Jerry Brotton on ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’ at Stony Stratford Library

On Monday evening, Lisa and I had the pleasure of attending a local talk, from the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Amazon UK)

Jerry Brotton was a very interesting speaker, and it was a fascinating hour spent listening to his thoughts and theories on how maps – predominantly maps of the world – throughout history tend to reflect the beliefs and interests of their creators.

The maps featured ranged from Babylonian stone carvings through Ptolemaic renderings of the known world, right up to the present day, with some postulations on where the like of Google and Apple might be taking us with their seeming monopoly on digital maps.

The talk was held at Stony Stratford library and was well-attended – sold out, I think. There was a glass of wine waiting for everyone when they arrived and, although Lisa and I were the youngest audience members by at least half, we weren’t made to feel unwelcome at all.

Brotton’s thoughts on maps are fascinating, although they do tend towards the philosophical and ideological. My brain is a bit more boring and practical so I was left a little hungry for some talk of how maps are made, and used. To his credit, Brotton did explain that be never meant to discuss the latter.

The Q&A session that followed raised, as they usually do, an intriguing range of responses to what we’d all just heard. Questions from the audience members were often prefaced by their own long winded theories…

All in all it was an interesting talk. Brotton is great to listen to, and an entertaining speaker – which makes sense, when you learn that he is a university lecturer – and it was great to have such an event just a few minutes’ walk from home.

We’re very much enjoying living in Stony Stratford, and the local library, along with events like this one, is a big part of what we’re loving about it.

Exploring abandoned Milton Keynes by bike – WIF #1

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One of the things I’m loving about my time in Milton Keynes (and there genuinely are a lot – I’m just being lazy about writing them up) is its weird and quirky planning and construction.

There are so many interesting little factoids and trivia about MK that start to emerge when you glance at a map or history book (and I do that with alarming tenacity).

Since buying a bike recently (my first new and very own bike since I was about ten!), I’ve been absolutely loving getting out and about on it, as well as just using it to get to and from work. Amongst MK’s weird and wonderful transport systems is the fantastic network of Redways* – cycling (and pedestrian) paths which criss-cross the city and mean you can get from one point to almost any other without ever crossing a main road (and only rarely crossing minor roads).

map link – PDF

The Redways have opened up a sort of virtual landscape to me, and they’ve enabled MK to make sense to me, where before everywhere kind of just looked the same. It still does, of course, but I’m starting to get my bearings and I’m enjoying being able to correspond a point on a map with a place I can visit.

But where this process gets a little bit more intriguing than your bog-standard ‘navigating by map’ is when you go to a location on a map which… just isn’t really there in real life.

Milton Keynes was planned so precisely and so carefully that, inevitably, sometimes things didn’t go to plan. This results in quirks and oddities on the scale of whole neighbourhoods being paved, roads built and street names assigned… And then they are just left, as if abandoned.

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One such neighbourhood (one of several, actually) can be found surprisingly close to Campbell Park, the new city’s central recreation area. I stumbled on it by accident, following my nose along another ribbon of Redway.

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Suddenly, across the road from the park I found myself surrounded by roads that were laid, along with pavements and kerbstones, and lines of trees. But behind the kerb were no houses – no buildings at all. Just wasteland leading to another copied-and-pasted tree-lined avenue.

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It was actually quite eerie – and this was on a sunny Saturday afternoon, when a minute or so before I’d been whizzing past Campbell Park’s cricket ground. And yet, suddenly, here was windswept silence, with only a distant hum of traffic and the wind in the leaves.

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And what I might even love most about this whole weird place is that on all the maps that cover the area, the roads are all named. Above you can see down the length of Taymouth Place. Nearby turn-offs lead to Smithsons Place, Reliance Lane and Limerick Lane.

But nobody lives at these addresses, and there are no road signs. And yet they exist on maps and, presumably, in some sort of planning database. There is much for me to explore and investigate, clearly.

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As before, but in reverse, it took just a few turns of my pedals before I found myself cycling past flats and a busy road once more. Now that I’ve found this place by accident, I’m taking a more concerted effort to find more. I’ve seen a few that are easy to find, opposite huge supermarkets and similar. Then there are those almost stereotypical junctions with spurs to roads that never got built.

I need to be careful about the tools I use for this mission. Google Maps is pretty accurate, but using the satellite maps and Street View imagery often only tells half the story – or less. The ‘current’ satellite view of my workplace still shows a hockey stadium, for example. And there is an adjacent patch of land to the one I talk about above, which appears to be in the same condition according to Google, but has since been built upon.

So, it’s a mystery story with a few tools necessary – a handful of maps, my bicycle, and a curiosity to seek out some of MK’s more surprising hidden gems. I’ll let you know what else I find.

In praise of Charles Paget Wade

I never properly rounded-up my time at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, where I spent five weeks this summer. The last few weeks were very busy, and as soon as I had stopped there, I got stuck into another new project. In short, I guess I never fully rounded it up in my head either.
This is all part of a much wider feeling of placelag, a term I’ve come to use more often, and one which rather aptly encompasses how I’ve felt for most of this summer.

But what I want to tell you about today is a man named Charles Paget Wade.

As part of my work at the Trust this summer, I was collating research on some of Hampstead Garden Suburb’s more prolific architects. The plan is to produce some rather neat little monographs on a handful of them, complete with timelines and photographs and drawings of their work. Some preliminary research had been done by Trust staff, and it was my job to bring it all together, fill in any gaps, and write something rather more readable than mere bullet points and dates.

I was honoured to be given this task, and I think I gave it my best shot, completing draft monographs on the lives and work of architects Michael Frank Wharlton Bunney, Cecil George Butler and Courtenay Melville Crickmer.

But what I found really enjoyable was raking through all the gathered research on these men; delving into their world and finding contemporary resources to back up what they did.

My time on the reference desk at Chesham Study Centre (and my general in-built nerdiness) means I have a thirst for such information, and a small but useful repertoire of places to go looking for it. Along with online resources, I also had access to the Trust’s own archive of maps and books.

In one of these books, Raymond Unwin’s seminal Town Planning in Practice (read online at archive.org), I found a map of the Suburb. A fairly decorative map dating from 1909, it contained not just the roads and place names, but also little illustrations of buildings dotted around the area, and small doodles of historic events that took place nearby.

I was taken in by its combination of simplicity and complexity; its informative yet childish style. The doodles were silly and unnecessary, yet the map didn’t lack attention to detail.

I noticed, in the bottom corner, the artist’s mark:
The map can be viewed in full at the Trust website, here.

Something about his turn of phrase – “Charles Wade made me” – urged me to find out more about this Wade fellow, and fortunately I was in the right place. Not only was the rest of Town Planning in Practice illustrated by him, but I had access to plenty more books he had collaborated on, and I was able to ask David Davidson, the Trust’s architectural adviser about him too.

Before long, I had a figurative rough sketch of Charles Paget Wade – one he could have penned himself. “A very strange man,” David told me, who liked to dress up and who had a very childlike nature his whole life.

Another of Wade’s signatures on a different map ran, poetically: “On winter’s nights Charles Wade made me, in solitude in his upper room, in nineteen hundred and nine AD, at the Vale of Temple Fortune.”

(It’s worth mentioning here, too, that Wade’s peculiar turn of phrase helped inspire the name of my girlfriend’s craft enterprise: Lisa Made Me.)

The more I found out about Wade, the more I wanted to know. It turns out he was an architect as well as a book illustrator (and more), with a handful of works on the Suburb itself. I managed to combine some photographic surveys I was conducting with visiting some examples of his work, and I used any downtime I had to read more about him online.

It turns out that Wade was an architect for only a few years, instead concentrating on illustrating several books with his distinctive drawings, and building up a collection that would become his life’s work. Whilst at war in 1917, and having inherited his family’s fortune of a sugar plantation on St Kitts, Wade stumbled on an advert for a run-down manor house in the Cotswolds which he went on to buy.

The house was, Wade said, ” in the most deplorable state of ruin and neglect, but had not been spoilt with modern additions,” and he proceeded to fill it with items he had collected over the years.

He was a real magpie of a chap, with an eye for the exotic; he picked up items from antique dealers all over the country, anything that exhibited great craftsmanship. He lived next to the manor house in a small cottage, giving the larger building over to house his eccentric, growing collection. He welcomed guests, clearly enjoying the items being seen and enjoyed by others – and using the strange collection to live a rather unusual, somewhat theatrical life. When Queen Mary visited in 1937, it is said she thought Wade himself ‘the most remarkable part of the collection’. (From Jonathan Howard’s essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available here.)

Wade gave Snowshill Manor over to the National Trust some years before his death in 1956, and it has been looked after by them ever since. A massive restoration project took place in 2004 on the house and its collections, taking care to reproduce the ambience and presentation Wade had painstakingly created.

I’m still in the early stages of my quest for more information about Wade. Luckily it seems that as well as illustrating for most of his life, he also kept scores of notebooks and diaries. I have ordered a copy of his memoirs, and a visit to Snowshill Manor is on the cards when I get the time. (National Trust website here.)

© National Trust

Whilst he remains something of an enigma to me, a handful of quotes about Wade (found here) only go to further cement my belief that he’s a fascinating chap, and one I want to know more and more about:

J B Priestley said of Wade:

“He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers…”

A visitor to Snowshill in the 1920s said:

“with his slightly sinister sense of humour… he would sit as still as a waxwork till one saw him, or to my terror as a child, he would leap out from the parted flames of the fire with his grey hair streaming…”

And finally, in Some Country Houses by James Lees-Milne

“With his old wax complexion, angular features and sharp nose, his presence was daunting. He admitted to Lutyens that he loved toys and had never grown up. He had a child’s insatiable wonder and curiosity. A tassel to him was an object deserving intense scrutiny and examination. How was it made, and of what, and by whom, and for what purpose?'”

It’s that kind of curiosity and nerdiness that I absolutely love. So here’s to the eccentric and obsessive Charles Paget Wade.