I first used an OS Map sometime during my early teens when I was a member of the Army Cadets on the Isle of Bute. I have memories of learning to use strings, pins, and grid references as long as my arm to help pinpoint rendezvous sites. It was drummed into my head that being a tiny fraction out in my calculations on the map could lead to me missing the place I was meant to be by a considerable distance. I loved map reading; OS Maps were like my key to breaking the countryside code. With an OS Map, I could plot a path to anywhere. For the first time I came to notice, and appreciate, the difference between a church with a spire and a church with a tower.
A very brief stint in the Marines took my map-reading skills to another level. And then that was it. OS and I parted company for a long, long time.
When we started writing hiking route directions on Tenerife, we didn’t use maps to find our way around. For a start, there weren’t any maps of OS standard; the best were more of use as ‘guidelines’ than accurately detailed depictions of the terrain. So, there was a lot of hit and miss as we explored ravines which petered out at dead ends and sheer cliff faces, or forest paths which disappeared into impenetrable walls of sub-tropical foliage. One of the taglines for our Tenerife hiking routes was ‘we get lost so you don’t have to.’
When we expanded our route-finding skills and started working with UK specialists Inntravel to create walking holidays on the other Canary Islands and then further afield in various European countries, the maps we used were of varying quality. Some, like Portuguese Military Maps, were more detailed than others, but not of the standard of OS. When creating hiking routes, we have plenty of other tools to assist us – online mapping systems, Google Earth which we use to create GPX routes we can follow using our Garmin, and so on. But for all the advances in modern technology, none are as reliable as the good old OS Map.
Shortly after we returned to the UK in June 2021, we were tasked with recording a series of walking routes along and around the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Clearly the canal-walking part of the routes was not difficult to plot out, but when we veered from it along public footpaths into the hills it was a completely different story, especially after a couple of years of paths not being maintained had resulted in Mother Nature doing her damnedest to reclaim them as her own.
On our very first route, a circuit from Abergavenny, we hadn’t received our OS Maps for the area, but we did have a GPX track for the route, and phone apps to assist us. All went well until we found ourselves in a farmyard with no onward route to follow. We backtracked, and checked if we’d missed a turning, but there was nowhere else to go, and we were still on the GPX track. It was a mystery. With no obvious solution, we phoned our friend, James, at Inntravel, and he sent us a photo of the relevant section of his OS Map. Within minutes, the mystery was solved. A couple of hundred metres before the farm, the footpath veered off the track we’d been following to then run parallel through a field. It was as clear as day on the OS Map. On the ground it was impossible to spot as ferns had sprouted to obscure the point where the paths parted company, and a dense hedge separated the track we’d been on from the true path. They were so close, the GPX track looked correct (anyone who knows GPX knows its not as exact as many people might think). Back on track, we completed the route. When we returned to our hotel, we found our OS Maps had been delivered. Boy, was I glad to see them.
Within a couple of hours of heading across fields with no markers, encountering impassable paths, crossing moors where every track looked the same, and confidently wandering into farmyards, I was gushing to Andy about how brilliant OS Maps were, and how people simply couldn’t follow these routes without one (unless they had directions). Even though it was summer, and newspapers were reporting how congested Britain’s walking paths were, we met very few other walkers. Despite all the pre-planning and having GPX tracks, mobile phone apps etc. we would not have been able to complete the routes for the walking holiday without our OS Maps.
My love of them was well and truly rekindled.
Another memory was evoked on a hillside in the Brecon Beacons. OS Maps are still unwieldy buggers to try to manoeuvre when the wind is howling and the rain machine-gunning you.