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The A to Z of London

Wayfinding my way through the streets of London


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.

Narrow London

Narrow London

Traffic in Islington on the Cally Road

Traffic in Islington on the Cally Road

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.

Little and Big A to Zs

Little and Big A to Zs

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).

London's Twisty Streets

London's Twisty Streets

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 New Maps

The New Maps

..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.

Posted by GregW 01:20 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged books migration_experiences

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<a href="http://eurobooker.eu/">thanks for this article.</a>

by eurobookereu

I am so glad I came across this post!! Thank you so much. My grandson and I are planning our 2nd backpacking trip to Europe and London will most likely be our first stop as he really wants to see the British Museum of History. I had never heard of the "AZ"! Like you say, it does make great sense, but I would have walked out of the local shop as well. My mind would have been set on acquiring a "map". Great information! Thanks again. Oh, in case you might be interested my grandson and I just completed a 67-day backpacking trip to Europe. Our itinerary is on "our" website http://www.backpackingtips101.com. It is the blog "Planning a Backpacking Trip, Part 2". Let me know what you think of the itinerary. Thanks again for your very informative post!

by deandoit1947

gr8 ! i never been to london. and that A to Z maps thing thanks for sharing , when i visit i'll first buy the Ato Z maps.:)

Mobile Applications Development

by Magostech

Interesting post... it is worth sharing... I had planned to spend my weekend in Quebec City and to stay in Hotel-Le-President of Sherbrooke as my friend recommended it.

by isabelleitsme39

There are other maps publisher such as www.vandam.com or www.terramaps.org
They are designed with graphic and editorial viewpoint, not just streets names

by denizenlounge

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