The British Isles are blessed with the world’s best maps for travel and adventure, made by the expert cartographers of the Ordnance Survey. There’s nothing like stopping by the side of the road, leaning your bicycle up against a dry stone wall and wrestling with a rapidly, uncontrollably unfolding paper map, like a waiter at a windy seaside restaurant fighting a losing battle with a large tablecloth. Eventually, you get the map under control, pinpoint your location and are filled with joy to discover that just a few yards away, in the field on the other side of the dry stone wall, is a neolithic hut circle!
Of course, proponents of the wiki-democratic Open Street Map loath the Ordnance Survey with a passion. It stands for everything they’re against: closed systems, the tyranny of the professional and paying for stuff. The Open Street Map is a marvel of internet technology and collective, volunteer action. In many ways, it is far more powerful than a paper map. But there is such a thing as too much information. And too little. On my travels I have found whole villages absent from OSM (I dutifully added them to the OSM database when I returned home).
If maps are works of art, I find the Open Street Map less attractive to look at and less easily comprehensible than an OS map. Open Street Map feels cold and computer-generated when compared to the subtle craft of the Ordnance Survey’s cartography.
Ordnance Survey Landranger Series (1:50,000)
Andy Allan's Open Cycle Map (a version of the Open Street Map), for comparison
More importantly, the Open Street Map is only available on a computer screen. Call me a Luddite but I like a nice, big paper map where I can gaze, like Gulliver in Lilliput, over an entire landscape laid out before me. With a computer map I get lost scrolling back and forward and zooming in and out. And once you’re on the road, what use is a computer map?
That’s all very well, I hear you say, if you’ve got deep pockets. It’s true, OS paper maps are expensive. OS Landranger maps are 40km x 40km, and an enthusiastic cyclist with a decent tailwind could well travel across a whole sheet in a single afternoon. At £6.99 (less on Amazon) the costs for a tour can mount up. Some might quibble that the optimum scale for the touring cyclist is 1:80,000 rather than the 1:50,000 of the OS Landranger series and they might have a point.
But help is at hand in the form of your nearest public library. Most keep a complete range of OS maps: both 1:25:000 (best for walking or for scoping out possible wild camping spots) and the more cyclist-friendly 1:50,000 as well as the somewhat rough-and-ready Touring Series. They’re usually the more expensive, laminated, weather-proof, fold-resistant versions too.
My local library allows me to borrow up to twelve maps for three weeks at a time. I can even renew them online. Even if you prefer to use a GPS device for navigating – and there’ll be a post on digital mapping and GPS to follow – for general route planning, there’s nothing like sitting down at a gigantic table in a library map room with a chaotic expanse of OS maps to make you feel like a real, bonafide adventurer. On a rainy day such as today, can there be any better way to prepare for a bicycle tour?
This is the first in a series of articles, tips and notes about cycle touring.