Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Hooptedoodle #332 - Where Are We, Anyway?

This follows on from a conversation I had with the Contesse, which rambled around the (supposedly) related topics of spatial awareness, how we find our way to somewhere (in a car, for example), and the impact of satellite navigation systems, both on our lives and the way we think about travel.

I was very interested to consider the different approaches to this - that's the wrong wording - "how we think about it" is better. I also realised that since I moved to live in the country I have changed my own thought patterns.

If you are flying an aeroplane, or sailing a boat in the open sea, then the information you need to get to somewhere is likely to be a direction - a magnetic bearing. You will have to conform to accepted legal sea-lanes and so on (which is a bit like streets, I guess), but otherwise the actual direction of travel is the important item - and maybe whether you have enough fuel to get there.

On the ground it isn't like that.

Street Map - follow the Yellow Brick Road
 I grew up a townie. Lived in cities for years. When I was a kid, we didn't travel as much as we do now, and we tended to stick to our own locality. If I needed to go further than usual, all I really needed to know was which bus to catch, and where it stopped - then it became the driver's problem to get me there. When I started cycling, I found that to visit my uncle in Woolton I needed to know more than the simple fact that the no.73 bus went there - I needed to know an actual route. That route might start off by being very similar to the route which the bus took, but it would get refined to avoid (or take advantage of) particularly steep hills and dangerous bits, and to shorten the trip as much as possible. The route I would learn would consist of a string of street names and turning instructions, and it would be tweaked to be suitable for a young chap on a bicycle.

Go to the end of Rose Lane, turn left into Allerton Road, go along until the right turn at the junction with Queens Drive, and go along Menlove Avenue for about 3 miles, turn left into Woolton Village High Street, go over the hill and bear right after that into Manor Way... and so on.

The instruction set would be a string of information not unlike what your sat-nav will tell you - names of streets, and when to turn into the next street. If I got lost, on my bike, or if one of the streets was closed for roadworks, for example, I might know enough about the area to be able to improvise, or I might take an educated guess, or I might need to look at a street map if things got tricky.

When I am driving my car to somewhere by a route I do not know well, if I pull over for a break along the way and someone asks me "where are we?", the odds are I won't actually know. I can look at the display on the sat-nav, and it might tell me that I can expect to be in Worcester at 17:14, and it might tell me that I am driving on the A6, and the next turn is in 8.7 miles. As to where we are - unless I have a rough idea from other knowledge, or there is a sign of some sort, or something distinctive to use as a landmark, I don't really know. Obviously that is not something that I absolutely have to know for the purposes of this stage of this journey. Unless something goes wrong.

Sat-nav explains things in terms of the streets - safest way if you're a stranger in these parts
If something goes wrong, then I had better have a road atlas in the car, or be able to ask someone who knows the area. If, during my break from driving, I phone someone and they ask me where I am, I may only be able to give them a rough idea - I'll know where I'm headed for, I may know how far I've driven, or how long I've been driving for, but apart from these I would need some familiarity with the area to offer an opinion. This becomes suddenly rather important if the stop is because I have broken down, and I need to request the rescue service to help me. I might be able to tell them "I'm on the A6, somewhere just south of Shap", or my mobile phone might be able to offer me a GPS reading.

Otherwise, then, we normally know where we are hoping to get to, how long it will take, how long we have been going, and that's probably about it.

When I was a boy I was fascinated by maps - I used to stare at random pages in the family's big Times atlas, and spot some unknown little town in India, and wonder who lived there, and what they were doing at this moment (I did once wonder what were the chances that someone in that town was, at that very moment, looking at a map and wondering who lived in Liverpool - I was a rather odd child). It would be possible to spot all the villages off the A6 as they passed through the sat-nav screen, and maybe even to wonder who lived there, but that sounds a rather stressful way to pass a journey.

Righto. Almost 20 years ago I moved to the country. You can forget street names, for the most part, unless you are in a village. The sat-nav will tell you that you are driving on the B1904, perhaps, but that means nothing - no-one knows the road by that name. A journey, I find, has stopped being a succession of streets and has become a string of places I am going to travel through. Thus if I wish to drive from my house to the Flight Museum at East Fortune, for example, I know that I will travel via Auldhame, Halfland Barns, Blackdykes, Leuchie, Balgone Barns, Kingston, Congleton Mains, past the garden centre at Merry Hatton and then to East Fortune. These places will be villages, farms, big houses, sometimes a lake or a quarry, whatever - the focus is on the places themselves rather than the names of the roads which connect them - mostly the names of the roads are meaningless, unless they are fairly big roads. Many of the roads look similar, in fact. I got to know the area by doing a lot of cycling and from a period during which I used to distribute a community magazine. The places I know by their names are the nodes of some form of mental map, I guess, rather than the connectors. As part of my knowledge of each place, I also know where all the roads out of that place go to, so I can build a route as a series of hops between locations.

In the country the places themselves become important - this isn't just a change of scale, it's a different thought process
This is a completely different way of finding your way around. As a by-product, it suddenly dawned on me (after a lifetime of not having dawned on me) that the reason so many towns on the British mainland have a London Road is not because everyone wanted to name one of their streets after the beloved capital, but because it is (or was) the way you got to London by horse from there. Street names are mostly decorative these days - Acacia Avenue, or Widdrington Crescent (named after some glory-grabbing Victorian town councillor) - the idea that a road's name might commemorate the fact that it once had a useful function did not occur to me until I lived somewhere they had very few streets. Duh.

Entirely Separate Topic 

This afternoon we went for a walk on the farm - it was a very fine day - very pleasant. Near the cliffs at Tantallon we saw a raven. We know they are around, but very seldom see one. Apologies for the not-brilliant photo - this was on a mobile phone, and the bird was some distance away, but there is no mistake. Raven. South-east Scotland, April.


  1. A few random thoughts, nothing really relevant.....

    Not sure I've met many, if any, interesting people who weren't in some way odd as a child.

    Its common in Nova Scotia to give directions based on landmarks that used to exist. I knew I was starting to acclimatize when I found myself telling someone that we were 1/2 km past where the railway tracks used to cross the highway. (Its now a walking trail),

    When I moved from outskirts to an older rural area, I found that this had been extended to basing directions on who used to live in various houses before I was born. After finding that street numbers and descriptions failed to adequately establish which house we had bought I eventually learned who used to live here. Of course we now have increasing numbers of people not born here which means the landmarks are changing. One has to keep up with the times.

    1. I love it. Referring to houses by the names of occupants no one can remember is fantastic. What's going on here? Do we forget to update our understanding of who lives where, or do we somehow disassociate the "name of the house" from "where that name came from"? Fascinating stuff.

  2. In my home town of Hyde, people asking for directions were told a route that was based on pubs..."Go down this road and turn right at the Kings Head, then past the Royal Oak till tha gets to Lamb Inn" and so on. Popping into the pubs for a refreshment wasn't compulsory but it was definitely encouraged.

    1. I think this must be very common. In a village near where I live there is a pub/restaurant called the "Linton Hotel", which has been trading under that name for maybe 15 years. Prior to that it was called the "Bridgend Inn", which is a very reasonable name, since the part of the village where it stands is called Bridgend (being at one end of a bridge over a river, which it one time was a toll station on the main London road). However, a lot of the older people in the village refer to the place as "The Red Lion", which is what it was called *before* it was the Bridgend. The fact that there cannot possibly be anyone left alive who remembers it being the Red Lion is evidence of how firmly these irrelevant names become established.

  3. I would suspect that many of us in these circles shared your fascination with maps as a child; I know that I certainly did. Indeed, circa age 12, the gift I most wanted for Christmas was a World Atlas; I still have it.

    To quote Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit... "Oh, I do love MAPS!"

    1. There are few things more absorbing than maps. I have a mass of old maps of towns I've visited, or motoring tours I've done (or even just contemplated), and I can never bring myself to throw them out. If anyone wants a near-mint street map of Naples circa 1994, for eample, please get in touch. It may have a little ice-cream on it, in fact.

    2. You could well be right. I'm with Bilbo.

  4. Thought provoking stuff. I work in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and I'm constantly befuddled by the way Sheffielders give directions by what used to be there. Road names and AtoZ are pointless, what you need is a gazetteer from 1954. "Turn right at what used to be the Footprint Tools factory, up the hill, turn left where the Red Lion was and left again opposite Wally Smith's old tripe shop." I'm convinced they do it on purpose to confuse incomers.

    1. It may be a secret code thing, as you suggest. The worst instruction i ever heard of was someone who was directed up a forestry road in Wales, in search of a youth hostel, and he was told "a couple of miles before the road ends there's a little lane off to your right - it's easy to miss it". Only way to be sure of finding the place, then, is to walk to the end of the forestry track and then walk back a couple of miles. The fundamental problem, i think, is that locals will always (without thinking about it) presuppose an unreasonable amount of local knowledge on the part of the listener (directee?).

    2. My all time favourite was our youngest daughter's football coach: "We're meeting at Graves Park, but be sure to go to the Other Entrance."