Friday, September 10, 2010

From Aaron Hill to Zoffany Street

I got lost in London this week. It didn't bother me in the slightest. I wasn't late for anything, so there was no stress, just trying to catch a tube train home. I wandered away away from the area around Victoria coach station in search of Sloane Square. My sister used to live around there in the 1990s, so I thought I knew the area. But a few wrong turns and I had no idea where I was going. A few more random turns and I regained my bearings and eventually emerged near Sloane Square station, and had one of those 'I never knew that road led here' epiphanies common to anyone who does any extensive walking around the old city.

I don't carry an A-Z anymore, though I always used to and I really still should. It is a thing of beauty. It's the first thing I recommend any visitor to London should buy. Get it, put it in your bag and set off walking; then stop, pore over it, work out where you are, and set off again. It's almost impoosible to get lost, but more usefully, when you do get lost - and there is something great about being lost in London - it helps you get back on track. It also has a tube map on the back, so it really is the only thing you need.

1949 version
The person behind this wondrous creation - which rivals Harry Beck's tube map as one of essential icons of London  - was a woman named Phylis Pearsall. The story is a remarkable one. One rainy night in 1935 she set off for a dinner party in Belgravia. She couldn't find her destination and she stood, soaking wet, unable to make head nor tail of the 16-year-old map she was carrying. When she eventually arrived at her party, bedraggled and thoroughly miserable, she had decided London and its labyrinthine streets needed another kind of map: detailed, indexed, user-friendly.

I don't know about you but when I'm hacked off about something, I occasionally have bright ideas, or grumble about how something should be done about it. Then someone gives me a glass of wine and I forget about it. What I would never do is what Phylis did. She walked the length and breadth of the city and with the help of a friend and draughtsman, James Duncan. This is in the age before satellite imaging or aerial photography. It was all done on foot and by sight. It took a year. She walked 3000 miles, 18 hours a day and chronicled 23,000 streets. She get lost each and every day, but made note of where she had been, what streets she saw, and how they linked up.

Eventually she had her map. It wasn't perfect, far from it, nor was it even complete. Just before it went to press, Phylis realised she had left out Trafalgar Square. I think most writers and publishers will empathise - we've all had our Trafalgar Square moment. But eventually, there it was, the first definite map of modern London. A wonderful idea, a guaranteed bestseller. Which is why it was rejected by every publisher took it to. Undeterred, she ran off 10,000 copies and persuaded the newsagent WHSmith to take 250 of them, delivering the map to them herself in a wheelbarrow (again, as an author, here I nod sagely - we've all had our wheelbarrow moment too). Of course, when people bought it and used it, word of mouth spread, and save a period during the Second World War, when map-making was restricted, the A-Z became a success. Phylis started a company to publish it in bulk, updated and revised it, and was still working for the firm when she died aged 90 in 1996.

So, here's to getting lost. And here's to Phylis Pearsall. Google maps is all well and good, sat nav useful in certain circumstances, but the beautifully designed A-Z is indispensable, and it never runs out of power or batteries.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan I had a similar problem a few years ago at the other end of the Kings Road from Sloane Square. I had been given free tickets for Chelsea -Blackburn, and after the game left my sons in a restaurant near the ground, and decided to walk to look at my father's old shop on the King's Road. I walked and walke, mumbling that I did not think it was this far. Then I realised that it was still in the same place but it had been twenty years since I had walked from Stamford Bridge up to Edith Grove. It was my legs that had got weaker and shorter.

  2. Wonderful story and yes, I think I have had a couple of those Trafalgar Square moments.

  3. Norman, that made me chuckle. Not only do our legs shorten, but as time passes, the mind shortens distances. In my mind my sister lived around the corner from the coach station. That wasn't the case. But then I remembered back then there was always a pub or two to break up the journey...

    Thanks Dorte. Think I might blog about Trafalgar Square moments one time...

  4. Bravo for Phylis! Everyone who visits London owes her. Is it true the taxi drivers have to study this for their exam?