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Front cover of Sea Charts of the British Isles by John BlakeSea Charts of the British Isles: A Voyage of Discovery around Britain & Ireland’s Coastline, John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005)

This is a bonnet-book. Opening it is like lifting the sleek, stream-lined bonnet of a car to reveal the complicated and powerful engine beneath. Sea Charts of the British Isles reminds you of what goes on beneath the surface and of what you might have been taking for granted. In this case, it’s sea-faring: the apparently simple task of sailing from one place to another. But it’s not simple and it’s never been safe:

The first lighthouse [at the Eddystone Rock off Plymouth], built by Henry Winstanley in 1698, was of wood in an octagonal shape, and strengthened in 1699. Winstanley was captured by a French privateer during construction, but Louis XIV ordered his release, pronouncing that, “We are at war with England, and not humanity.” Winstanley rebuilt the lighthouse in 1703, testing providence – and losing – as he wanted to sit out a storm in the lighthouse. The storm that came was one of the worst ever recorded and when it abated both he and the lighthouse were gone. (ch. 1, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 17)

To avoid hazards at sea, you have to know not just where they are but where you are. Lighthouses are one way of marking hazards, but you can’t put a lighthouse on every rock. So you need charts and ways of finding yourself on them. This book is about the charts and the charts are guides to navigation: they often have mysterious, slanting and radiating lines that you don’t find on land-maps. You don’t usually drown or founder if you go astray on land and you can easily ask directions. Before satellite-positioning, you had to find directions at sea for yourself:

Portolani or books of sailing directions, known in England as rutters of the sea, existed in medieval times, before the chart as we have come to know it was conceived… The English navigator would rely heavily on the rutter, given the meagre navigation equipment of medieval times, which he used along with the compass, and lead and line for sounding depths… The portolan charts were based on a framework of 16 compass roses equally spaced and arranged in a circle, with radiating rhumb lines that navigators could use as a guide to lay off a course to steer. (ch. I, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 22-5)

Looking through this book, you can trace the evolution of both navigation and cartography from page to page, century to century. Charts once showed Scotland “as a separate island (as some may wish it now)” (ch. I, pg. 11) and the coastline of Britain only vaguely resembled reality. Paradoxically, as cartography became more scientific and the charts became more realistic and accurate, so they became more evocative too. A medieval chart tastes of paper, not of the sea. By the end of the eighteenth century, charts let you taste the sea and hear the sea-birds:

The first admiralty chart published of the Scilly Isles was drawn by Graeme Spence in 1792. … This is a stunning piece of hydrographic surveying with 23 views of the indented, complex coast of this island group battered by the Atlantic. Lying 32 miles off Land’s End, with balmy temperatures all year-round, it is an internationally important area with large numbers of sea-birds breeding on the islands, including the red-beaked puffin, and most notably the European storm-petrel … (ch. III, “The South Coast of England”, pg. 65)

Spence’s chart isn’t intended as art or evocation, but it is artistic and it does evoke. So does the “Chart of Caithnesshire and the Orkneys” published by Laurie and Whittle in 1794, with “pilot information and sailing directions” for the Merchant Navy (ch. VI, “Scotland”, pg. 106). This evocation-by-accuracy found in real charts and maps is borrowed by fantasy-writers like Ursula Le Guin, whose archipelago-world of Earthsea gains extra power from the fact that it has been given a realistic map. If Earthsea also had charts with sailing-directions, it would have even more power. Symbols, sightings, soundings would add verisimilitude to an invented world and offer more food to the reader’s imagination. But there’s plenty of food for the imagination in this book about charts for a real world.

It’s also interesting to ask why charts are more powerful than maps. I enjoy looking at both, but there’s something special in a static representation of a highly dynamic thing. The sea regularly rises and falls, irregularly rages and calms, so charts have to indicate tides and currents. And depths too: the land doesn’t hide its secrets the way the sea does. Charts can also go out of date very quickly and easily, because sandbanks can shift and rock-formations collapse overnight. This book doesn’t just tour space, it tours time too, whether it’s human or hydrographic. All coastlines are beautiful, but the British and Irish coastline has a special place in maritime history, because the British Isles have given so much to sea-faring. See the sea-faring, and the special place, right here.

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