Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (est.1894)

Mike Ashworth, published by Bodleian Library

Mel Bale, Membership Secretary, Webmaster and Trustee

This article is from Signpost 62, Spring 2020

Mike Ashworth’s book ‘Why North Is Up: Map Conventions and Where They Came From’ does exactly what is says on the cover. It is lavishly illustrated with over 100 high quality colour maps, many of which are drawn from the publisher’s own remarkable collection. The book could easily have been a dry academic tome, simply explaining why conventions are necessary on maps and why particular ones have been chosen. Happily this is far from the case. The text is peppered with fascinating stories that lie behind many of the mapping conventions that we now take for granted. An example is the use of vertical lines on maps to enable distances to be represented and to aid navigation. One such line, the Greenwich Meridian, agreed in 1884, is the accepted international standard. As early as 100CE, Ptolemy used the position of the Canary Islands as the prime meridian on his maps because they were the most westerly known point on the Earth at that time!

The book is comprised of seven main parts which cover the entire range of conventions that people are likely to come across when using a map. These sections cover Map Structure, Symbols, Representation of Relief, Names and Boundaries through to examples of Thematic Maps and Special Conventions. The final part briefly covers Post-Convention Mapping and describes some of the ways that technology is changing how maps are generated and used. The author argues that map making is now being democratised. Projects such as OpenStreetMap (OSM) are driven and controlled by its own users and have proved immensely powerful, especially in parts of the world that historically have been poorly mapped.

The main reason the book initially caught my attention was its title. The statement, Why North is Up is key to the use of conventions in maps. They are necessary so that information can be shown with consistency on a map thus enabling it to be understood and used reliably. The fact is that north isn't actually up at all, it is just a convention that has been adopted. The point of the title is to illustrate that unless we know the orientation of a map, i.e. that north is at the top then it is next to useless. The author points out that this has not always been the case. A clue is in the word ‘orientation’ itself, its origin is the Latin word oriens which means east and many historical maps had east at the top.

Many conventions have stood the test of time but the world around us is constantly changing and from time to new conventions become necessary. Two of the most recently devised Ordnance Survey symbol conventions identify the location of electric car charging points and solar farms. (Reproduced here ©Crown copyright 2020 Ordnance Survey. Media 028/20.)

I can’t recommend Mike Ashworth’s book highly enough.


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Page title:Mike Ashworth, published by Bodleian Library
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