‘A picture paints a thousand words, a map paints a hundred thousand’

During the pandemic, map sales have skyrocketed. Nick Giles charts the course of his lifelong obsession with them, and how they make adventurers – as well as birds – of us all

Many of us have experienced gridlocked traffic on long-awaited family road trips, whether as frustrated parents in the front or tired children in the back. 

For Nick Giles, nine years old, the red tail lights that snaked into the night were a challenge. The map book contained a way out, a route around and a kind of treasure, which he found hidden on his knee. 

Giles, now 48 years old, still has the 1982 France tour map in his bookshelf. Alongside it, dozens more maps in various states of disrepair; bookmarked memories of outdoor adventures – on foot, by mountain bike and over water – across the UK. There are maps showing the Welsh mountains, the brooding Dartmoor heathland and the Purbeck Hills, to the west of his Bournemouth residence, and the New Forest, to the east. 

“There’s a joy in spreading out a big, A0 sheet on a kitchen table and trying to work out: ‘what can I do around here? What can you see? What’s this view like?’,” says Giles. “They say a picture paints a thousand words, but I’d say maps paint a hundred thousand. There’s so much richness in there: it opens your eyes to some of the beauty that you wouldn’t necessarily see on a beaten track.” 

Giles admits that he may be biased. After years of losing his way in the financial sector, Giles ended up at Ordnance Survey(OS), where his current role is as the head of the consumer mapping division. OS’s iconic design aesthetic might be a far cry from the treasure maps that Giles scrawled as a child, but it inspires exploration in a similar way. 

With our renewed passion for adventures that start at our doorsteps, this may be even more true now than ever. 

Maps

‘The combination of digital and paper together is incredibly powerful,’ says Giles. Image by Nick Bowring

Says Giles: “Being locked down and having your outdoor engagement and exercise limited to going out once a day really does focus you. We saw a massive uptick – something like 2,000 per cent – in people using our app to look for parks and green spaces. I think we all found things on our doorsteps that we didn’t necessarily know were there.” 

Giles says that despite the inexorable march towards digitalisation, online and app-based mapping are increasingly becoming the entry point for new users. However, paper maps still have a place, Giles insists. 

“There’s obviously a huge emotional attachment to an Ordnance Survey paper map: you mess with that at your peril,” he says. “But the combination of digital and paper together is incredibly powerful, and a paper map doesn’t die when you drop it in a puddle or the battery runs out.” 

A paper map doesn’t die when you drop it in a puddle

Giles says that maps work best when they are paired with the outdoors. 

“It’s that excitement and accomplishment of walking up a hill that you’ve been looking at on a map,” Giles explains. “Maps also give you a sense of comfort, the ability to work out where you are and know what’s coming up ahead, or they can lead you away from the crowds.” 

He recalls that he arrived at Cadair Idris’s jam-packed car park in Wales one day. “I got the map out and found another little hill, Birds Rock, instead,” says Giles. “From the top, I could look straight out over the estuary to the sea. It was like, ‘Wow! I didn’t expect that!’” 

Giles, pictured at his home in Bournemouth (England). Image by Nick Bowring

A tangible map of a bookhelf on paper can be like a treasured vinyl album. Nick’s well-thumbed favourites are dotted with notes about his travels. As we talk, he spots OS map OL4 covering the Lake District’s north- western region. 

“Favourite maps tend to be of places I love,” he says. “I remember my first trip up to the Lake District and just standing on Crow Park looking out over Derwent Water: it was like something out of Lord of the Rings. 

“A map is just a map – but what it enables are experiences and memories. That’s where it really connects to you in your heart, and in your soul.”

Main image: Nick Bowring