TAC 38 Index
Bonar Bridge may not seem an obvious base for a hillwalking holiday, but I spent a good week up there recently, with OS Sheet 21 (1991 version) serving duty as the main map. Never used it much before, but it's clearly way out of date, showing no trace of the mature trees on top of Hill of Nigg, overlooking the Cromarty Firth. Now there's a 1998 remix available, and OS21 has gone a lot greener; but more significantly there's a new spot height in a previously empty contour ring - 205m at NH821705, about 1km south of the Hill of Nigg trig point and 2m higher. So this means another niggling Marilyn relocation. A traverse of both tops requires some higgledy piggledy jiggery pokery, with the newly mapped trees and an awkward shrubbery to negotiate. It seemed a really stupid squiggly route at the time, but with hindsight it showed great foresight.
I decided to pay for my free shop scanning of OS21 by buying the new edition of OS62 to complete my Scottish Highlands collection (other than the useless OS12 and flattish OS30). I'd put off buying it before as it hadn't been updated since 1987. Now I know that some people highlight target summits on their maps, but I still get a childish thrill from buying a shiny new one, and I try to keep it pristine for a while (I even bought a new OS43 because I didn't like the tea stain on the old one). Anyway, owing to general busyness, I left OS62 sitting unread for a few days. When I did manage to sit down for a proper study there were no new numbers to catch the eye, but in the south-east corner, on the northern half of Arran, was a thick eyepopping purple line right through the summits of A'Chir, Cir Mhor and Beinn Tarsuinn, obscuring all contours in its path. As I don't have any eight-year olds who might have risked their life for such a prank, I assume it must have been some kid at the Ordnance Survey who was let loose with a felt pen. It looks neat enough I suppose, but it's a real bastard for navigating on Arran.
Three days later I was back at Waterstone's, trying to ignore the endless succession of poets reading aloud from a new Scottish anthology (you get a lot of that sort of thing at Waterstone's these days). As I feared, the contamination is spreading, with opaque purple worms turning up all over the place. A new OS41 came out in June, and sure enough there's gay purple along the ridges of Bidean nam Bian and Aonach Eagach. It doesn't overlay the contours, it obscures them. Maybe the contours are too tight on the Aggy Ridge to be really useful, but you still like to see what's on offer. It's even worse on Beinn a'Bheithir, where the contours on the ridge from Sgorr Bhan to Sgorr Dhearg have disappeared under two-tone purple. Maybe the OS actually realise this is bad, as they have added a spot height at the col (901m), which is almost unheard of on Landrangers, as though to compensate for the absence of contours.
Another contour to disappear from OS41, though not under purple, is the tiny 1050m ring on the central top of Beinn a'Chaorainn. With the south top now shown as 1050m and the central top as 1049m, this suggests another switch of Munro and Top. I'd quite like to speculate on the possible accuracy of this change (the Pathfinder gives 1049m for both) but I'm so dismayed by all the other contour removals that I've temporarily lost enthusiasm.
OS41 is not the only casualty; the poor Pondspeople fare no better. Their premier maps, 89 and 90, have been overrun with two and three-lane purple motorways, devouring all contours in their way. Fancy a walk over High Stile, from High Crag to Red Pike? Don't bother trying to count the contours to work out the ascent, 'cause they've gone. Perhaps a pleasant ridge traverse from Hopegill Head to Grisedale Pike? Well, I recall there used to be a summit called Hobcarton Crag on the way, but you won't find it on the new OS89 because it's been replaced by a huge purple roundabout. Maybe you're happy to see the twee Wordsworthian village of Grasmere being encircled by a pulsating purple jelly blob, but I doubt if it helps people find their way out of the garden centre tearoom and on to the fells.
The OS kids have been at Skiddaw too, sprinkling spirals of red diamonds round its perimeter to signify so-called national trails. By trying to jazz up their maps for wider appeal, the OS are devaluing them for other purposes. Yes, it's quite useful to have the boundaries of National Trust and Forestry Commission land shown (the purple lanes), but not at the expense of contours, which are 84 times more important for walkers, especially along summit ridges (which often mark estate boundaries). I wonder what was wrong with the thin pink line they'd previously used? And if the new lines have to be so thick, surely they could be layered so that contours are still visible? This is not just a question of aesthetics. What is the point of all these safety folk giving courses and trying to ram home the importance of navigation skills if their basic tool is being made harder to follow? It's bad enough people not being able to read maps, but now the maps themselves are becoming unreadable in places. And there's a suspicion that these over-prominent purple patches are meant to indicate areas where the public can walk, with the implication that we're not meant to stray into non-purple territory.
The sad thing is that the OS are trying to improve their maps, but they seem to fix one thing and break another. To be fair, they are managing to correct or add lots of spot heights on the new editions, though they never manage to get them all right. I had been looking forward to new versions of OS25 and 33 appearing later this year, but now I foresee more purple lanes looming, and anticipation has given way to foreboding. I think I'm going to have to write and complain.
TAC 38 Index