I needed to do some shopping. My friend said she knew a shortcut from her house to our local supermarket. She sent us down a quiet road, round the backs of some houses, through a tiny car park, round the back of the old folks’ centre and down a short path. And suddenly, there we were, right by the trolleys.
It was weird. We walked down streets I’d never been along. I’ve lived around here for nearly 15 years – so how is it possible that, a few hundred metres from our own house, there are streets and paths and back routes that simply aren’t on my radar?
I have a mental map of our local neighbourhood, and it’s based on roads. How depressing! I thought back to a bike ride our family did a while ago with my other half, who lived around here until he was 12. He led us from our house to the canal. We didn’t go along the main roads, but down quiet cul-de-sacs and alleyways, twisting and turning, round corners and along cut-throughs, zig-zagging down to the canal.
This bike ride followed a completely different route to the one I had in my head. And then it came to me. We were on a Not-Car Map! Yes, we had to get off our bikes several times. Yes there were bits that were muddy, or a bit overgrown, or a bit rubbishy, one zebra crossing and one slightly busier road. But basically it was a pretty safe route.
So where could I find the not-car maps for the rest of my neighbourhood?
I looked on Google maps. As well as the roads, which are marked in solid white lines, there are faint, greyed out tracks. Footpaths! However my excitement fizzled out when I compared the graphic to the photograph version and realised that there were many areas where a photographed footpath is clearly visible, crossing a green space for example, but these seem to be missing from the graphic version. Google is just not good enough for the kind of granular, child-friendly not-car map I’m after.
Second port of call was the A-Z. The only footpaths marked on here are those in the park. What kind of message is that?!
Then I dug out an Ordnance Survey map. This one, where 1cm on paper represents 250m on the ground, does show footpaths (ginnels and snickets, as they call them here in Yorkshire) as lines of little black dots. But then I noticed something else. On an OS map, this one small area is rich not just in geographical detail, but also in social detail too. Roads are on it, but they have to share with a church, a mosque, a park, a lake, several schools, and walls and fences. At least this includes something of a community message.
Then I tried to imagine a map where the message was different, where the main roads were greyed out for a change. What if the footpaths were in headline red? Safe crossings in bright yellow? The back alleys scribbles of purple? A web of ginnels, snickets, passages, paths, jiggers, chares and wynds and other passages to freedom might finally reveal itself – and show the town planners where the gaps are.
What kind of message would that map hold?