The First Road Atlas and a Real Life Detective Story

I have to confess I have never been a very club-able person. If I’m asked to join any organisation I tend to shy away. And why? I guess it’s because I’ve found that organised groups tend to ask more than they give, so you end up serving them, rather than the other way around. That’s fine if the group concerned is a charity, but often it isn’t. And hence my reluctance to get involved. But I have discovered one or two notable exceptions to this rule, and one of them is my crowdfunded publisher, Unbound.

Each book that Unbound publishes will involve different costs and expenses. Put simply, some are longer than others and will contain more pictures and maps, which soon add to the overall sum that’s needed to be funded by subscribers. Books like my crime/thriller The Lifers Club have no pictures and are therefore quite cheap to produce, and that’s why we reached our target in five months (A QUICK PERSONAL PLUG: but don’t worry, you can still subscribe and get your name printed in the book for Christmas!). Incidentally, all my subscribers will receive their copies in early May.

While I was in the middle stages of my subscription campaign I received a lot of help and advice from other Unbound authors, like Adrian Teal. And that’s what I’m doing now, and no you cynic, not for myself, but for another Unbound author, Alan Ereira, as his book is facing a huge subscription target. And why? Because it’s got a lot of very, very intriguing things to say, and being non-fiction, it will be packed with maps and illustrations.

Alan is a distinguished maker of films for television and has already done a small documentary series on the project with Terry Jones (another Unbound author) for BBC Wales. So, much of the research has been done already, and the story has, as they say in the media, ‘legs’. Put another way it’s real and not at all flaky, which might seem odd when I describe what it’s all about. And I’m not alone in this view, the distinguished historian Professor Ronald Hutton, of Bristol University, agrees with me. So what is it all about?

The Nine Lives of John Ogilby is about the turbulent, pioneering and creative world of late 17th Century Britain. As Adam Nicolson’s superb recent television series so clearly demonstrated, this was when the modern world took shape: science began to replace dogma and superstition and the English Civil War had just given rise to the world’s first constitutional monarch, Charles II. If I could be transported back to any time other than the later Neolithic or Bronze Age, it would be then, the turbulent decades around the Restoration of 1660.

It was a time of astonishingly high achievers. We all know about the likes of Newton and Wren, but were you aware that the world’s first road atlas, the forerunner of those books that used to be found in the glove compartment of every car in Britain, was written and published in 1675? Do you have fond memories of those days when people still knew how to read maps, before the dreaded Sat Nav effectively removed all knowledge and appreciation of the places and landscapes we were driving through? Well, if you do still look back on those times warmly, as I do, then spare a thought for poor John Ogilby who started it all, when in his 70s he helped survey 20,000 miles of routes, as he wrote and published his great work, Britannia; it’s a masterwork, where for the very first time roads are treated as entities in their own right.

This example reminds me of those sections at the back of most road atlases where motorways are mapped-out to reveal the complexity of their junctions and intersections.

This map, taken from John Ogilby’s Britannia (1675) shows part of the road from London to Lands End in Cornwall.

This map, taken from John Ogilby’s Britannia (1675) shows part of the road from London to Lands End in Cornwall.

To be frank, I’d subscribe to The Nine Lives of John Ogilby if it was just about the road atlas. But there is another story lurking just below the surface, and again, this seems to be fact, not fiction. I don’t want to give away the fascinating story that Alan told me last week, but in the 17th century things were not always quite as they seemed. The complacency that became such a part of fashionable circles in the later 18th and 19th Centuries had not set in. Even a genius like Newton, who understood more about the universe than any man alive, was still able to maintain an active interest in something as seemingly barmy, to us today, as alchemy. The arrival of the modern world was so recent that its grip on people’s consciousness was still far from complete. In fact that’s one of the aspects of this project that fascinates me. In a strange way it was rather like our own time, where people of my generation (and I was born in the closing months of the last war, in January 1945), and even younger, are having trouble adapting to, and coping with, the new digital environment. I reckon, rather like the new world that followed on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it’ll take another three or four generations before the changes become fully embedded within society as a whole. And that’s one of the things I like about good history or archaeology: it makes you look with new eyes on your own life and times.

The title page illustration from John Ogilby’s Britannia (1675).

The title page illustration from John Ogilby’s Britannia (1675).

If the story of the world’s first road atlas wasn’t enough of itself, Alan has also discovered that Britannia contains some extraordinary clues about a much broader political conspiracy. For a start, the roads Ogilby selected for detailed analysis aren’t the obvious choices – everything that radiates out from London. There’s a big bias too in favour of Wales and the west country. There are also some intriguing hints in the illustration on the title page: why the all-absorbing interest in the sea in the background? And who are those figures on the roof – and the statutes in the niches? If one didn’t know what the book was about, I have to say I’d even wonder whether the scene was of a landscape in Britain at all… Or is my imagination getting carried away?

As I write, Alan Ereira’s project is 28% subscribed, but he already has some very generous subscriptions to his credit. I think it’s such a fascinating story that once word gets out, the names will start rolling in – and I’m proud to say that mine is up there with them. So please, join me if you can and give Alan and John Ogilby a Merry Christmas. And remember, the more you subscribe, the quicker it’ll be published. And if you happen to be a rich banker at a loss what to do with your New Year bonus, the paltry sum of £2,500 will buy you a weekend in Wales on the road to Aberystwyth, with the author, tramping ‘the most beautiful road in Britain’ and one that Ogilby mapped in extraordinary detail all those centuries ago. And how much healthier that would be than quaffing Champagne in industrial quantities at some trendy City bar! Myself, I settled for the hardback at £20.00, but then I always was a tight bugger. Anyhow, this is where you go to subscribe:

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