Same but different

Location names get repeated throughout the World. Old and New York, Egyptian and Elvis Memphis, the list goes on and on. No one pair or group can have such a distance between them, and such a difference in what they are, as the Milky Way.

Der Südliche Sternenhimmel, c1899. A1 (42)

The Milky Way is one part of the Spiral Galaxy that includes our Solar System. Stars in their billions, so numerous that they appear as a river of milky light in the night sky. It is thought that there are as many planets as stars amongst the light. As with everything in the Universe size and distance defies belief, the width of the Milky way visible from Earth is 1000 light years across (light travels at 186,282 miles per second, 299,792 km, so in one year light travels 5.88 trillion miles, 9.46 trillion km. A trillion is one million million).

Here’s the Milky Way in two maps. First is a German map of the Southern Hemisphere from circa 1899 by the prolific Justus Perthes publishing house in Gotha. And then a later English map of the Northern Hemisphere from George Philip and Son in 1959. This is one part of a larger map which includes an equivalent  map of the Southern Hemisphere, a larger map of the Middle Heavens and lists and charts of stars and clusters. It’s easier to see from the Philip map how the Milky Way got its name.

Philips’ Chart of the Stars, A1 (10), 1959

The Milky Way is also a narrow bit of water between Noir and Kempe Islands at the western side of the Tierra del Fuego. It gets its name for the same reason, a milky appearance from a frothy stretch of white water. A book published in 1847, the North and South Atlantic Memoir, describes it as ‘a space of sea, in every part of which rocks are seen just awash with, or a few feet above, the water; on them the sea continually breaks’. The gentle name belies a dangerous passage between the islands with rocks clearly seen on the chart, a danger to any passing ship.

This extract comes from an Admiralty Chart of the Magellan Strait from 1887. The names on the chart give an indication of the hard landscape and dangerous sailing which abound. ‘Useless Bay’, ‘Desolate Bay’, ‘Famine Reach’, and the high number of narrow channels, many of which lead to a dead-end, show how hard it must have been for early explorers to navigate as opposed to sailing round Cape Horn. No wonder Magellan took so long to find a passage through.

Magellan Strait (formerly Magalhaen) sht 554, 1887

This chart shows the skills involved of the surveyors who measured, took soundings, kept records as well as lived onboard ship in such a harsh environment and the cartographers who then transferred this jumble of information on to a map. One of these surveyors was Commander Robert Fitzroy, of His Majesties Ship Beagle. This was Fitzroy’s first journey through Tierra del Fuego, his second, and more famous, was with Charles Darwin aboard as a companion and scientific officer. It was on this voyage that Darwin, after making numerous studies on the natural history of the lands explored on the voyage formed his theory of natural selection. In his book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ Darwin wrote ‘We passed out between the East and West Furries: and a little further northward there are so many breakers that the sea is called the Milky Way. One sight of such a coast is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about shipwrecks, peril and death…’. Fitzroy went on to become an expert on meteorology, forming what would become the Met office in 1854 and created ways to predict weather patterns, something which he gave a new name to, forecasts. A fervent Christian Fitzroy was horrified by the publication of Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’, the effect it would have religious beliefs and his role in helping Darwin form his theories by taking him on the Beagle voyage. Depression ran in his family, and Darwin’s fame together with financial difficulties and trouble with the Met Office led to Fitzroy taking his own life in April 1865.

Darwin’s importance can be seen in this  extract from the chart, with Darwin Sound and Beagle Channel appearing on a map just under 30 years after Darwin published his ground-breaking work.




The easiest way to get round the age-old problem of portraying a three dimensional landscape on a flat piece of paper? Make a map that in itself is three dimensional. Freed from traditional European conventions dating back to Ptolemy peoples from different cultures could, and did, express themselves and their surroundings in a way alien to those with a ‘European mindset’ that made sense to those with a shared culture. Examples are numerous, ranging from the stick charts made by Polynesian navigators to the Medicine Wheels of North America, which enabled their builders to predict seasonal changes by astronomical observations (European prehistoric stone circles had a similar function). It is this freedom that enables the cartographer to use what ever material is suitable, as the Inuit hunter Kuniit has done with these maps made from wood, an ideal medium to portray a rocky and indented coastline.

The maps were made in a settlement on Greenland’s eastern seaboard, Ammassalik, by Kuniit, who sold them to the Danish Naval Officer and Arctic explorer Gustav Holm during Holm’s expedition to south-eastern Greenland using traditional Inuit boats between 1883 and 1885. The originals are in the Greenland National Museum and Archives, these are facsimiles made for the 23rd International Conference of the History of Cartography, held in Copenhagen in 2009.

At first these two maps appear hard to interpret, but a little bit of reading sheds some light. The surrounding coastline is a jumble of Fjords and off-shore islands, and it is this area north of Ammassalik that the two pieces map. The broader of the two shows the coastline while the longer the off-shore islands. Small nodules mark the places, according to Holm’s interpretation, where old settlements were sited and which proved good places to land a boat while the grooves over the ridges (shown here) show places where kayaks and small boats could be portaged around headlands when the seas were blocked by ice.


One of the more interesting aspects about the maps is how they portray the coastline, because the wooden blocks mirror the way the coastline wraps around the land. When used to journey around the inlets and islands north of Ammassalik the blocks would be continually turned to face the direction of the land shown on the blocks, north being very much a moveable concept. Also, the top features on both sides of the broader piece represent areas furthest away from each other on the map, as you drop down the wooden block, on both sides, the locations get closer together. Compare the blocks to the maps of the area, shown here, in this extract from Fishing chart of Southern Greenland & adjacent seas, 1906. M4:7 (1)

The top part of the thinner of the two wooden maps corresponds to Storö (a) on the paper map. As you drop down the wooden map the features match up with the paper as if you were sailing around them, so for insistence the penultimate island on the wooden map matches up with the island Morene (to the left of b) on the paper, so despite starting at the top with a northern orientation you now need to rotate the wooden block to face south to get it to match up with the coastline of Morene.

The same principles work with the larger wooden block. The top right corresponds with the northern side of the inlet above Storö  (1), with the first inlet on the wooden block representing the small fjord above Storö (2). The right-hand side carries on down the coastline, ending up with the last section matching the small peninsula above the island of Stenö. Then the left-side of the larger block starts at the far extreme of the wooden blocks range, with the top sections representing the headlands above the settlement of Sermiligaaq (4) before ending opposite Morene (5). As can be seen there is a natural flow to the wooden blocks in harmony with the land they map. A fluid approach to orientation allows for a design that is as uncomplicated as possible, despite first appearances.

The question is though how useful this would be to the Inuits of the area. To be be able to map an area so well would suggest that for your own use you wouldn’t need to map it in the first place. So were these blocks made as a navigational aid for Holm, who presumably had existing maps and charts of the area already, or with the onset of European exploration in the region were they made to sell, as souvenirs in much the same way that the majority of the Polynesian stick charts that exist today were made towards the end of the nineteenth century for European explorers?

Gustav Holm wrote a number of articles in the Danish journal ‘Meddelelser om Grønland’ (Notices of Greenland) about his travels around King Christian IX Land, which were illustrated with a number of sketches, photographs and a map. One of the sketches is of the wooden blocks, where it can be seen that there was a third made, which covers the area around Ammassalik between the fjords Sermiligaaq (Sermiligak on the map, top right) and Kangerdlwarsikajik (Kangerdluarsikajik on the map). Identifying places isn’t easy as spelling isn’t consistent across available maps, with places even spelt in slightly different ways between the text and the maps in Holm’s articles!

As can be seen in these sketches of the three wooden blocks the two blocks that were reproduced for the 2009 Conference have numerous references next to key points which correspond with a page of text next to the image. The image on the left doesn’t have these, and in the text is given the briefest of mentions (‘Fig. 3 represents the halfway between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangerdlwarsikajik’) which suggests that when It was given to Holm it was either too old or too inaccurate to be of use. It certainly doesn’t have the sense of newness that the middle and right-hand maps have.

This map and image of the wooden blocks come from ‘Meddelelser om Grønland’, 1888. Gen. Per 22

Information on the maps came from the The History of Cartography, vol. 2, book 3, Cartography in the traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific Societies, edited by David Woodward and G. Malcolm Lewis,1998 G24 B1.100 (2iii)

The coastline 100 km northward from Ammassalik, East Greenland made by the Inuit hunter Kuniit from the Umiviik settlement in Ammassalik Fiord, 2009 M4 d.1


Te pito o te henua

5. [April, 1722]. Saw a turtle, floating weed, and birds. About the 10th glass in the afternoon watch the African Galley, which was sailing ahead of us, lay to wait for us, making the signal of land in sight…a low flatish island lying away to starboard, about 5 1/2 miles off…and to the land the name of Paásch Eyland, because it was discovered by us on Easter Day.

This extract from the log of Mynheer Jacob Roggeveen dated the 5th of April 1722 describes the first sighting by Europeans of one of the most intriguing as well as isolated lands in the World, Easter Island, Rapa Nui, the Navel of the World (Te pito o te henua). The nearest inhabited land, Pitcairn Island is over a thousand miles away, mainland South America over two thousand. Easter Island is very remote, making the journey there by the original Polynesian explorers  all the more remarkable (there is some doubt as to when this was, with some believing it to be as early as 800, others as late as 1200, roughly the same time that New Zealand was first populated).

This copy of an admiralty chart from the Hydrographic Office of the British Navy dates from 1868, and gives no indication of the mysterious stone monuments found on the island, unlike this earlier map which comes from the voyages of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez, in the ships San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia. Gonzalez named the island San Carlos, and drew both the map after taking soundings and also the perspective, including some of the statutes, the Maoi,  the ‘ídolos uamados moay’. The letters off-shore on the smaller plan relate to the make-up of the sea bed.

These maps come from a remarkable collection of reproductions of original books on early exploration and travel published by the Hakluyt Society. Formed in 1846 and originally intended to be called the Columbus Society at the first meeting it was decided that Sir Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616), a writer and collector of travellers tales, better reflected the goals of the Society. The first chairman was the famous geologist Sir Roderick Murchison. This image shows Roggeveen measuring one the Maoi, one of the 887 listed either on the island or in museums throughout the World.

The Voyage of Captian Don Felipe Gonzalez to Easter Island, 1770-1; preceded by an extract from the official log of Jacob Roggeveen in 1772′ 1903. G31 B1.1 / NS 13.




A very dark Dark Ages

The Ordnance Survey are justifiably famous for the Explorer and Landranger maps that guide us on so many walks and journeys.  They have also, for the last 100 years, produced specially themed historic mapping. The first was a map of Roman Britain in 1924, soon followed by maps of XVII Century Britain and the one featured in this blog, Britain in the Dark Ages. All the maps had text attached and all featured beautiful covers designed and drawn by Ellis Martin, an artist working for the Ordnance Survey who has featured a number of times on our blogs (here, and here)

The library has acquired some old pre-publication material from the Ordnance Survey via a recent donation of maps. Along with some surveyor drawings there are a number of early attempts in design for these historical maps, most show markings where errors have been made but this early attempt at the Dark Ages map took us by surprise. It isn’t hard to see why this was rejected and a whole new design sold to the public instead.

Cartographic detection

Maps recently purchased a large scale manuscript estate map entitled ‘Hen’s Farm in Bordesley in the Paris of Aston in the County of Warwick belonging to Brazen:nose College Oxford, the Free School of Birmingham and Haverford West … Survey’d by [J. Tomlinson, 1761]‘ which is a very nice thing of pen and ink on tracing cloth.

It shows the farm buildings and all the fields associated with it are labelled with areas in acres, roods and perches; individual trees and farm gates are drawn in and the neighbours named.


This was all very well until I came to catalogue it and realised that it only had one unnamed road and no north point making locating it on a modern map pretty much impossible.  Checking our holdings of large scale maps of the area, I still could not place it. I really didn’t want to be beaten at such an early stage so I contacted Brasenose College Archives and Warwickshire County Record Office to enquire if they had any records which would help me place this farm.  Unfortunately, neither of them could help me but Warwickshire suggested I contact Birmingham City Council Archives and Collections.


They, too, did not have any records but helpfully sent me a link to their tithe maps, which have been digitised and crucially, georectified.

For those who are unfamiliar with georectification, it is the process “of taking an image of a map and referencing it to a spatial grid, so that the image of the map can be used as a layer in other maps, or so that the image of the map can in turn be used for associating points of interest with the spatial grid.” This meant they overlaid their maps onto a modern map of Birmingham.

I selected the Bordesley Manor map of 1758 by JohnTomlinson and was immediately struck by the similarity of style to the Hen’s Farm map.

The scale was smaller, the fields weren’t so finely drawn but it was pretty much the same. All I had to do now was find the farm.  After quite a lot of peering through a magnifying glass and an obscure reference in William Hutton’s The history of Birmingham, it was there! I located the farm from the field names, as the buildings are not actually labelled. By removing the tithe map layer, I could see exactly where it was on a modern map. I can report it sat where now is basically the central reservation of the A45 just south of the Tesla Supercharger which doesn’t have quite the same rural idyll feel but useful to know.

(E) C17:59 (44)

Dedicated with great disrespect and contempt…

In a collection that has it’s fair share of strange maps (‘Naughty Norman’s London sex map’ anyone?) this has to be one of the strangest.

A new & exact map of Toryland, with the dangerous rocks & shoals of all the Jacobite Islands lying in the same parralell with the Red Sea, whose lattitude is 1588 & longitude 1714. Dedicated with great disrespect & contempt to the Knight of ye Warming Pan & King of No-Land ye Pretender & all his Brainless adherents’. 

Where to start? The Knight of the Warming Pan was James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Prentender, the son of the last Catholic King of England, James II. His mother, Mary of Modena was considered past child-bearing age (a stately 29 at the time of the birth) so it was suspected that a baby had been smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan, in an attempt to keep a Catholic succession in place. 1588 is the date of the Spanish Armada while in 1714 George Louis, a Lutheran Prince from Hannover in Germany who was the closest relative to the recently deceased Queen Anne became George I. The fact that the crown was now in the hands of a foreign national who didn’t speak English didn’t go down well with James, who would have been King if his father hadn’t been deposed during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, restoring Protestant rule with William III, William of Orange as was.

The Jacobite Rebellions were attempts in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries to restore the House of Stuart to the throne. This map is a cartoon satire against that, the ‘dangerous rocks and shoals’ that surround Toryland are symbolical of the dangers that sailors face when navigating around dangerous shores while Toryland itself is full of warnings about what a Catholic monarchy would mean; ‘Restoration of Abby land’ (as in a return to the Abbeys and Monastery’s in place, and all the supposed corruption and indulgencies associated with them from before the Reformation), the Bishoprick of Rome, arbitrary government and absolute monarchy amongst others. The islands and shoals surrounding are also full of danger; No parliaments, loss of trade and no juries featuring here amongst others, as well as the island of ‘D-m me I’m in high church, & ye Presbyterians are Sons of Whores’.

Nearly off the map is Whig Island, a land of Protestant and English  tradition. Here we find safety in ‘Magna Charta’ land, ‘Parliamentary Right’ and ‘Hannover Succession Rock’.

Like all maps trying to make a serious point this works because it looks like, and uses, standard mapping practise. The compass rose is an example. Traditionally used to show the compass directions in this case the compass points to people prominent in the Jacobite movement.

The compass also has a dual meaning. In mapping terms it shows direction, shows the right and wrong way to go, and this can be compared to a moral compass, which has the same purpose, to show the right and wrong way to live your life. Other stock mapping traditions can be seen in the way that rocks and dangers are portrayed, the use of crosses is both common on nautical charts of the day to show rocks but also has religious overtones while the language in the title is similar to that of other maps, ‘Great disrespect and contempt’ mirroring the dedications on many maps to rich and influential people (see here for example)

There are a number of variations of maps making a point by pretending to be a serious cartographic work, a blog about a religious example can be found here, while political versions can be found here. These ‘imaginary maps’ have a long cartographic tradition, and can be seen to have their origins in the maps painted on the walls of Egyptian Tombs to show the departed souls the way to the underworld and continue with Thomas More’s map of Utopia through to the cartoon maps linked above to famous recent examples such as the classic Guardian April Fools from 1977 April fool – San Serriffe: teaching resource of the month from the GNM Archive, April 2012 | The Guardian Foundation | The Guardian

fol. Delta 755

The voyage of the Hero

Admiralty Charts have a reassuring familiarity about them. The Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty first started publishing maps in 1800 and this map from 1860 uses cartographic conventions still in place today. This sense of timelessness comes from the charts concentrating on hydrographic information; soundings, rocks, beacons and so on, features that don’t alter over time. Almost all our cartographic charts in the Bodleian come from legal deposit in pristine condition. I say almost because we do have a number of donated charts as well. What is special about this particular donated map is that it is a chart that has been used, a course has been plotted of a voyage made between July and August of an unspecified year by an unknown ship. A chart used as intended.

North Atlantic Ocean, published at the Admiralty, 18th June, 1860. B1 a.19

The challenge is to try and discover more about the journey, which really comes down to when and what ship? All we have to go on when looking at the chart is the route, from Southampton across the Atlantic to Quebec, with positions at noon each day from July 10th to August 18th. A seemingly impossible task but there is a clue separate from the map. The chart is one of a number bound up in a volume with the simple title Charts of the Gulf & River St. Lawrence by Capt. H.W. Bayfield, R.N and on the contents page there is a hastily written note in pencil that is the key to the mystery . Sir Henry Acland has a strong connection with Oxford and the Bodleian. Born in Exeter in 1815 Acland became a Fellow of All Souls College and then in 1851 Physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary and Radcliffe Librarian in the Radcliffe Camera which had been, since built, the home of the Radcliffe Science Library. It was during Acland’s time as Librarian that the collection of books moved to a new Radcliffe Science Library and the Camera became part of the Bodleian. This explains Acland’s close relationship with the Bodleian, and the reason why he donated the set of nautical charts to the library in July 1880.

An extract from the chart showing the route taken to Quebec, sailing through the wonderfully named Gut of Canso (also called the Gut of Canseau) between Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island.

Research into Acland’s life then explains the rest. In 1860 he became physician to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales (who later became Edward VII) just before he went on an official trip to Canada and the United States  onboard H.M.S. Hero, the first time a Prince of Wales had made this journey. The map charts the daily position of the Hero as it voyaged across the Atlantic.

The Gut of Canso (here called Canseau) taken from one of the other charts in the volume. The numbers are soundings while the yellow colours show the positions of lights, which could either be fixed (indicated by the letter F) or revolving (the letter R).

In Oxford Acland is famous for a map made six years before the voyage of the Hero. In 1854 he produced a report on a series of Cholera outbreaks in Oxford which had led to a number of fatalities. It came with a map which highlights the poor sanitary conditions in parts of the city (the areas shaded in green) , the parts of the Thames contaminated and unsafe to drink and the locations where there were cases of Cholera (more on the map can be found here). 

Map of Oxford to illustrate Dr. Acland’s memoir of cholera in Oxford in 1854… 1854. C17:70 Oxford (15)

The Acland Hospital, so long a feature on the Banbury Road in Oxford and now at the Manor Hospital in Headington was built as a memorial to Acland’s wife Sarah. A daughter, also called Sarah, was an early photographer, some of her work can be found in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

In the year after the voyage a book was privately published by Gardner D. Engleheart. ‘Journal of the progress of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales through British North America and his visit to the United States… (203 a.333)’. The book includes illustrations and text about the visit and, helpfully for the purpose of this blog and identifying the map, a log of the journey out giving positions at noon on each day as well as a number of different diary entries from the voyage. So for instance we learn that the Royal Yacht (the Hero) ‘with the Prince Consort sailed at 4 a.m.’, presumably to catch the tide. Then, far more dramatically, from a different diary on the 12th ‘Man overboard! The gun-room steward jumped out of one of the ports, in a fit of temporary insanity, and was drowned! Every effort was made to rescue him, but he would not be saved.’

A volume of London

This collection of items relating to London is intriguing; four maps and a view, only loosely related, are bound together; all date from the eighteenth century and have a connection to London and its surroundings. The names of two former owners appear on the flyleaf, dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the collection may have been assembled earlier.

One of the maps in particular would be a treasure in any circumstances. John Rocque’s map, “An exact survey of the citys of London, Westminster, ye Borough of Southwark and the country near ten miles round,” is a famous and remarkable map. Made in the early 1740s and published in 1746, it covers London and the surrounding area on 16 sheets, from Harrow on the Hill in the northwest to Chislehurst, then in Kent, in the southeast. The map above is the top left hand (or north west) sheet.

As London has grown so much in the intervening two and a half centuries, the area covered by the map is now all within the conurbation of London. At the time, most of the urban area of London was contained within just one of the 16 sheets, while all around the now familiar names of London suburbs appear as rural villages surrounded by fields. With remarkable prescience, John Rocque created a map, in the mid-eighteenth century, of the London of the future. The sheet above shows the rural villages of Harrow on the Hill, Sudbury and “Wembly Green”, with a beautiful compass rose. Below, from another sheet, we see Wimbledon Common (then Wimbledon Heath) much as it might have been in the young days of the oldest Womble, Uncle Bulgaria.

This particular copy is bound into a volume, but the Bodleian also holds a version that has been joined together to form one single massive sheet; this is shown below, with the Map Curator included for scale. The bound version here differs from the other recorded editions of this map, in that it has the title in English only; other copies have it in Latin and French as well, so it’s possible this is a proof state.
To return to the intriguing London volume, it also includes a reduction of the sixteen sheet map to a single sheet, giving an overview that further demonstrates how tiny the urban area of London was then. This was also made and published by John Rocque.

Rocque also made both printed and manuscript maps of individual estates. The next map in the volume, entitled “The plan of the house, gardens, park & plantations of Wanstead in the county of Essex,” was made in 1735. The mansion house at Wanstead had been completed in 1722, to replace an earlier manor house, and was owned by Earl Tylney. He received the title in 1731, so the map celebrates his new status as well as the beautiful house and grounds. The information at the bottom of the map is in French, so perhaps Rocque anticipated an international audience for this map of a new and fashionable estate; the landscaping had been inspired partly by the Palace of Versailles. There is an intriguing feature in the formal garden, shaped like a map of Great Britain.
The Rocque maps are followed by an early example of a facsimile map (or more accurately, a derivative). In 1667 John Leake had made a map showing the City of London, with the extent of the Great Fire the previous year. George Vertue published a copy, slightly reduced but with some additional information, for the Society of Antiquaries in 1723. It shows the City of London, including the city walls and the boundary of the burnt area; a section of the upper left part of the map including the title is shown here.
Finally, there is a design for Westminster Bridge from 1739, a side elevation accompanied by smaller cross sections and plans. This was drawn by Charles Labelye, the engineer responsible for the first Westminster Bridge. The construction of the bridge began in 1739; by the following century it had deteriorated, and was replaced by the current Westminster Bridge in 1862.

Past owners of the volume have also written personal notes on the blank page inside the cover. Samuel Ashton Thompson Yates has written brief notes on the contents of the volume. Thompson Yates was originally called Samuel Ashton Thompson, but added the Yates in accordance with the will of Joseph Brooks Yates, who was his grandfather, in 1867, so presumably acquired the volume after that date. He was a man of some wealth and influence; he went on to make a substantial donation to the construction of the Health Sciences building at the University of Liverpool, built 1894-9. (This information comes from The Centre for the Study of the legacies of British Slavery at University College London, and more can be seen here.)

In the twentieth century the atlas passed to Elizabeth Phebe Merivale, who notes that she was given it by her brother Hugh Bright in 1904. At some point after that, it arrived in the Bodleian Library, where it will remain.

Map Res. 127

Cycling Then and Now

The recent changes to the Highway Code set us thinking about the origin of cycling maps and their development. We have maps going back to 1887 but cycling routes were described purely by text earlier than that with this Walks in Epping Forest. A handbook to the forest paths with cycling and driving routes dating from 1885.

They still hadn’t really got into their stride twenty years later with this account of a route from Witney to Charlbury indicating the amount of puff require by the use of manicules.









Interestingly, early advertisements for cycle hire and repair used the language associated with horses; ”warehoused and cleaned” could easily have been “stabled and groomed”. The maps being sold for cycling just showed main roads – which with the absence of many cars were sufficient.

This is map by Mason & Payne shows routes suitable for cycling in 1888 but today they are mainly major A roads with many being dual carriage ways, not really conducive for a pleasant ride through the country.


Many did not show relief, rather crucial for a cyclist, but this Bacon’s Cycling Map does show generalised relief in the form of hachures but also railway stations to facilitate cycle touring.

Cycling as a hobby has increased especially in recent years but modern maps and apps are very different from those early examples.  Cycle information is generally overlaid on to a topographic background usually in layers showing you what to expect every metre of the way.

The same route is shown thus


Unlike Bacon’s map, it is quiet roads and cycle tracks that are highlighted and sought out to make any expedition safer and more enjoyable. All sorts of analysis and interactive data is also available at the swipe of a finger and there is a sharing element promoting online competition rather than just the satisfaction of making it to the pub at the end first.










What probably hasn’t changed is the search for relief from any cycling-induced injuries or soreness as this early advertisement shows.

Walks in Epping Forest (1885) Johnson g.417

The Roads Round Oxford (1896) Vet. A7 e.505

Bacon’s Cycling Road Map of England and Wales. Sheet 5 (1887) – C17 (73)

Mason and Payne’s Cycling Map of the British Isles … (1888) – C15 (180)

OS route courtesy of Stuart Ackland

Strava route courtesy of Nick Millea

Witney to Banbury courtesy of


Dryness pleaseth…

This beautiful map of the Bedford level lying between The Wash at the top of the map and Cambridge at the bottom shows the distribution and use of land of the Great Fens, an important wetlands site that had been drained in the seventeenth century.

To the most noble the Governor, the Bailiffs, and Conservators of the Great Level of the Fens, called Bedford Level, this map of the said Great Level and parts adjacent is most gratefully dedicated by Samuel Wells. 1829 (E) C17:17 (7)

The draining of the Fen has a long history. Initially the celebrated Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was commissioned by King James to drain the fen. This at first proved unsuccessful and then Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, who owed a great deal of land in the area, came to an agreement with Charles I to drain the Fen after which the Duke and a group of fellow investors in the project, known as ‘Adventurers’, would share in the division of the land with the King, each to their own according to the size of the investment made.

 Vermuyden planned and then organized the  digging of the New Bedford River, which ran parallel to the Old River, with a flood plain between the two. These are the two straight lines that run from the middle bottom left to middle top right, draining into the River Great Ouse and then eventually into the sea at King’s Lynn. A new company was formed to handle the administration of the levelling called the ‘Bedford Level Corporation’, and it is their coat of arms that can be seen on the map. Their motto is, appropriately enough, ‘Dryness pleaseth’.


The map is cloth-backed, which would have made it easier to unfold and fold up again any number of times without weakening the paper and causing damage. The effect of the folding and then storing the map has led to ‘ghosting’. This is when the imprint of the image appears faintly as a mirror image on its opposite fold, most attractively illustrated in this image with the faint ghost of the compass rose appearing above the true rose. The map was made to accompany a two volume work, The history of the drainage of the Great Level of the Fens, called the Bedford Level; with the constitution and laws of the Bedford Level Corporation, by Samuel Wells, Register of the Corporation, and published in 1830. This is a comprehensive history of the Fens and the drainage going back to the Roman occupation.

The map shows different levels of land; from that owned by the investors (the numerous plots in red)  to land outside of the Great Level (in blue). The green and yellow show higher ground, and hence land that didn’t need to be drained, both inside (green) and outside (yellow) the level. A map that shows plots of land either for sale or as a record of ownership is called a cadastral map. In the second volume of Wells’ history of the Fens he lists each plot giving information on ownership, size (in acres, rods and perches) and the amount of tax paid on the plot twice yearly. Cadastral maps, especially ones as old as this, are important for a number of reasons. Not only do they give an accurate record of the land at the time the map was made they also give a historical record of land ownership at a particular time.  As with all old maps that list names of people they’re also a wonderful link with our past.

Samuel Wells owned lot VII in Methwold Common

To show how long the levelling of the Fens had been going on here’s an extract from A mapp of ye Great Levell of ye Fenns extending into ye countyes of Northampton, Norfolk, Suffolke, Lyncolne, Cambridg & Huntingdon & the Isle of Ely as it is now drained, described by Sr Jonas Moore (Gough Maps Cambridgeshire 2). The map was published in 1684 and shows how the plot boundaries and identifying numbers have remained constant over the two hundred years between the two maps (the 1684 image has been stitched together for the purpose of this blog from two adjoining sheets).

Jonas Moore was an interesting character, one of those figures that start from humble beginnings to achieve things of lasting fame (born in Lancashire to poor parents it was said that his older brother was  ‘bewitched’ to death by one of the Pendle Witches). Mathematician, astronomer, surveyor and Ordnance Officer, as well as creating this map of the Fens he also designed and built a stone pier in Tangier when the Moroccan port was briefly held by the English.

Cornelius Vermuyden sailed to England in 1621, arriving from a Holland transformed by the draining of low-lying land. After draining and reclaiming wetlands at Canvey and around the Isle of Axholme, Vermuyden was commissioned by the Crown to drain the area of the Great Fens, bringing to an end a way of life supported by wildfowl, peat and withy cutting that had been in place for centuries. Vermuyden wrote one of the earliest works on draining the Fens in 1642, a turbulent year if ever there was one. This image comes from collection of pamphlets about the drainage of the Great Level simply titled ‘Fens’, which includes 19 pamphlets ranging in date from Vermuyden’s in 1642 through to 1775 and is part of the great collection of books, maps and plans belonging to Richard Gough that came to the Library in 1809 (more about Gough and the map of Britain named after him here)

Modesty didn’t seem to hold Vermuyden back. In the introduction to the work he lets us know that not only  have others tried to do what he achieved, but he had the King’s support throughout. ‘Divers persons of quality heretofore have been desirous to attempt the drayning of the great and vast levell called the Great Fennes, but they found not onely the worke but also the composing of an agreement very difficult, for they could not attaine to so much as to make a contract for the generall drayning thereof, until of late years king James of blessed memory, did undertake (by a law of sewers) that great worke, who for the honour of the Kingdome (as his Majesty told me at the time) would not suffer any longer the said land to be abandoned to the will of the waters, nor to let it lye wast and unprofitable.’