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In 1986, an expert in medieval artefacts arrived at Hereford Cathedral to appraise items that could potentially be sold to pay the £7mn required to fix the building’s leaky roof. While being ushered around the cathedral, assessing books and other items assumed to hold value, the expert noticed the “Mappa Mundi,” and informed the Dean of Hereford that the map was worth far more than he could hope. Indeed, it turned out to be the largest medieval map known to exist.
Once discovered, and presumably after the senior members of the church high-fived at its discovery, the map was put on auction with a reserve price of £3.5mn, which would make it the most valuable map in the world.
Unsurprisingly, auctioning a piece of British medieval history met some resistance, and after establishing that neither eventuality – the church falls down, the map is sold – were ideal, a compromise was reached.
The Mappa Mundi Trust was established with £3mn pounds of funding from different sources, with admission charged to view the map in its new building. Hereford’s Mappa Mundi is now viewable to the British public and few would argue that it wasn’t worth the fuss.
Made with a tough hide and combining a mixture of skewed geography, religious fables and mythical beasts, the Mappa Mundi remains one of our best-loved maps, both in terms of content and context.
In the days before digital mapping, tourists relied on the seemingly archaic practise of reading a book for their travel information. One of the most famous and best-loved examples of this is the “London A-Z,” a detailed documentation of one of Europe’s best-known cities.
Created by Phyllis Pearsall in the 1930s, the decision to assemble the London A-Z has been much romanticized, with biographers stating that Pearsall walked every street in London in a heroic quest to chart every inch of the Big Smoke. It didn’t quite happen like that, with Pearsall instead commissioned by a draughtsman and visiting borough surveyors for their input on the map.
Less romantic, sure, but the result was still delightful despite a number of set-backs, including losing several entrants under the letter T (including Trafalgar Square) as the relevant notes fell out of a window.
The A-Z is relatively no-frills when compared with guide books like Lonely Planet. However, its comprehensive, straightforward approach to providing guidance to a city proved a huge hit, with its popularity spanning generations.
The A-Z and its creator now have a permanent spot in the London Design Museum and, perhaps more importantly, the map regularly appears in novelty shops alongside nodding bulldogs.
In 2010, “The Essential Geography of the USA” was named the best map published in North America in 2010 by the Cartography and Geographic Information Society.
A yearly award, however, does not a great map make. The map (which will henceforth be known as the “Essential Geography,” for brevity’s sake) was not created by the publishing powerhouses usually associated with winning the competition. Instead, it was created by a single man.
David Imus is an experienced cartographer who works from his farmhouse in Oregon. It was here that he designed the Essential Geography over two, labour-intensive years, by himself. While impressive, this isn’t enough to warrant a place on the list. Instead, it is the attention to detail and wonderful design that separates the Essential Geography from the pack.
Grandly described as “The Greatest Paper Map of the United States You’ll Ever See” by The Slate, The Essential Geography is a triumph of map design. It pays particular attention to legibility and the clear display of a broad array of content, using a meticulous blend of font, hue and shading to maximize clarity and geographic depth.
Essentially, this is a beautiful, useful map and one made all the more impressive by the work ethic of its creator. The Essential Geography is loved as it has lead many to hail it as a rebuttal to claims that the paper map is on its way out. As digital maps take over, the Essential Geography is a timely, romantic reminder of the power of paper.
What are the maps that you have fallen in love with?