Country diary: old maps reveal folds in time

Looking at a map is travelling of a strange sort. A way of getting outside, without going outside. Of exploring while still. Where you can visualise the roll and tumble of land, and its vertical space, on something entirely flat. Where the tiniest twitch of gaze can leap miles. And decades.

On the National Library of Scotland’s website you can time travel through maps. Go back, and back, and civilisation falls off these sheets like loosened scales. From a screen of pixels, shades of paper and shifts in typeface immediately evoke the smell and scratch of a mapmaker’s tools, separated from you by nothing but a dozen decades or so.

I wanted to see how long a wood outside my town, one I’d always thought striking, has been there. A 1905 map shows it, and also that it was once a quarry. I print the map to go and look.

The wood is castle-like, moated by a wide belt of grass and surrounded on all horizons by houses. And the things not on any map: traffic noise, the glow of a petrol station sign. And birds. The wood is saturated with bird sound, and the thickety noise of unseen life. I see little of it: crows, like apostrophes in the canopy; a young rabbit fleeing through sharp undergrowth.

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Source: The Guardian