“So you’ve decided to collect maps”: A beginners guide to cartophilia

Mmmmm, maps. Image: author provided.

The fact that you are reading a City Metric article about map collecting suggests that there’s a high probability that you already are a collector of maps. Right now you may be thinking to yourself, “Not me”, but I have news for you: many a map collector finds it hard to admit, even to themselves, that they’re a cartophile*.

But if you ever got into the habit of buying a map when you were travelling, and then you kept that map, with your other maps… then you have a collection of maps and you are a map collector.

You might describe this as unintentional map collecting. But to move from this ad hoc attitude to a more deliberate state doesn’t take much. You simply start buying maps of places you may one day visit (admit it, you’ve done that, haven’t you?). Or perhaps, somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you like the idea of owning all the maps – so wherever you travel to, you have a map already.

If you have some small desire to one day have the full set, you are definitely a map collector. If that is you, it’s time to be honest with yourself. Admit that you have been collecting maps for years and now start doing it properly.

What have you got?

Your first task is to assess your collection. Due to your so far unintentional attitude, you’ll probably find an alarming collection of scales and styles.

You may be tempted to rationalize: this is probably a good idea. But whatever you do, don’t throw them in the recycling. These are maps, treat them with respect. File them to one-side, and you will soon work out what the correct method of disposal is.


Once you’ve rationalized your collection, you will have to choose a map series to focus on. In the UK we are more than blessed with options. Ordnance Survey alone offer Explorers, Landrangers, One-Inch, Routefinders and so on. Then there are the Bartholomew’s series, while Sustrans now covers the whole of the UK with cycling maps. You need to pick your team.

Next you need to define your goal. All of Yorkshire? The National Parks? England and Wales? (Scotland is hard)

But seeing as it is a New Year and you are being honest with yourself: you want the whole set. If, like me, the first grown-up map you bought had a pink cover, then you will want a full set of OS Landrangers. Yep: all 204 of those beauties.

Now you’ve set your goal, it’s time to take stock, literally. Go through your maps, sort them into order and catalogue them. There is no point writing a list in a notepad: this is a job for a spreadsheet.

And, because spreadsheets are dull, add a bit of fun by keeping a map of your maps. Find an index map which shows the coverage of all the maps in the series: the kind often found on a maps back cover. Print this out, find a coloured pencil and then shade in all the squares of the maps you have. With each new map, you can fill in your spreadsheet, and colour in your map.

Please note that, once you are recording your maps, you are a proper collector, there’s no escaping the fact.

Filling the gaps

Hopefully, your ad hoc collecting days will have given you a good head start, and you may find you have, perhaps 20 odd maps. (I had 71.) The temptation is to look at your coloured in map index and start filling in the gaps, joining up the shaded blocks.

Rookie mistake. The chances are that these ones will be easy to get hold of in the coming weeks and months. If you cannot resist a purchase on Amazon, or a specialist map site, then purchase maps of remote places in Scotland. Places where nobody goes – where nobody buys the map.

Why? Because the other rookie mistake is to buy maps online. You’re paying more than you have to and it’s too easy, so it spoils the fun. The fun is in the hunt.

Your new favourite shop is the Oxfam Bookshop. I do not know why second maps migrate to Oxfam, and the Lancaster Branch in particular, but they do and they do it consistently.

You can expect to pay £2.49 for a map in Oxfam, but pricing varies around the country. Remember that Oxfam is a charity, so getting the best price may not be the main concern. I have found that spending £20 odd quid a month on maps is far more enjoyable than giving to charity through a monthly direct debit.

When you travel, search out local branches of Oxfam. There is no guarantee they will have maps, but the air of uncertainty just adds to the fun. Some Oxfam Bookshops are out in the suburbs or student districts, so drag you out to parts of cities you wouldn’t normally visit. I’ve taken a tram to Chorlton (shouldn’t have bothered) and a bus to Headingley (amazing, spent over £30). Far flung places have an added attraction: I bought three maps when I found myself in Clitheroe for no good reason.

Another task you will need to take on soon after you start collecting is to clear some space on your book shelf. The 80cm of shelf occupied by maps has steadily expanded. After a couple of years my cartographic colony had grown to cover over 4 metres of shelf real estate.

Having admitted to oneself that you are a map collector, it’s time to out yourself to friends and family. I hope you get the same enthusiastic response I received. Many of my nearest and dearest searched homes and cars for maps and emailed me with a list of maps they were happy to donate to my collection.

Creating an online list of my collection was a great aid. It was handy for me to check in on, and vital for my friends when they stumbled into a secondhand bookshop. Friends loved the hunt so much not one of them asked me to pay for the maps they bought me (I did offer), and one of them hunted down a couple of dozen for me.

Enjoying your maps

In all the searching, purchasing and cataloguing of your expanding collection it is easy to lose sight of the map. I have made one simple rule: I must unfold every map I buy and spend at least a couple of minutes enjoying it.

I’m well-travelled in the UK, so I’m always on the lookout for a map of an area I haven’t visited. More often than not, there is a sweep of a railway across one of the corners which I’ve journeyed along. Often I’m reminded of a journey half a lifetime ago: memories of a hangover in Fishguard, or the big argument with my girlfriend on the ferry to Skye. Happy days.

It may take years, but one day you may complete an entire series. For me it took a year for my initial 71 Landrangers to swell to 201. Another trip to Lancaster scored me two of the final three required. Once I’d catalogued them and coloured in my master map, I considered how long the hunt for the final Sheet would drag on for. Within 48 hours a friend called round my house and handed me Sheet 82 – and I had the full set.

That wasn’t the end. I’d already started collecting the series of maps that preceded the Landrangers, the One-Inch maps with classic red covers. I’ve got 90 per cent of those now.

I do use my maps, and they do leave the house. In a tragic incident in March 2017 I lost a bag containing three Landrangers (121: Lincoln & Newark-on-Trent, 116: Grimsby Louth & Market Rasen;  107: Kingston upon Hull Beverley & Driffield). It was a trauma, but not a disaster, because I already had duplicates of those sheets. No, I didn’t stop at a full set of 204 Landrangers, I have over 350 of them now.

It’s rare for a week to pass when I haven’t pulled a map off the shelf to look up something. Online mapping services are awesome and I use them literally every day, yet the absolute precision of 1:50000 scale map conveys more than the roads railways and buildings they represent. I have a much better understanding of where I am within a landscape with a paper map. This is I why I keep returning to them.

Occasionally I come up with other things to do with my collection. One afternoon I recreated my index map, using my maps. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to have fun.

The Landranger series displayed as you have always wanted to see them: Landranger Timelapse from Chris Sharp on Vimeo.

* I couldn’t find a name for a map collector, so I made one up.

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All images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.