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Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
GRID SQUARE EYED

The dubious distinction of the blankest grid square on an OS map recently went to a spot near Scunthorpe but Dave Hewitt and others with a long standing obsession in such matters feel Scotland too has a few worthy contenders - maps at the ready!


Never mind Naipaul and the Nobel, Carey and the Booker. Surely the most interesting prize awarded these past few weeks has gone to SE8322 and the citation might well have read, "For nothing much".

Now before you think there's been some weird keyboard glitch here, or that I've starting writing in machine code rather than English that does indeed say SE8322. And it doesn't refer to some Star Wars-esque robot, nor some brain-addling social security form. It's part of a map, the grid reference of a square kilometre on Landranger sheet 112 near Scunthorpe, to be precise. SE8322 is in the news because the Ordnance Survey has just decreed that it surpasses in emptiness all other 250,000 or so grid squares on the 204 Landranger sheets.

Actually, there has been an official citation, sort of. The BBC website has a piece on SE8322 (read it here) and this features an OS spokesman named Philip Round. "We're not saying it's the dullest place in Britain," he is quoted as saying. "It might be the most fascinating place on Earth but on our Landranger maps it has the least amount of information. No ditches, streams or buildings in it are shown on this particular scale of map. That's quite some going, considering the low-lying areas of East Anglia and remote parts of Scotland."

So, what does SE8322 actually look like? The easiest way to discover this is either to visit one of the online versions (on the OS site or via the wonderful www.streetmap.co.uk ), or buy the actual hard-copy map. Do this and you'll see that SE8322 is by no means totally empty. It contains both a "real" feature - a 300-metre stretch of power lines - and an invisible one - the bottom part of the word "Ousefleet". Or, to be strictly accurate, the bottom of "sefleet". The "Ou" bit lurks across in squares SE8222 and SE8223.

SE8322 is farmland, not surprisingly and is owned by Tom and Avril Ella, who have doubtless been more than a little surprised by their 15 minutes - and million square metres - of fame. "Apart from the crops and the occasional bird," the Ellas said, "there has never been anything of great interest here." Fair enough.

We are talking, after all, about the part of the country which prompted Philip Larkin to produce his perfect summing-up of flat east-coast featurelessness, "...thence, The river's level drifting breadth began, Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet." These lines - from The Whitsun Weddings - work beyond Humberside, too. I can never pass through Forth-side villages such as Airth or Skinflats without thinking of Larkin's great poem, especially on grey winter days when the rainclouds touch river level.



Why, you might wonder, has there been this sudden flurry of interest in such mundane matters? It hasn't, after all, been a quiet news period. Well, the OS is probably trying to smokescreen its latest wave of price increases (more on which shortly), while the BBC's interest is effectively self-generated, as the subject of boring grid squares came up on John Peel's Home Truths programme on Radio 4 a few weeks ago.

A listener named Phil Striplin kick-started the search and before long the station's switchboard and email server were being deluged (well, drip-fed) with contenders in a country-wide hunt for the Holy Grail of cartography - the completely featureless square kilometre, the place with absolutely nothing going for it, the genuine blank on the map.

The Peel site - which should really be called Peel Acres but which actually goes by the machine-code-ish name of www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hometruths/emptymapsquares.shtml - provides some interesting specimens. Darren Monckton, for instance, came up with a good Scottish example, square NY0569 near Annan on Landranger 85. Like SE8322, NY0569 lacks any 10-metre contours and contains only the Black Grain burn along with the name Longbridge Muir and a few other letters. Rachel Jones suggested square SH5634 from the west-Wales sheet 124, a genuine sea level square with just the words Nature Reserve plus - and this is what ruins it - two large intrusions of yellow-brown sand dunes.

Actually, my own favourite square in the whole of the UK is only slightly further north of here, SH5839, a very strange affair featuring a snippet of river, a railway line and a very lonely-looking 2m spot height. It's a thing of considerable cartographic beauty and when down in Porthmadog last week my lodgings proved perfect for gazing out over its sublime emptiness.

Another of the Home Truths entries came from David Machin, who suggested the eventual "winner", SE8322. He should really get some kind of prize for this, ideally a complete set of Landrangers from the OS but I bet they give him bugger all even though he's effectively instigated a few thousand pounds' worth of free advertising for the national mapping agency.

Now it could be asked, not unreasonably, why I'm bothering to relate all this arcane information. After all, the foregoing is really just a round-up of various aspects of a pitifully small news story. Well, the reason I've come over all grid-square-eyed is because I'm protective of this whole palaver, as the question of empty, or "boring", or "white" grid squares first came up late in 1992, when a considerable amount of gleefully serious research into the subject was published in the Scottish hillzine The Angry Corrie, aka TAC.

As founding editor of TAC (currently on its 51st issue and viewable online here), I really must take this opportunity to defend my corner - all four corners in fact - and claim squatters' rights on the issue of empty grid squares.

Dusting off my back issues (a complete run of which has, curiously, become something of a collector's item), I find myself looking at pages 10 and 11 of TAC10, the cover of which proclaimed itself to be "Scotland's Deranged Hillwalker's Fanzine". Happily deranged, as well, the final chunk of this particular double-page spread was occupied by critical analysis of Iggy Pop's track Home, in which the Iggster sang, "Who's gonna love you when the mountain gets steep? We're gonna make it - in a jeep!"

This was - and still is - typical TAC fodder, as was the piece which occupied the bulk of that same spread. It took the form of a letter, written by John Biggar of Kirkcudbright (the man who founded the Andes trekking firm), in which he claimed to have found "the ultimate solution to the bagging craze". This, he claimed, would divert the cagouled masses "from the overcrowded mountains to the remotest corners of the land." It would also "cure many of the less obsessed by its utter lack of interest".

What Biggar was proposing, of course, was the locating - and subsequent visiting - of the least interesting kilometre squares in all OS-dom. Well, not quite all OS-dom - his initial list stopped at the border, so only the 85 Landranger maps which feature Scotland came into play.

Like any good compiler, Biggar quickly defined a set of rules by which the dullness of any square should be determined. Never mind a Turing test, this was a Boring test. Firstly, "boundaries and names etc" were not to be counted. Then any chunk of forest would be counted according to its number of edges - in other words a dogleg of forest would score two. Contours and streams were to score a point each time they crossed the grid square boundary. And, finally, no squares with a high water mark were to be included, nor any that consisted predominantly of inland water.

There were, Biggar reckoned, 166 Scottish squares with fewer than five features, 110 of them in Caithness. Only one square had a single feature however - the aforementioned NY0569, west of Annan. Actually, looking at this again eight years on, it should really have been credited with two features, not one, according to Biggar's rules. Although the burn ran very close to the square's edge, it did cross it twice. Having said that, though, the Dumfriesshire burn is undoubtedly shorter than the Lincolnshire powerline and there is a strong case to be made for this and not SE8322, acquiring the OS laurels. Only the overload of letters seems to have swung it - and these, as Biggar noted, shouldn't really count.

Biggar listed various other near-blank squares, eg NC9851 on sheet 11 in Caithness (a giddy 180m contour and some moss) along with a whole boring bunch on the overlap of sheets 11 and 12: ND1648, ND2756 and ND1846 (each with one burn and one contour), ND1545 (two contours), ND1044 and ND2149 (each with a contour and some boggy stuff). Then there is NY0469 on sheet 84, which borders the "one-feature" square and contains a large chunk of straight-edged forestry. This in turn raises the curious possibility that the dullest square of all, at least by Biggar's rules, could be totally green rather than white.

TAC10 also presaged Home Truths by turning all this into a competition. A sweatshirt was on offer for whoever correctly identified a selection of ten Scottish squares. This was duly won by Alan Dawson, subsequently better known for compiling lists of hills such as Marilyns and Grahams and a regular contributor to TAC from that day to this.

In TAC12, in the spring of 1993, Dawson was to write that Biggar's quiz "was by far the most exciting competition I've ever won. Well worth spending 42.50 on maps in order to win a ten-quid sweatshirt." In fact the blank-squares competition had such an effect on Dawson that he started writing under the tribute name of "Alan Blanco" and various readers remain confused as to whether the list-compiler Dawson and the magazine ranter Blanco are one and the same. Be assured, they are.

Dawson/Blanco extended his own horizons to the whole of the UK and duly spotted the fabled SE8322 and the "tantalisingly close" TA1252 on sheet 107 (a single wiggly 10m contour). He went on to discuss the curious status of the sand-duned SH5634 rediscovered by Rachel Jones, suggesting that "perhaps some Welsh reader could go and shovel the stupid sand out of the way to leave the ground looking nice and white". Well, Rachel, if you've got a spare hour or two...

Something should also be said about topographical flux. Just because a grid square is currently empty, or near-empty, doesn't mean it always has been. There was an interesting letter in the Guardian on 17 October from Norman Bailey of Essex who pointed out that in 1960, the era of the seventh-series one-inch maps, what we now know as SE8322 showed a track running north-south "into the middle of the square".

So step forward A5971, another seventh-series square on the now defunct sheet 28, Great Driffield and Bridlington. This, according to Alan Bowring in TAC14, "is as blank as you'll find. I suspect however that a contour intrudes fractions of a millimetre into the southeast corner." So maybe the hallowed ground shifts over time. Maybe it's a moving target. It's an oddly imprecise art, this grid-square bashing.

That's all theory, though. There is, ultimately, the practical question of what to do with a boring square - how to bag it, no less. I must confess to having thought about this before and reckon the most sensible method (and I use the word "sensible" in relative terms) is to visit a significant feature or landmark within the invisible kilometre. The other logical method would be to traipse to the dead centre of the square but this could be an unsatisfactory puddle or gorse bush and anyway it could be hard to pinpoint without recourse to a larger-scale (and hence less boring) version of the map.

I've only knowingly bagged one square as such, some years ago on the way back from a proper hill walk in the Borders with Alan Blanco. We parked into a layby on the south side of the Pentlands and strode manfully out into the wilderness that is NT1955 on sheet 72. This - Auchencorth Moss - was one of John Biggar's original selection of ten squares for his quiz and it features a sliver of burn, a county boundary and crucially, a trig point. To quote Larkin again, "There we were aimed".

It wasn't the most thrilling of outings but I think both Alan and I remain glad we did it.

Dave Hewitt
19/10/2001
 
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