“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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.