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Where shall we go? how should I know?

John Lindsay, Reader in Information Systems Design, Kingston University, UK

We've all seen the guidebooks with pages of "turn left at the next tree, over the style, across the ploughed up field...."

But I'm not just interested in walking; I want to know what is going on around me, to see things of interest. I live on the south west corner of London so within an hour or five quid of public transport I have about a thousand square miles open to me. But that usually means I wont start and finish in the same place.

Everyone is interested in different things: let's make mine history, politics, gardens, quiet, food and booze just to keep it short. (You can put in zoology, fishing or bird watching as you like.) So what information do I need to be able to go for a walk, get the best out of it, and leave something to find out later?

Well let's start with the maps. It means about eight sheets of the 1:50,000. Almost never less than two for any jaunt. But they have only minimal walking data, almost nothing about places worth visiting or transport, or pubs, despite all that wasted space at the back. For the 1:25,000 it'll add up to a sizeable investment and a lot of filing! (I know the RA provides a map library, but I rummage over too many too often.)

Nicholsons have now brought out a 1:10,000 bound volume for Greater London, but it has minimal walkers' information (not even a towpath on the Grand Union Canal!) and little of anything additional of importance. There are several others covering a similar area, and others more for the counties. That means another shelf of books. At least they have gazetteers and street names on the maps which makes semi- urban navigation a possibility. Each uses an eccentric grid referencing: I wonder whether the Ordnance Survey is trying to make the National Grid copyright?

What's next in importance? The railway timetable. Now it is available on computer which improves working out routes with changes (but no London Transport, no buses). And the stations don't get any map data. OS maps have no gazeteering so you can begin to build your own filing system! The 30p books - need about 6 for the area, leave you hopping around from one to another. The main timetable changes every six months anyhow. No information on what's near any station of interest - that isn't even to be found in the station! Idea you might want to use a train to do interesting things – forget it!

Then the buses - thank heavens for Barry Doe! Otherwise it is contacting every county authority! Bus timetables have no spatial referencing and the mapping systems (all of them) say nothing about what buses are to be found on what roads, even if routes are coloured! Certainly nothing about frequency - that would really be pushing the market out! Counties produce bus maps, but with minimal walkers' information. (And let's leave aside whether bus stops give any information or stations say anything about buses - that would presume we'd already got there!)

Nicholson's Ordnance Survey Guides to the Waterways are exemplary. Good strip maps, lists of places to visit, train stations, pubs, all on walkable pages - and everywhere navigable seems to have a towpath! But that is the end of the congratulations. Once you've done the canals and the rivers it is back to the shelves and the stacks.

Plenty of county level guidebooks - Philips, Bartholemew, Ordnance Survey, but they work at the village/ town level, aimed at motorists, and plenty of more general national guides, Automobile Association, Guide to Coast, pretty villages, Towns of Britain, not much help in planning walks. The AA has now produced a guide to walks, but you'll soon exhaust that around my area. There are quite a lot of books or pamphlets of walks around an area (often produced by Ramblers, and often reviewed or noted in the Rambler) but they vary enormously in their information content (each one can be individually ciriticised), the prejudices of the author (see the guides to naturist britain!) and are usually produced by small publishers which means finding them is difficult. Even Stamfords has mainly the publications of the main stream publishers. And a few more shelves are taken up.

How do you put together a walk with places of interest? Pevsner must be the starting point? But he gives rudimentary information about where something is (Grid ref at 10Km level! - OK for a motorist.) He says nothing about whether it is open or not, or when, if it is, nothing about where public transport might be, nothing about nearby pubs. And with four volumes for London and one per county at about twenty five quid each, the bills are mounting. OUP plans to bring out a computer based index at nearly £300! But as it hasn't appeared we can't tell whether it'll have any mapping or transport information.

Step back from Pevsner as a reference tool? National Trust handbook – free to members - has Grid refs, good Doe transport data, but refers only to their properties. Another one for English National Heritage (with another membership fee) which is nowhere as good. Then Historic Houses, Castles and Gardens open to the public - this one steeply downhill on the information front and up in price. And it contains only those who have put in entries. Nothing in any of these on churches or cathedrals for example. Good Country House Guide has entries on the houses picked, but nothing on what's nearby, and pretty primitive information support. Covers the whole country too, like most of the others, so a lot of shelf space for areas far beyond my scope, and lots of expenditure.

National Garden Scheme yellow book? Essential for visiting gardens only occasionally open, but no grid referencing and no public transport data - finding locations on maps tedious and if inaccurate a few 100m walks in wrong directions can make finding them hard, though their yellow posters help. But if the gardens are a second option then the infrequency of opening is a limitation, if they are primary, finding out what is near them open at the samish time becoming a bit of a hunt. Same problems with the Good Gardens Guide. Ordance Survey Guide to Gardens has good maps, but falls down on all the other requisites. Then there is the Good Garden Guide, The 1994 gardner's Guide and so on…

Beginning to tire of this? Time for a pint? That means the Good Pub Guide? More very limited information support. Really aimed at the motorists. Ready for a meal? Michelin? Depends on your standards. Good Food Guide, Egon Ronay? All designed for the motorist. Need some accommodation? Actually here one must criticise the RA handbook for its spatial referencing (four figure grid with complete postcode!) and no public transport Other guides to hotels, bed and breakfasts etc all exist, but all inadequately catering for walking. The camping & Caravaning Club provides an excellent resource for its members. (But I will say that accommodation is less important for the distance range I've specified - getting home every night is cheaper than paying for a night's rest. Double the public transport costs to the whole of Network South East and that is still the case.)

More badly designed information sources, more hunting around on maps, timetables, checking lists when you begin to want things slightly out of the ordinary, like decent bread, decent cheeses, good dellies, these never appear on OS maps, and in very few guidebooks indeed. And one further detail: some things are very time dependant. A concert perhaps? With fireworks? The Sealed Knot giving a demonstration? Whether that is the time to be there, or the time not to be there is a nice distinction.

Let's go to Services actually provided for walkers. Leave out books on famous long distance walks - done those, been there, know they miss out all the important stuff we're talking about here. At the level below that, most of the county councils provide something - that means contacting each of them(about ten in this area) and the 32 London boroughs. What is provided varies enormously in quality, quantity, price (though usually so small it is an irritation signing a cheque for the amount - know it costs them ten times that to process it!). Finding out who to write to is the tedious bit. Phoning still means writing if they want a cheque.

Then there are hoards of quangos or commercial outfits running projects on just about everything you can imagine who also produce leaflets and information packs. But none of these authorities ever seem to talk to one another or organise any co-ordination. They seem fixated with providing car parks and incapable of saying something about the nearest public transport, using OS grid referencing, or giving information on food and drink. Any one of these leaflets can be quite happily criticised: that really isn't the point. It is just the enormity of trying to collect them, then reference from them to the range of books for things which are just off their borders. The Rambler tends to mention many as they are published, and I've always found the producers efficient in supplying. It is just the lack of organisation!

The English Tourist Board might be a player in organising all this? But they are aimed at motorists and know nothing outside their own bailiwick. The public libraries often have very good collections - East Grinstead is excellent. But first you have to find out where the library is and when it is open. That is, you have already solved the greater part of the problem or missed the opportunity.

I don't want to suggest there is no fun in exploration or that chance shouldn't play a role. But I do want to say that being free of the motor car changes the scale and scope of exploration and the amount of data you can carry around. Time becomes more of a determinant. Where something is, and that means where it is relative to other things, when it is open or available, how you get there (and back), what it is, become key elements in building a system, and my shelves of books and leaflets are wearing me down.

There must be a better way, and there is, with the new computer and communications technology which is opening up. I don't want to start carrying my powerbook around with me, or even a mobile telephone. But there are ways of organising information more effectively than it is being done at the moment and that will require an organisation to take a lead and the ones which should be aren't. Volunteers?

Last update: 08 July 2005 | Impressum—Imprint