Maps 'make fascinating reading but they don't always tell truth'

September 30 2016

What does your neighbourhood look like when you close your eyes and imagine it? Or take pencil and paper and sketch your route to the shops or local park? Would you include the pub, the church? Would you remember the oak tree where crows have built a nest, the busy road that impedes your progress?

westbury

 

What does your neighbourhood look like when you close your eyes and imagine it? Or take pencil and paper and sketch your route to the shops or local park? Would you include the pub, the church? Would you remember the oak tree where crows have built a nest, the busy road that impedes your progress? 

In his latest book, ‘Bristol Through Maps: Ways of Seeing a City’, Westbury Park resident, Jeff Bishop, describes our ages-old desire not only to belong to a place but also to capture its features on paper. 

An architect and planner by trade, Jeff said: “Maps are as good as a book for me. If you gave me a modern Ordnance Survey map of a British town without the name on it, I’d be able to tell you where it was, what it was and how it developed, just by reading the information on it.”

Which features to include and why are what intrigues Jeff: “I came across ‘Latimer’s Annals of Bristol’, which has all this wonderful information about the city at the same time as the 1673 map. Whereas some maps are for the good and the great - spin to show off to your friends - Latimer’s map provides extra details showing four dead cats in the conduit and the marsh, which was the bowling green, was actually the major refuse dump of the city.”

The book explains that maps do not necessarily tell the truth – more a type of truth that suits the maker. Take Robert Ricart’s 1480 ‘map’ of the city, one of the very first maps of any town in England and, therefore, priceless. Ricart’s map shows the High Cross surrounded by walls, four city gates and prosperous-looking buildings. It’s not so much a map as a celebration of civic pride – one that erases the Ghetto beyond the city walls and also, oddly, Bristol Castle. Not a map to help you round, but one bursting with commercial possibilities for a wily merchant.

Jeff said: “A lot of my work has been about people’s perceptions of places - how they see them differently. I asked a group of architects and planners and a group of sixth formers to draw their maps of the city centre and what was really interesting was that it was only the sixth formers who drew the pubs.”

Later maps show the city expanding, some deceive: a beautifully-coloured plan of Leigh Woods in 1864 splits the ancient woodland into a handful of spacious building plots but, according to the ‘Bristol Record’, reserved for ‘800 tenements’. It’s a fascinating story of successful community resistance.

And just when you get to modern, accurate maps with political and strategic value: tramways, war damage, the floating harbour; the dreaded 1966 plan to gut the city and drive four-lane highways through its heart – up pops the topographical impossibility of the Pubstops of Bristol. 

Maps of any era can be gloriously individual and Westbury Park has one such people’s map from an exercise planned and managed by the author for Westbury residents and reproduced in the book in 2- and 3-D form. Jeff’s account of the project, the enthusiasm and eccentricities of the contributions and the sense of community generated by the map-making, is proof that maps are irresistible, beautiful and very often imaginary.

He has come to see the city differently after researching the book. Jeff said: “Westbury Park is interesting because the lower part of the wall behind the school is from the time of Henry VIII. It was all part of the Westbury-on-Trym College grounds that were taken over by Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and he then gave it to Rafe Sadler and then he took it back again.”

Jeff is conducting a series of educational walks around the city beginning on the morning of 12 October. He is giving a talk on the evening of 25 October at the Architecture Centre, and at Henleaze Library on 17 November. Contact Jeff for details and to book on 0794 1063 138 or email: bristolthroughmaps@gmail.com as there are limited places.

‘Bristol Through Maps: Ways of Seeing a City’ is available from Redcliffe Press www.redcliffepress.co.uk and local bookshops.