may have to sacrifice coverage of (say) Swindon, Basingstoke, Slough and Woking for Scottish islands like Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna. Or distant North Ronaldsay (even though I already have 1:25,000 coverage of that island in paper map form). Or the two tiles necessary to cover remote Foula. Or even the four tiles needed for edge-of-the-world St Kilda! What about the insanely hard-to-get-to Sula Sgeir?

Hmm...Sula Sgeir, fit only for seabirds and seals...versus Swindon? Guess which deserves HD mapping more.

The total number of tiles I could buy, if aiming for nationwide coverage, must be around 2,700. So 300 is a very modest target really, about 11% of the total.

Even if (so far as I'm concerned) my 300 map tiles won't be a 'map collection' in the hobbyist's sense, it's still fun to put them together. I mentioned what I was doing to my niece Jenny when I saw her on Boxing Day. She works as a highly-paid software developer. She was impressed at my being able to buy these tiles online so easily, one by one, and how well they were displayed on my phone in the OS's MapFinder app, fresh maps merging seamlessly with maps already in the bag. She was a fairly obsessive collector herself - for example her Japanese Manga books (see So she was intrigued at the notion that (even if I wasn't doing it as such) you could 'collect' these map tiles. I took that as a sign of approval, and that I wasn't being quaint or eccentric to regard my programme of acquisitions as a worthwhile, useful endeavour.

Not that I mind being thought quaint and eccentric, you understand. Indeed, people who don't do conventional things, who are mildly out of kilter with the rest, may have an evolutionary advantage and - who knows - might yet inherit the earth!


  1. OS MapFinder is the best thing that's happened to maps for a long time. I don't have as many tiles as you, but my collection is growing.

    For some potty reason, the digital maps now being sold with paper ones are incompatible with MapFinder, but that's not a major problem for me.

    Incidentally, for areas of the country that you rarely visit, the BackCountry Navigator app is great. All the 1:25k & 1:50k maps are there at no charge, albeit not the latest versions, though (unless the internet connexion is good) you do have to download the ones you want before leaving home.

  2. I think you were using BackCountry Navigator successfully on our last Forest of Dean ramble, weren't you?

    Purists like me must have the OS version of course!



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