An Explorer

Of Epping Forest and the Lee Valley

Exhausting the map

The Ordnance Survey's Explorer maps are divided into kilometre squares, staking out the paper at four centimetre intervals. Map number OS Explorer 174 Epping Forest and Lee Valley , titled "Epping Forest and Lee Valley", covers an area from inner London out to the country of Essex and Hertfordshire, six hundred squares in all. The whole of the modern Epping Forest is there, together with almost all of the New River. Roman Ermine Street and its descendant, the Great Cambridge Road, course lengthwise along the sheet, and the ancient way to Colchester likewise runs across the southern edge.

It took thirty-one trips to cover the grid in the end, starting on New Year's Day and ending well into December, mainly at weekends. After each walk I would draw the route of my exploration on my map, marking off the squares I had entered or left, and so gradually the neat blue lines of the grid gave way to my own disordered scribbles, just as the standardized symbols of the Ordnance Survey yielded to a more amorphous, but more unique, sort of knowledge.

It was important not to lose the route. I was constantly pulling the map from my bag, unfolding it, checking I hadn't missed a turning, gone not quite far enough to cross the invisible lines that dictated my path. With this heavy use the map began to tear, starting at the corners where fold meets fold. The map was creating a new grid for itself, through prolonged contact with its own territory, preparing for a final disintegration along these unmarked lines.

Now I have finished the job. My map lies in rectangular pieces, four folds across by ten down, and each one is ready to become a chapter of my recollections. They respect my little project no more than they did the careful work of the Ordnance Survey: long days in the fields have been sliced up arbitrarily, outings in different seasons are forced together. I like it this way. Recalling some places, I see them from all angles and in all weathers, but for others, there is just a single impression before memory fades.