When we moved to Suffolk last year, I had to begin to create a new map in my head. I’m still doing it. On most journeys I take, even now, I have only a vague idea, if any, of what is beyond the path or the road or the railway track I am following (‘There Be Dragons…’). Slowly, I am gaining a sense of this place and, with that, a feeling of belonging.
The word map comes from the Latin mappa, meaning tablecloth or napkin. I’ve been a bit preoccupied recently with laying out maps like tablecloths, since I gave Philip (my husband of 27 years) a set of maps of our new county on his 60th birthday a few days ago. I think he and I will enjoy discovering the past as well as the present in these works of art.
The set of six folding maps dates from 1825. They were made by brothers Christopher and John Greenwood, land surveyors from Yorkshire who undertook a series of large-scale county surveys which formed the basis of a new county atlas published 1829-34. But the Greenwoods faced competition from the Ordnance Survey and their business failed (how often improved technology and corporate might boots out art). Nevertheless, the maps, beautifully engraved by William Woolnoth, were published and some – like the set I gave Philip – are still in very good condition. They came folded and contained in a slipcase, which appealed to the bookbinder in me, but I’ve had them framed and they’ll hang together at the top of our stairs.
The detail shown is extraordinary – hundreds of parishes, churches and chapels, castles and priories, water and wind mills, streams, rivers and canals, woods, parks, heaths and commons and individual houses. You can see distances between towns, which towns sent representatives to Parliament and where the toll bars were on public roads. Exquisite work. And all done without Satnav or electronic drawing devices. Miraculous.
What really strikes me is not how much has changed, but how little, in the not-quite-200 years since these maps were made. The coastline has altered a good deal of course, and it looks set to change more quickly in the decades ahead. If sea levels rise as fast as one prediction I saw on social media this week, our village of Sudbourne will be considerably closer to the coast 30 or 40 years from now, and a little later it will be an island. By then, the same model will have much of London, Brighton and Lewes under water. So we’ll all be in the same boat, or flotilla.
Meanwhile, we’re doing our best to live in the moment, trying to appreciate this beautiful edgy landscape as fully as we can, discovering and respecting our new place/s and internalising a sense of where we are. It’s a journey, and the maps help.