Who Is In Charge – You Or Your Map?

MikeachimThe Everyday6 Comments

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They say it’s impossible to take a bad photo of Hadrian’s Wall.

There are two reasons why this rule doesn’t apply to me right now.

1) My camera just died.

2) I’m nowhere near Hadrian’s Wall.

In fact, I’m in a field. The remnants of Hadrian’s Wall cross many fields on their way from South Shields to Bowness. Evidently this isn’t one of them. This entirely Wall-free field is freshly ploughed, and as I trudge round its seemingly endless fringes, I find myself wearing more and more of it. By the time I find the exit I should be around 30 feet tall.

Here’s where this field is.

I’m feeling quite proud of myself. It normally takes me at least a couple of hours to lose my bearings and start floundering, but I’m barely 40 minutes out from Hexham. I know what I did wrong: I used my brain. Assuming I knew where I was, I extrapolated a shortcut to where I wanted to be, and abandoned the reassuringly obvious path I was on.

Most of my misadventures start like this.

But here’s the thing: I’m suddenly much happier.

I’d stepped out my Hexham town centre lodgings just before 10am (nice people, generous breakfast, dreadful and overpriced room – and so I’m saying no more on the subject), onto damp, cold streets under leaden skies. It’s December in the north of England, so the odds of rain occuring are around 1 chance in 1. (I later find out this estimate is somewhat optimistic).

For all that it’s bitterly cold, Hexham smells delicious – a cocktail of wet limestone and violently displaced ozone. Heading north over Hexham Bridge, this airborne tang gives way to a post-rain earthy smell as the land rears up under my feet and the sky starts throwing water at me. I burrow into my layers and don inner gloves and Sealskinz, pulling on a woollen cap and covering it with two types of waterproof  hood. If I’m getting sodden today, it’s not without a fight.

Hexham isn’t the best place to start walking the central, most rugged section of Hadrian’s Wall. For that, you’d be best served by staying at the George Hotel in Chollerford, just north of a superbly preserved patch of Wall at Brunton Turret. Hexham is miles away and at the bottom of a long hill scored with the kind of paths that are delightful in the sunshine and racing watercourses in the Winter.

Wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible (apologies to the cute little villages between Hexham and Chollerford), I turned to my map. I’d spread it out on the floor of my room the night before, having to weigh the corners down because of the wind whistling in the cracks in the window frame, and surveyed my route. I was following the guidelines of Hadrian’s Wall: The Wall Walk (Cicerone) by Mark Richards, a Wainwrightian walker’s guide I’d treasured for years, all gorgeous hand-sketched maps and meticulously inked-in illustrations.

It proved flawlessly reliable.

Sadly, I didn’t.

Is this….is this where it goes across the fields? Because this looks different. That house seems to have been rebuilt across the road. And that wood has moved 200 yards, like it’s auditioning for Macbeth. But it KINDA looks about right….yeah? Oh to hell with it, time to cheat – what does Google Maps say? Ah. It says “no signal”. Well – I’ll see where this path ends up. If indeed it is a path.

20 minutes later, I’m in a field, nowhere near Hadrian’s Wall, the “path” has been buried under churned earth – and I’m curiously happy.

Don’t get me started about how much I love maps, both paper and digital. I truly, worryingly adore them. But there’s a downside to maps, and it’s the same downside as travel guides or online recommendations or even the most luminous pieces of travel writing, and it’s this: they dictate an experience to you. Maybe as a wry “You know what would be fun?”, maybe as a “Thou Shalt Not Deviate from The Path”, from a whisper in your ear to a steel ruler across the knuckles. To whatever degree, they take you away from your natural instincts. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing – for example, my natural instinct is to immediately get lost – but it’s always a distraction from what your senses are telling you. There’s a temptation to relegate your senses to a secondary, more passive role. You’re merely along for the ride.

Worse, your focus is on the material that guides you- so you’re less Here than you would be without your guide. You’re just not paying attention.

(Multiply this by A Significant Amount if you’re using a phone mapping app).

Pay attention, Mike.

I look at landmarks as I’m scraping a couple of kilos of toffee-like earth off my boots with a stick. I can see a farmhouse, presumably with a drive that connects it to a main road (probably the one running into the imaginatively-named village of Wall). I listen. I hear cars. A distant hiss of wheels scything water from puddles. I look harder. Movement. There’s a road, approximately…er…some kind of distance away. (I’m not very good at distances either). I look for gates, plotting a route down. I see the river, through the trees. Why didn’t I see the river before? Because I wasn’t looking.

The more I look around, the more obvious it is where I must be. And I’d seen this if I’d been paying attention to my surroundings instead of my map…

My phone pings. Network found. I could switch the GPS on and find out where I am, exactly, to a couple of meters. Oh, technology is amazing, isn’t it? It does it all for you. You don’t even have to think.

I pull my map out, spend a few minutes working out where I need to go, and then stash it away for the next hour.

My phone stays in my pocket for the rest of the day.

Images: Kloniwotski, Paul McGreevy, photojenni and Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011.