Page last updated at 08:43 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Mapping the history of Britain

Ordnance Survey map from 1801
Part of the first Ordnance Survey map, of Kent, from 1801

Rachel Hewitt, a research fellow at the University of Glamorgan Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, has won the Royal Society of Literature's £10,000 Jerwood Prize for non-fiction.

One of four winners, she explains the research which earned her the main prize for her history of the Ordnance Survey, Map of a Nation, which will be published in 2010.

Today the Ordnance Survey - Britain's national mapping agency - virtually monopolises the provision of geographical data to the police, fire service, industry, government, schools, military, and to its walkers.

Some 300 surveyors are aided by state-of-the-art equipment: laser-driven theodolite total stations, hand-held pen computers, GPS receiving apparatus, and digital aerial photography.

Rachel Hewitt

The story of its birth and progress is therefore a story of the history and identity of the United Kingdom and its landscape
Rachel Hewitt on the Ordnance Survey

Modern OS data reaches its consumers via a vast digital database - the OS MasterMap - which is updated 5,000 times a day, every day.

But the Ordnance Survey did not originate in this 20th Century information revolution.

Founded in 1791, it was the product of a very different type of revolution: the French Revolution and its threat to England's south coast.

A military survey became essential, and the Ordnance Survey was born.

It was also a revolution in itself. The OS was the very first complete, accurate map of the British Isles conducted on a uniform scale. The story of its birth and progress is therefore a story of the history and identity of the United Kingdom and its landscape.

The Ordnance Survey holds a central place in the daily lives of British citizens. Our relationship with the landscape has been mediated through its products for more than 200 years.

Its name fondly conjures up mental images of long hikes across Britain's most spectacular regions.

An Ordnance Surveyor
An early surveyor

British writers found themselves enamoured with Ordnance Survey maps from the start. William Wordsworth befriended the early surveyors; Jane Austen adored the sense of order that the maps gave to the nation in an otherwise disorderly, revolutionary period; and, more recently, Brian Friel has considered the OS's Irish map to encapsulate the brutal, imperial nature of England's rule.

I am writing a 'biography' of this iconic national institution.

Map of a Nation will tell the history of British national identity through the Ordnance Survey maps that traced its landscape.

The 18th and 19th Centuries were periods of immense political turmoil and change - change which transformed the face of the nation, and which the Ordnance Survey did its best to chart.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the most revealing moments in the book's research have happened when I have escaped enclosed, dusty libraries and archives, to get outside, into that landscape.

A late 18th Century geographer commented that 'geography is one of the eyes of history.'

I have certainly found Britain's scenery and its maps to be eloquent witnesses to the passing of time.

Panoramic views are especially articulate.

Black Combe in the Lake District
Black Combe was shrouded in mist during a visit

The Hoober Stand monument, near Rotherham, offers a 360º prospect of the rolling Wentworth Hills. Constructed to mark the defeat of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the prospect granted from Hoober Stand's summit was considered to epitomise the sheer extent of the Hanoverian victors' visionary power.

The mountain of Black Combe, in the southern Lake District, was said by Wordsworth to grant 'a more extensive view than any other point in Britain'.

He described the mountain in a highly patriotic poem, which imagined an early Ordnance surveyor being treated to a panoramic vision of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales: a 'revelation infinite' of a seamlessly united kingdom and of 'Britain's calm felicity and power!'.

Sadly, when I visited Black Combe, it was so deeply shrouded in mist that I could barely see my hand, let alone a vast national vista.

Ironically for an institution that charts Britain's time and space, the Ordnance Survey's own early history is not perfectly mapped.

There has been room, in my research, for significant and satisfying archival discoveries. During a glorious summer in Edinburgh, spent researching the Ordnance Survey's precursor - a Military Survey of Scotland, conducted in the wake of the 1745 Rebellion - an old map came to light in the archives of the illustrious Dundas dynasty, at their Midlothian mansion.

Last mentioned in print in 1887, the rediscovery of this map revealed fascinating information about the Military Survey's motives.

More recently still, documents pertaining to the OS's founder, William Roy, were found in a bricked-up fireplace at his last home, on Argyll Street, behind London's Oxford Circus.

Writing the Ordnance Survey's biography is a wonderful process of ongoing exploration and discovery: of the nation's geography, of its history, and of the maps that encapsulate the two.

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