Education & Family

Five reasons why we should still read maps

Children reading map

I drive tens of thousands of miles every year in the course of making Costing the Earth for Radio 4 and Countryfile for BBC One, and have earned a reputation with my colleagues as a sat-nav spurning dinosaur.

Many people seem to fear maps with their demand for some spatial grasp, byzantine symbols and tricky folding procedure - but I love them. I feel like a dying breed: a cartophiliac among a nation of cartophobes.

I confess, even my toilet walls are papered with them.

But now experts say a reliance on sat-navs and smartphone map apps is undermining map-reading skills. So here are five reasons why you should love maps and resist the easy attraction of the sat-nav.

1. Maps tell you what is around you

There is something intrinsically selfish about the sat-nav arrow and its radius of a few metres: it's all about you. But let your eye range over a map and discover a nearby lake, a beautiful view or a convenient watering hole. Maps open the world whereas sat-navs narrow your mind.

2. Maps don't need batteries or signal and can survive a soaking

Mountain Rescue services, the Ordnance Survey and every organisation I've come across promoting the outdoor life, all say having a map and the skill to read it is a safety essential.

3. Maps encourage engagement with your surroundings

They have to be used in conjunction with the physical world, be that reading a sign, noticing a church (with or without a spire of course) or identifying that big hill on your right. This process of using your eyes and engaging your brain leaves memories and knowledge of the world around you. With sat-nav as a guide, nothing is learned nor loved about the journey.

4. Maps are a guide not a dictator

How often have you heard the excuse: "Oh the sat-nav took me the wrong way"? Without any apology for blinkered idiocy, celestial misguidance is the guilt-free excuse. I once worked with a camera crew who arrived two hours late at Snowdon claiming their sat-nav had taken them to the Anglesey ferry port. Entranced by the arrow they hadn't noticed or questioned leaving mainland Britain and crossing the big bridge over the Menai Strait. Now, addicts to digital direction devices may disagree, but I think this is inexcusably dumb. Maps are a partner to our intellect, not a replacement.

5. Maps are beautiful

The Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral shows the history, geography and destiny of Christian Europe as understood in the late 13th Century with pictures of the Pillars of Hercules, the Golden Fleece and a man riding a crocodile. Star maps use images of bears and gods to decipher the random. The London Tube map is a design icon. Maps are eminently practical, but their intriguing visual imagery is a pinnacle of art.

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