Nicholas Crane interview

Issue 74 | 74 october 2005

Where did your interest in maps begin?

I grew up in the Norfolk countryside. I didn’t have a TV, but I did have a bicycle and a one-inch-to-the-mile OS map. My dad taught me how to read maps and I’d go off exploring. All the journeys I’ve made since – be it cycling from Norwich to Greece, or through Africa – have not just been about finding somewhere interesting to go, but also about finding the most interesting way of getting there. Maps have always been the key to a great adventure, as well as learning about landscapes.

What’s the idea behind Map Man?

It might look like a programme about historic maps, but it’s also an examination of how landscapes change through time.

What’s the most fascinating map you’ve ever come across?

Gerard Mercator’s map of the Arctic, printed in the 1590s, which shows the Arctic as four symmetrically arranged islands, surrounded by a palisade of mountains. It’s a very enigmatic map, and no one quite knows why he drew the Arctic in this fashion.

What inspired you to write a biography of Mercator, the man who coined the term ‘atlas’?

I love looking at maps – I read them as other people would read a book – but I also believe that they’re an inexpensive way of opening up urban and rural landscapes to people who aren’t familiar with them. For a mere seven quid, you can have a major adventure on your own doorstep. I started looking into the actual history of cartography and I was amazed to find that the most important mapmaker of all time hadn’t had a book written about him. It took me 7,000 hours and nearly bankrupted me but, as a writer, it’s the single most exciting thing to go where no one else has gone before.

How did you get involved with the recent BBC series Coast?

They were looking for somebody who had an enthusiasm for UK landscapes and, although I’m not an academic, I’ve got an amateur interest in geographical issues and I’m very concerned about climate change. The other presenters are far brainier than me, but I’ve spent most of my life making journeys and Coast was definitely a journey.

Any amusing outtakes?

I’ve fallen off my bike into ditches, climbed over gates that collapsed, been hauled out of rivers before I got hypothermia… On Coast, the lifeboat we were filming on had to rescue me from the Irish Sea: I’d jumped in and was so cold that I couldn’t move.

What’s your favourite activity?

I’ve tried everything from free-fall parachuting to scuba diving. But at heart, I’m a walker – it’s just you, a backpack and a pair of boots. I mean, we could set off now, take a train, and be on the West Highland Way by tonight, having an amazing adventure.

You’ve made some great journeys – what’s your favourite?

Walking across Europe from one side to the other. I still think about it most days. It took a year and a half, I was on my own and I had no tent for most of the journey. Within days, I felt happier outdoors than indoors.

What do you always pack?

A compass, a map and an umbrella.

The umbrella has become your trademark, hasn’t it?

Yes, though I don’t understand why it’s so surprising. I first started using one when I was walking across Europe and noticed the Spanish shepherds carrying them. It looked a bit strange, but I found out that – apart from the obvious – they use them for shade during siesta. And they’re also good at fending off wild dogs. What’s more, as a writer taking notes, you can have the most expensive Gore-Tex jacket in the world, but it won’t keep your notebook dry. An umbrella will.

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