In the footsteps of the ancestors

SOME weeks ago we were at the theatre in Bath and watched (with some amazement and stifled giggles) as a woman used GPS on her mobile phone to find her seat. She could probably have asked an usher or even looked at the letters and numbers on the rows. It was a slightly sad but mostly laughable example of how some people seem to rely on GPS for anything.

I understand using GPS to find your tent at three o’clock in the morning at the Glastonbury Festival. In fact, I can’t imagine any other way you could distinguish your tent from the tens of thousands of others. But I do slightly despair that so many people use their phones to locate things that they could find quite easily by looking around or even, perish the thought, by talking to other people.

GPS is clever technology and it has many uses, from national and international space exploration or national defence to delivery drivers in urban areas. But as a society – not just here but all round the world, wherever digital devices are ubiquitous – we are in danger not only of losing the art of writing and conversation, but also of no longer being able to find our way by using signposts, knowing which way is north, south, east or west, learning roads, paths and routes, and utilising maps.

One person who loves maps is Mary Ann Ochota, who gave a wonderful talk at Chalke Valley History Festival on the many ways we can read landscapes and old buildings.

The anthropologist and historian, the author of Hidden Histories: A Spotters Guide to the British Landscape, conveys the excitement of the history under our feet with infectious enthusiasm, backed up by massive scholarship.

For anyone interested in the landscape and history, how features that we take for granted were created, and what you can learn about the people who came before us, her book is a guide that should have a place in your car or your rucksack alongside the maps, binoculars and  wildlife guides

What makes her work particularly captivating is the way she introduces the landscape features and then occasionally subverts your expectations by revealing that what you thought was one thing, probably thousands of years old, is actually quite new (or vice versa).

So a bump at the edge of a field may be a Bronze Age burial mound – or somewhere the farmer piled up spoil and rubble last year, which is now overgrown by grasses. When you know what to look for, you can quickly identify which it is, by studying the shape and looking at the plants  – but don’t, she warns, dig into it, because if it is a barrow it is a protected monument.

A series of bumps alongside the busy A40, on the other hand, which you might think is a “barrow cemetery” – as you can see at Winterbourne Stoke on Salisbury Plain – is in fact the site where the builders buried the demolition rubble from the former Wembley Stadium and the foundation spoil from the Westfield shopping centre.

Mary Ann, familiar to many in the capacity audience for her ebullient presentation style on television archaeology and history programmes, also understands well the importance of using digital technology – particularly your smartphone, with which you can not only check your location by GPS, but also take photographs to help you later identify interesting features.

But her first and most important advice for anyone wanting to be a “landscape detective” is to learn to read maps. With an Ordnance Survey Map,(the best generally available mapping in the world) you have an invaluable guide to historic or contemporary features of interest – church symbols, how to read slopes and valleys, ancient tracks, pubs and more. Even the fonts give you clues – for example, gothic type tells you the site has archaeological interest.

The second advice is to get out and tramp around. “Start trudging and tramping and looking and wondering. Notice the details with your feet – and then look out at the big picture.”

* Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape, by Mary Ann Ochota, is published by Frances Lincoln. Useful websites include and the National Museum of Scotland’s digital archive of all old OS maps, which can be compared to or overlaid with contemporary maps, to show how land use has changed over 120 years.

Fanny Charles