Rise up, England, and save the map churches
By Kevin Myers
(Filed: 11/05/2003)

The decision of the Ordnance Survey to remove out-of-use churches from their maps of England is one of those little signs, like a dog barking at water, which you should take very seriously indeed. The dog could get over its silliness, and not turn rabid, and attack your children. But the moment you see the sign, you're right to be worried.

So the decision to remove some 2,000 deconsecrated churches from the maps of England might be nothing, a mere bureaucratic silliness, like the dog not liking the smell it gets from the water. Or it could be the prelude to organisational and cultural rabies, a cultural revolution which lays waste all around it. For if Ordnance Survey gets away with this, where does it all stop?

Perhaps the most sinister and telling clue Ordnance offers for its policy is its explanation for retaining a deconsecrated church: if it is a landmark with navigational significance. Which boils the whole business down nicely to: is it helpful for drivers, one of those little bonuses with which the Middle Ages assists us in our nav-sat peregrinations around the English countryside? Actually, jolly useful things, the Middle Ages.

Ordnance argues that because these churches are no longer churches, they should not be listed as such. Has it applied the same logic to castles? Can it name a single castle in England which is used as a defended fortress? Does it say the same of Roman roads, which have not been Roman in 1,500 years or so?

And does it say the same of itself? National Ordnance has no right to call itself by that name. For "Ordnance" is a military title, essentially the same word as "ordinance", and was inherited from the days of industrious army sappers. For maps were originally means of conducting campaigns: they provided an economical and efficient way of moving armies about unknown landscapes.

But we do not insist today that maps show only objects of military importance. Over the centuries, they have become two-dimensional accounts of the landscape, a narrative of about the people who once lived here: the mill which is no longer a mill, the tumulus, the rath, the henge, the old coach-bridge which has been by-passed, and which no longer serves as bridge.

It is a savage who cannot draw pleasure from a good map: one can divine from the bridle-ways and old tollgate a sense of travellers on palfrey and in coach centuries ago. Maps allow a small communion with history, with habits and mores which are long gone: but they have left footprints in the landscape, and in those representations of the landscape which we calls maps, and which only a barbarian would not think worthy of retaining.

Nor is the issue solely the decision as it now stands: the deletion of 1,600 Church of England and 300 Methodist churches from the maps of England - even as I type this, incredulity hums in my ears. The larger question is what happens in the future. As the worship of God vanishes from the shires of England, more and more churches will be deconsecrated: and thus they too will vanish from the maps, perhaps to be replaced in the cartographical cultural hierarchy by out-of-town shopping malls and motorway service stations.

I write this from Ireland: and I write it in some anger. Because for any visitor to England, one of the joys there is not just the landscape, but the maps by which you can read the landscape. Not merely do they lead you to where you want to go; they guide you to places and pieces of history you knew nothing of before the map told you of their existence.

Methodist churches, for example, tell you of a spirit of freedom, of the courage of poor people who were already paying tithes to the Church of England, yet were prepared to go to the expense of building a dissident church of their own. Architecturally, they are usually undistinguished: but as structural statements of independence, they tell you vast amounts. You can follow the movement of the industrial revolution through the spread of Methodist halls: a history lesson on a map.

Moreover, maps are works of art, a meeting-place of science and draughtsmanship, where precise topography meets the abstract symbol. They are not simply utilitarian street-guides: though the desire to create beauty out of the strictly utilitarian is one of the defining characteristics of the human species, from the elegant hand-napped tools of the paeleolithic to the map of the London underground.

So maps are meant to be beautiful: and of course, one facet of beauty is that, strictly speaking, it is functionally redundant. And though we cannot compel people to go to church or maintain the empty churches of England, we can compel public servants to guard the beauty that they have inherited. Ordnance Survey proposes to diminish that legacy, a priceless legacy of England: and I pray England shall have none of it.