Where on Earth…?

At school I never quite ‘got’ geography. What possible use could it be to an aspiring adult to know the capitals and flags of all the world’s countries, the age of a river or where tea grows? It’s the stuff of quizz buffs and of no use other than providing a lot of hard info one has to memorise.  What on earth is a geographer, anyway? According to the dictionary, geography is the study of the physical features of the earth and human activities related to these. So there we have it. My problem with geography is that it is hardcore reality. Ethnography or anthropology, which include study of myth and folklore,  have their appeal: geography none. But then I grew up.

It was when I began writing fiction that I got into maps. Historical fiction has the value of being based in reality, using people who lived in places that exist. I had to find those places and discover how long it took to get from one to another, by foot, by boat, on horseback. I had to know the mountain ranges and the valleys, and how life and people were different depending on where they were.

Today we have satnav to tell us where we are; before that we had maps, if we were lucky. In the UK we are thoroughly spoiled by having institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society and Ordnance Survey and take accurate mapping completely for granted. It was only when I was in Greece once and found that the local maps didn’t ‘work’ that I realised how lucky we are. Before maps there were itineraries – a list of directions, often written on a roll that you would unravel as you go, a verbal map, as it were, of one road. Before those, before roads – what did they do?

It’s my current quest to find out and suddenly I’m finding the subject of surveying completely sexy. Give me a man with a groma. Even better, give me one without a groma, some native Briton sniffing out a track like an Indian guide, following the spoor of animals who always head for water. You see, I’m getting into pregeography (I just coined that – nifty, huh?), the time when men found their way by being in touch with nature; a time when instinct still operated in us before information-knowledge drowned it out.

How was it then, to stand in a strange landscape and get from A to B without any clue as to where or even what B was? There must always have been scouts, those who lived on the periphery of the clan, solitaries who liked to wander and to find out things and gain knowledge of the land. They would have led all migrations.

And of course, wayfinders used waymarkers and built cairns of rocks. Ways became tracks became roads.

To my amazement I am enjoying a book called The Road by Hillaire Belloc (as rare as dragon’s teeth these days) full of enthusiastic observation and speculation on the origin of the British road. I’m also revisiting John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis, which has a lot to say about geomancy (the siting of settlements and temples). There’s nothing feminine in this, getting excited about metalling and routes, looking at the road I live on and realising that it began as a causeway. I’m becoming a bloke. Or at least, I’m understanding their enthusiasms better. (Thought: how many lady geographers have there been? Do travel writers count?)

(And a further aside: my bloke spotted a bucket in a skip yesterday and positively trilled. A man can never have too many buckets, have you noticed? And they mock our insatiable need for bags!)

The other book I’m reading is Tristram Gooley’s Natural Navigation. It’s become the basis for a TV programme where three celebrities have to find their way from A to B. The book, of course, is far, far better than the programme. It puts you back into pregeography and finding your way using nature as your guide.

I have a friend who is a geographer. I still have no idea what he means by that, but understand it involves attending meetings at the RGS and sometimes going off and doing something necessary for the sake of all mankind in Outer Mongolia. But recently, when we were in Wiltshire, he told me that the phrase, ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ originated in that county, which is divided between high chalk downland and  fertile clay pasture where cows graze.

When he showed me this on a map, for a moment, just a moment, I saw the world through a geographer’s eyes, and it was a very broad view. Belloc, for example, shows with a few lines how Salisbury Plain (and therefore Stonehenge and Avebury) is a natural hub for six major ridgeways: Cotswolds, Chilterns, North Downs, South Downs, Dorset Down and Mendips. These ranges of hills form a whorl emanating from Britain’s most sacred landscape.

So geography can lead us to a better understanding of the past. If only I’d known that at school, where they made me do geography instead of history for the sole reason that I was insisting on doing art.

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