Having spent a fair amount of time on the rail cobweb of the North and Midlands, I have concluded that the well-equipped passenger should always carry a map when travelling by train. On the face of it, that is hardly a remarkable conclusion. Maps and travel used to be inseparable, and still should be, though perhaps not on train journeys when the route and destination are in the hands of others. I am not suggesting that the weary customers of CrossCountry or Arriva Trains Wales need a map to check that they have not been secretly diverted to Blackpool. No. What I propose is that when one is traversing, for example, the Slough of Despond between Birmingham and Derby, some industrial-strength escapism is required. A map, any map, will provide that more assuredly and for longer than any newspaper, briefing notes and novel.
I used to be an avid reader of newspapers when on the train, but frankly the choice is between infantile and inaccurate (e.g. Daily Mail, Metro) and all-too-accurate and gloomy (e.g. Guardian, Independent). Look out of the window as a break from another of Patrick Cockburn’s brilliant but dark assessments of the Middle East and behold! Newark. It’s not good. With a map, the possibilities are more diverse and can be calibrated to suit the mood. Itching to be up on your feet and walking? Find a footpath in the south-west corner of the map and plan a route to the opposite corner that makes the least use of tarmac. Depending on the map and the rail journey, you will probably spend hours absorbed in alternative routes through or around villages, long or short ascents of hills and what about crossing that canal? If your mind is more attuned to puzzles, find a village or small town, look at the road plan and try to work out why it is as it is. Market square, important bridge, advent of the railway?
It is all very well for me to advocate map-reading for distraction, but which map? Do you take one of a familiar area, the better to imagine and recall views and pathways, or one of a place unknown to you in order to puzzle it out from scratch? There is a lot to be said for both. Need it be an Ordnance Survey map and, if so, to what scale? OS maps are like toasted teacakes, comfortingly familiar and just a bit old-fashioned. My own choice would be for an old one-inch map of an unfamiliar area, the antiquated style adding to the sense of mystery, rather like a black-and-white movie. For an area that I know, I would go for the latest OS 1:25k maps with all their small details. Even in a well-walked area, there is always another few kilometers of footpath that has escaped attention. But if the choice is a really mountainous region, I would be tempted to abandon the OS, heresy though it seems even to suggest such a thing. Harveys maps, with their dense plotting of contours and detail of rock, scree, grass and bog, give a lovely sense of the landscape under one’s imagined boot. Furthermore, they are printed on a waterproof material, so when the train lurches to a halt in Taunton or Totnes, a splosh of coffee can be wiped away with no harm done.
Just as a good novel will leave an impression, so should a good map. It may be something as simple as deciding to take an unfamiliar route through a well-known town or landscape, to visit a spot that the map suggests will be appealing. It may, on the other hand, lead you to visiting somewhere altogether new, some part of the country previously unknown to you but now worth a day out or a diversion to see whether your reading of the map agrees with the reality. If nothing else, time spent on a tedious, crowded and over-priced rail journey can be made just a little more tolerable by escaping to another place. There is also the advantage that a passenger who is deeply absorbed in the map of some other part of the realm is unlikely to be engaged in conversation by their seat-neighbour. Even the most unpleasant of train experiences can be ameliorated if you simply remember to take a map.