Country diary: old maps reveal folds in time

Looking at a map is travelling of a strange sort. A way of getting outside, without going outside. Of exploring while still. Where you can visualise the roll and tumble of land, and its vertical space, on something entirely flat. Where the tiniest twitch of gaze can leap miles. And decades.

On the National Library of Scotland’s website you can time travel through maps. Go back, and back, and civilisation falls off these sheets like loosened scales. From a screen of pixels, shades of paper and shifts in typeface immediately evoke the smell and scratch of a mapmaker’s tools, separated from you by nothing but a dozen decades or so.

I wanted to see how long a wood outside my town, one I’d always thought striking, has been there. A 1905 map shows it, and also that it was once a quarry. I print the map to go and look.

The wood is castle-like, moated by a wide belt of grass and surrounded on all horizons by houses. And the things not on any map: traffic noise, the glow of a petrol station sign. And birds. The wood is saturated with bird sound, and the thickety noise of unseen life. I see little of it: crows, like apostrophes in the canopy; a young rabbit fleeing through sharp undergrowth.

Inside, it is dense and close, resplendent with growth unchecked. Purple buds stud the ground with colour. It’s hilly, steeply so: dug out, and reclaimed. Pathways through it suggest humans – trees bent into arches, firepits, one odd little hovel. Someone’s home? The hard lines of a phone mast mingle with the branch-scrabble above. A landscape shaped by people, left to nature, but still peopled. I stand still, and close my eyes. Time is gone, and all I hear is the birds.

Country Diary on 25 March 2020 by Simon Ingram CD SI 3

Home, but first a detour through a residential close, to see the site of something on the old map: a hospital for infectious diseases, complete with the oddly specific “smallpox huts”. I wonder if the people inside these houses know. Not so long ago, that might have seemed archaic and alien.

Times do change. But though disconnected, sometimes they bend together and touch unexpectedly, like an untidy fold in a map.

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