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Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey
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216 of 220 people found the following review helpful
I love maps and the OS map above all. This book describes how the Ordnance Survey came to be and its turbulent early history.As the author says '...the national mapping agency has established a secure place in the affections of the modern British public'. An institution indeed.

Hewitt explains how the Ordnance Survey grew from the Highland uprisings as the Hanoverian forces tried to explore the wild territory in which the clansmen lived and indeed hid. Ironically it was a lowland Scot, William Roy of Lanarkshire, who led the team that criss-crossed the rugged terrain - so rugged that even today there is little point in using any online map service other than that supplied by the OS and only harveys have seen fit to challenge the OS in providing useful maps to take with you into the hills.
The Lowlands followed the Highlands, as did England, and with increased pressure from the French eventually it became necessary to know where we were, and where the fiendish French might come from. Enter William Mudge.

Crazy name but driven guy. It was Mudge who plotted the triangles across southern England, oversaw their publicationa as maps, with the first instalment, 'an Entirely New and Accurate Survey of the County of Kent with Part of the County of Essex'. produced in 1801. It took 69 years to produce all of the first series and that is where this story ends.

If there is one criticism of the work it is that there are no racy or scandalous stories to tell. No tales of financial skullduggery or loads of people being killed as they hang from a mountain top with their theodlyte. These were serious men so it is hardly the author's fault that there is little here for those looking for "drama". What you DO get though is an interesting tale of trigonometrics, of the history of Britain and of a national obsession that has left a lasting legacy of the best mapping system in the world.

It is no coincidence that I have written one of my longest reviews for this book. Everyone who has, or intends to, walk in this still largely beautiful country; Anyone interested in the history of Britain; Anyone who just loves maps, should buy this book.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 December 2011
Let's make no bones about. This is an interesting book about a well loved institution. It seems to be a well researched book about a well loved institution. It will probably be bought by people like me who really enjoy looking at maps - almost any map, anywhere, and they will find,. as I did, many interesting things within in its many pages.

But let's also be clear about what this book is about: its about the origin of the Ordnance Survey and the production of the First Series of One Inch to the Mile maps (plus a few other things if the truth be told). It's not, as its title claims, of biography of the Ordnance Survey. It is a story that stops in the 1870's.

You will find few references to the Landranger Series of maps, or the Pathfinder series, or the 1:25000 Tourist Maps of the Lakes or the Dales. You won't find the beautiful One Inch to the Mile Map of The Lake District. In fact, you probably won't find any of the maps that people use today at all.

You will find a detailed and at times rather slow moving account of the early days of the OS, but that is all you will find. Oh, you will find a few mistakes as well - grid references do not identify a "point" in the landscape, they identify an area, which is why we say "I will meet you at the bridge at XXXXXX". Pillar in the Lakes is called "The Pillar", which is a strange mistake given that there is an extensive account of how the original map makers made sure they got the names of places correct.

This is a book with serious intentions - about 20% of the pages are taken up with references, but it is a history of the first 100 years of the OS, not an account of its whole history.

If you know this before you read the book, and you still want to read the book, you will find it excellent. But if, like me, you wanted just a hint of modernity, you may find it all just a little too academic and a little too distant.

Proceed with caution
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 18 January 2011
An instantly engaging book that truly brings to life the trials and triumphs involved in creating the first accurate map of Britain. It's difficult not to get caught up in the same enthusiasm for their vast project that the original surveyors must have felt, and to share the author's sense that the resulting maps are treasures everyone can appreciate.

The action starts in Scotland in 1746, where difficulties pursuing the fleeing Jacobites motivate a military-inspired survey of the land. The all-consuming nature of the task, its scientific and practical challenges and the immense appeal of creating a national image in the form of a map raise ambitions to extend a more accurate form of mapping to England and Wales. Eventually the survey of England and Wales gets underway, proceeding from the south coast amidst fears of French invasion. After many diversions and side projects, including a particularly interesting and ambitious 20 year period in Ireland, the book finishes with the Ordnance Survey's completion of its first series in 1870.

Hewitt does an excellent job of exploring both the scientific advances that underpin the advance of the Survey and the personalities that dominate it. She also stresses the many interested parties who helped create it, including artists, poets and linguists as well as engineers, astronomers, mathematicians and the military. The style is highly accessible but authoritative: there are very few footnotes to distract from the main text, but the book includes a reassuringly long Notes and References section at the back.

Readers who like this might also enjoy Richard Holmes' 'The Age of Wonder'.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 29 April 2012
This book should have been called "Map of a Nation - Biographies of some of the Key Players in the Early Ordnance Survey"
The writer skips blythely over any technicalities - and the Ordnance Survey is an intensely technical matter. She makes passing references to "zenith sectors", "primary as opposed to secondary triangulation" without offering the slightest explanation as to their purpose.
It is an extremely frustrating account of an extrememly interesting subject.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 3 December 2011
I bought this being a fan of maps, map reading, orienteering and the like. I had recently read Tristan Gooley's 'Natural Navigator' and wanted to delve into the whole map thing a bit more. There is no doubt that the author knows her stuff and that the book goes into a great depth on the early years of the OS. It is immensely factual and reflects masses of research and subject matter expertise. If you want a very academic treatise, you won't get much better. However......

The book is entirely focused on the early years of the ordnance survey. Having read the various synopses such as the one on Amazon, I admit that this is what it purports to being, but the front cover calls it a biography of the OS. I was left feeling a bit short changed. The last 70 odd years will have surely seen massive leaps through technology - GPS, the Internet and smart technology meaning that we no longer 'need' paper, but we hear nothing of this as the book covers a couple of decades into the last century and stops. The book is really interesting, but I think I've read somewhere that this was an academic work expanded into a book and that makes some sense. Finally, it's very dry. Not a bad book by any means, but read it if you want to be informed, not if you want to be entertained!
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This book describes the history of one of Britain's best-loved institutions, from its origins up to the start of the twentieth century. The need for accurate maps stemmed from the needs of the military, partly following the suppression of the Jacobin rising at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by the Duke of Cumberland, whose troops had great difficulty navigating the wild Scottish terrain when hunting down fleeing highlanders. But more generally, maps were needed as an aid to fortifying the British coastline against attack from the continent. The Ordnance Survey itself has its origins in the vision of one of the earliest successful military mapmakers, William Roy, who in 1766 first proclaimed the need for a complete national map. He laid the groundwork with an historic measurement of a baseline over five miles long on Hounslow Heath, which at that time was a vast wasteland frequented by robbers and where gibbets were still in active use. Accurately establishing such a line was essential for the triangulation technique that formed the basis of further measurements. Unlike in many other disciplines, mapmakers seem to have been in general an amiable bunch, with very few prima donnas, who willingly co-operated for what they saw as the national interest. (They even co-operated with French cartographers in establishing the positions of their respective national observatories in Paris and Greenwich, although for a minority this was step too far.) Nevertheless, for various reasons, including lack of funds, work proceeded slowly and its was not until more than thirty years later, and ten years after Roy's death, that the Ordnance Survey was established, although the name itself was not used until 1801.

The author describes the history with authority and real warmth for her subject; with occasional personal asides that make the reader feel part of the story. The book is partly based on her doctoral thesis and is meticulously researched, and here I have my reservations. Firstly, about 120 pages consist of notes and references. While these may be essential for an academic reader, I seriously doubt that the general reader (and surely this is the main market for the book) will look at many of these. Cannot a compromise be found, so that the general reader does not have to buy a third of the book that will hardly be read? Secondly, it is a pity that the book stops at about 1870. I can see that is because of its academic origins, but it would have a more useful and interesting book had the story been continued up to the present time. Leaving this aside, Rachel Hewitt's book is beautifully written and a delight to read.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 10 March 2011
Having just finished reading the book I thought I'd my two pence worth. I would agree with some of the lower scoring comments made. This isn't a full blown biography of the OS from inception to date, and therefore the title isn't accurate. It is instead an early history of the OS, covering the period pre-OS and how it came into being and its early years up to completion of the first series, looking at the key characters and activity. So if you're looking for how they put together Mastermap, or created the National Grid, this isn't the book for you.

Saying that, I really enjoyed the book, its clearly well researched, and if you're interested in how they went about starting to map the whole country from scratch, without GPS's, aerial photography, satellites and computers to piece it all together, then this is an interesting book. The characters, their drive and vision, the influcence of maps on thinking and thinking about maps and the advancement of our relationship with our country it's fascinating. Although google maps are ubiquitous, on a storm day out on the hills having an OS map in your pocket (and compass) is reassuring. Just spreading one out over the living room floor and exploring the map is fantastic. And this book covers how the OS came about, who we have to thank for the maps we have today. What the map makers had to go through say mapping Scotland lugging the theodolite around with them and up and down hills is pretty astonishing (health and safety would probably prevent us from repeating the feat today). Their aims at times of not just creating a map, but a record of the country.

It is, as the author admits, based on her Masters and PhD work (and why not, she passes on a lot of knowledge), which does show through with the copious notes and references and yes at times the tone of the book wavers in between an academic tone and a popular history tone, however at no point is it unreadable or overly academic and actually is very readable throughout.

So on balance quite a good read. If you're into maps, mapping and OS (and who doesn't love the OS), you'll find this book interesting and informative. If however you're looking for a history of the modern OS, not just early history I'd suggest you look elsewhere.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 September 2013
First - I've always loved maps and at school I wanted to be an Ordnance Surveyor. So I was really excited to find 'Map Of A Nation' in a local bookstore.

I gave up reading it at page 60. The clue to the style of writing comes in the author blurb inside the back cover - "Rachel Hewitt completed her doctoral thesis on the subject of the early Ordnance Survey...in 2007". 'Map...' is dull and stodgy with one-dimensional characters. Yes, it reads like a doctoral thesis. At one point we're told that David Watson suffered from gout in late life and at the time of his death had a 12-year old illegitimate son. Neither piece of information adds anything to our understanding of his involvement with map-making.

Note - the prologue, fifteen chapters and epilogue take up 327 pages. There then follows over 100 pages of notes, works cited and acknowledgments. This isn't a book for light reading. Additionally, the paperback version has at least two illustrations which look as though they were drawn in thick fog.

I can't fault the research or the facts we're presented with. Just the way the book has been written.

Hopefully, someone will eventually write a full history of the Ordnance Survey and its maps rather than just the first decades and biographies of uninteresting 18th century surveyors. I wanted to know how the OS map symbols developed and why we have the map scales we have now. And about what the OS has left off their maps at times such as military installations. The Ordnance Survey is about maps, not people.

My copy is going to a charity shop.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 March 2012
Map of a Nation. A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt. Granta Publications.

"A brilliant book and its astonishing that on one has thought of writing it before..... History at its best." So states A N Wilson on the front cover. I do not have the reputation or experience of A N Wilson, but I consider it neither brilliant nor history at its best. It's a PhD thesis cobbled together with literary padding and as a result fails as a piece of satisfactory literature or a good thesis presentation. A particularly aggravating feature is the absence in the text of reference numbers. When reading a book of this type it is important to be able to identify a reference of interest as one reads the text, rather than hunt around in the reference section for a particular link between text and reference. This is a great shame. As an experienced user of both land maps and navel charts I found the subject matter fascinating and technically stimulating.

Many books of this nature drop the reader into the subject with insufficient background, but Hewitt starts with the unexpected history of the 1745 rebellion as the genesis of the Ordnance Survey as we know it today. Triangulation is well known to map user today, but its development makes interesting reading. The split between the triangulation mapping and the Interior Survey fills in the gap between the two elements of the process for which many readers will be unaware. The text also illustrates the dedication, endurance and meticulous approach of the leaders in the endeavour, Roy, Mudge, Colby and the many members of the Survey. It was impressive to note the `hands on' experience of those in charge so that errors and below standard surveying were readily spotted.

Sadly the reader is drawn away from the core story by too many diversions into literary dead ends, graphically illustrated by the pointless discussion of the confrontation between O'Donovan and Mangan in the chapter on the Irish Survey. When I reached the epilogue I was hoping for at least a brief synopsis of how the Survey progressed from 1870 to the present day through aerial photography to the satellite aids to navigation and mapping. But no. A strange tale of the author being cornered by a large canine in remote corner of Scotland.

A stronger editorial hand would have been beneficial in keeping the author on track and ensuring a more experienced literary style. Despite the above comments I found this volume an interesting and instructive read and would recommend it to anyone interested in maps and their origins.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2012
I thought this might be a complete history of the OS, an organisation based in my home city of Southampton, but it isn't really. I love maps, particularly the sumptuous OS landrangers so was looking forward to learning all about those and how they are made etc etc but this book stops short a couple of centuries ago.

What is covered is interesting in parts but I would have preferred that the history came up to date. Also I was surprised that for the cover price the book has over 100 pages of references etc - I pity anyone who shelled out £25 for it.

What really got up my nose was the incredible overuse of her own editing /amending to make the narrative read correctly rather than leaving the quote as that. On most pages we have [] to insert a word which is tiresome. This came to a head when she quoted something from a F[ellow] of the R[oyal] S[ociety] - I mean surely someone reading this book knows what FRS stands for? If not then a glossary or footnote would be better in my opinion.

What I didn't realise was that the author had submitted a similar work for a PhD and other reviewers on here suggest that this is an edited version of that - I think this is spot on - you can see the joins.

This could have and should have been so much better, it is okay but no more than that.
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