Wayfinding my way through the streets of London
21.07.2012 - 21.07.2012
When I first arrived in London, I got lost.
London's street layout has not changed much since the medieval era. They twist and turn, and there are many narrow little walkways and alleys to go down. I'd start out walking down a street, thinking I am heading east, and wind up heading off to the north, coming out somewhere completely unexpected.
Now getting lost in a new city is good fun, but if you are trying to make a life there, and get to appointments like job interviews or medical appointments, trying to find your way through the new streets in the quickest and fastest way possible without getting lost becomes important.
"I need a map," I said to myself.
I went into a local shop and said I wanted a map of London.
"Do you want a map, or an A to Z?" the clerk asked.
I had no idea what he was taking about. "A map," I replied.
"We only have A to Zs," he said.
I shrugged and walked out. It was only later the same day when I was in another book store, looking up at the London section, that I realized what an A to Z was.
The A to Z (or in its written form, AZ) is a street atlas, in a booklet form. Back home in Toronto, we would have just called it a map, but here it goes by the name AZ.
AZ (that's A to Zed, my American friends) was a creation of the AZ map company, designed by Phyllis Pearsall. Back in the 1930s, Phyllis walked London street by street to create the first AZ, and named the map after the index at the back, an alphabetic list of every street in the capital. It, of course, seems completely and totally logical that something like this should exist, but back then it was a revolution.
The AZ took off, so much so that the description "A to Z" has come to mean any booklet form map. I own two AZs, though they are actually Philip's Street Atlases. I have a pocket sized one that I could carry around with me when I was out on the streets, and a larger one that sits at home on a shelf to be consulted in the comfort of my abode.
I used to carry the mini one around with me constantly, and would often consult it. Unlike in Toronto (whose streets are an understandable and easily navigated grid), where someone with a map out would be pegged as a tourist immediately, here in London the long time Londoner would take no shame in pulling out their AZ. All those windy streets, changing names every mile, with lots of little streets off them that run for only a few hundred yards. No one could really know it all (except the cab drivers, who must obtain "The Knowledge" (an understanding of where every street in London is) before being allowed behind the wheel of a black cab).
The AZ is such an institution, it inspires its fans. James May is a fan, as is Ham over at the London Daily Photo. The iconic east London blogger, The Diamond Geezer, has a whole series of A to Z posts, looking at the museums in the capital.
But the AZ is slowly disappearing. I stopped carrying my mini one around, and very rarely pull out the big one at home. It's been replaced, at home by the endlessly fascinating Google Maps, and out on the streets...
..the smart phone with GPS enabled. No longer do I pull out my AZ and then go through the process of staring at the street signs trying to place myself in the map. Instead, I pull out my phone, click on the "map" app, and wait while it "locates satellites." (Has it ever thought of looking up? The sky is full of them.)
The physical AZ still does have a soft spot in my heart, even if it doesn't have a place in my pocket when I head out into the streets of London. Getting my first one, and pouring over it trying to learn my new city will always be a key part of my becoming a Londoner.