The map’s the thing

When invited by Herb Lester to write words about my home town, I decided to talk about aspects of York that most visitors will be blind to – the buildings and spaces that don't appear in guide books or on postcards. The grit between the cobbles.

But while out taking photos for these posts (usually facing the opposite way to the tourists, who were busy looking for "the big church"), I realised that the obliviousness works both ways. There are peculiar details out there that I completely take for granted, simply because they aren't aimed at me, the resident. For example: maps. Oh my, the maps.

I'll gladly stare at a book or go to an exhibition on the mappy history of a foreign city or some ancient battlefield. But it has never occured to me before to actually pay attention to all the maps – and there are a lot of them – on my own doorstep. Until now. 

Illustrated maps, new maps, out-of-date maps, simple maps, historical maps, 3D maps, alcoholic Harry Beck tribute maps. It's all a bit lovely. One of my favourites is a map spread out over the entire city: an A4 relief map split into sections, each located at a different way onto the city walls. Children and easily distracted designers are encouraged to make a crayon rubbing of each one until they've done a lap of the city and got the whole set to make a complete map. Brilliant idea. 

Perhaps it's the walls themselves that add to the appeal of other maps too. No matter what style or age or subject, the constant shape of the city, dictated by the confines of the walls (much like the recognisable watery confines of Manhattan), remains on the map.

One thing I noticed recently about the size and shape of York: if you had a lot of time on your hands, you could neatly fit the walled city inside Regent's Park in London. But York isn't a park – it's a theme park. Vikings wander the twee narrow streets; everywhere is (apparently) haunted; lengthy queues build outside everything from smelly museums to tea rooms. It's essential that you know where you are and how to get to the next ride.  

As a nipper, I had a 1960s map of Disneyland that my grandfather had somehow procured. I've never actually been there, but I spent hours poring over that map, tracing my finger from one illustrated area to the next, working out my route, my imaginary visits. Skip ahead a few decades, and I'm living inside the most incredible map, full of real adventures. I've got my own magic kingdom to explore.

In trying to avoid the tourist trail, I've found myself obsessed with the very essence of it. It seems fitting that an assignment from Mr Lester and Associates should open my eyes to this cartographic gateway.

Thank you Herb.

Written for Herb Lester Associates