Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Sense of Place.

When I was at school I was hopeless at maths, it made no sense to me, and I never saw myself being part of a world where quadratic equations mattered. The only thing that pricked my attention was when we started playing with protractors and learning what was essentially resection, a navigational technique. As a child I loved maps, I would pour over them in the library, or follow the routes of the great explorers with a nail-bitten finger. I was soon drawing all over them and calculating angles and distances.

I consider myself lucky, I have a fantastic sense of place, a sense of where I am. I feel connected with that ancient ability to move through the landscape with apparently little to guide me. This doesn't mean that I don't know how to use a map and compass, far from it, but they often sit buried in my rucksack while I am walking. Generally, even in the Highlands, I read over the route on the map the day before I leave and tuck the map in a pocket only using it to confirm I am on the right track. I have often taken people on long mountain walks and they comment on how little I use the map.

But not everybody can do this, some people have a mental block, a fear of getting lost, or not understanding what they see on the map. I have been lost, on a couple of occasions wildly so, and I have kicked myself for my stupidity. It's often down to over-confidence, a case of 'oh this looks right', rather than digging out that buried map and making sure I am on the right track. Fortunately no harm has been done.

However, I think getting lost now and again is a good thing, it forces me to reconnect with navigation, and with my understanding of my position in the landscape. I am probably quite annoying to walk with, as once I have walked a route once I tend not to have to do much checking the next time. So getting lost, intentionally even, means that I have the opportunity to revisit those skills and put them into practice. As long as I am suitably equipped and don't walk off a cliff there's not much that can go wrong. So you might miss a train, or a bus, or end up somewhere new. That's all part of the fun.

When I teach people navigation I try to get them over this fear of being lost by explaining that they already navigate, albeit subconsciously. They drive home, or to their parents, they know that they live down the third street after the traffic lights. Navigating away from the built environment is exactly the same - there are just fewer man-made structures to rely on; so we look to natural features such as streams and crags.

Downland can be surprisingly remote, the South Downs are several miles broad, and places like Woolbeding and Ebernoe Commons, although close to habitation are easy to get lost in. It's important to be able to read the map, and retain a feel for where you are. It's also important not to panic. Sit down, have a drink and think things through. A panicked mind doesn't think straight and often offers up the worst case scenario. A rational mind, not hungry or dehydrated, will help you think through the process of how you got to be where you are.

As you walk make a mental note of things you see, this soon becomes second nature, you've crossed a stream, or maybe a minor road, you can hear a trainline, these are all things that may help you put yourself back where you want to be. Follow them on the map with your finger if needs be. Look out for the next symbol - if the map says you should be crossing a lane, or passing a stream and it doesn't happen, check your position again. It's like a little puzzle,  and like all puzzles, with  thought the clues can be put together and a solution reached.

The key is not to the let the fear of getting lost dampen your spirit of adventure. Venture out when you have plenty of time, when you are not pressed to get back by a certain time; relieve yourself of pressures that make becoming lost much worse than it really is. Walk slowly, think about the things you see, and remember to look behind you every so often. Things often look very different from another viewpoint, and if you are planning to return by the same path this will help you recognize the features.

The Sussex Downs have features you can use to navigate, so that, once you have mastered the art, you are not tied to the map. This frees you up to enjoy a more natural, connected walk. Think about these things. In good visibility there are several clues to your location. If you are up high you can probably see the sea, in Sussex the sea is generally to the south. If the sea is north of you, you have a problem that you may need to ring the coastguard to help you with. The Downs themselves run generally east-west. The major transport networks tend to run north-south or east-west with little variation. There are few major roads, if you can see these in the distance and tie them up with other features you can start to get a feel for where you are. There are high masts at Glatting Beacon and Truleigh Hill that can be seen for several miles; on good days the Spinnaker Tower at Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight can be seen, as can Chichester Cathedral spire, the Amex football stadium, the Belle Tout Lighthouse and Sussex Heights in Brighton. There are single masts on Whitehawk Hill and near Castle Hill in Brighton, and again at Findon, on the west side of the valley. At night these are lit. They can be seen from a long way away, as can the lights of major urban centres, so even walking at night shouldn't be too fearful

I don't use GPS devices, I don't know how to, nor do I care to. I have a back up on my phone that can give me a quick grid reference. I've used it once in two years. I'm sure electronic devices have their place and converts love them. But I think a map and compass is perfect. You need to be able to use one in case the GPS goes down for some reason. So why carry the extra weight?

The thing is to overcome that fear, in the South Downs you are never far from habitation, and while the public transport network can be a bit hit and miss there will always be something to fit with your map.

I'm always happy to help people take their first steps with navigating. Feel free to contact me, I come very cheap - my fee is usually hop-based liquid refreshment. I truly believe these skills are latent in every one of us, and just need a little help to surface.

I recommend 'Mountain Navigation' by Peter Cliff, it's the simplest text on the subject, and the fact it's been in print for a generation underlines how good a guide it really is.

All comments, even negative are welcome. 

(c) Justin Norman 2011-12

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