Look inside London: a life in maps

PUBLISHED: 14:26 24 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:26 24 February 2017

Discover the story behind the maps of London

Discover the story behind the maps of London

The British Library

A new edition of Peter Whitfield’s capital cartography compendium includes plenty of fascinating anecdotes about Hampstead

London: A Life in Maps by Peter Whitfield, £14.99, The British LibraryLondon: A Life in Maps by Peter Whitfield, £14.99, The British Library

This new edition of Peter Whitfield’s London: A Life in Maps beautifully repackages what was originally a companion to the 2006 British Library Exhibition of the same name. An addendum covering the Olympic Village and the King’s Cross development brings it as up to date as any book on a constantly changing city can be.

Cartophiles, history buffs and casual fact fans alike will find much to interest and amuse in this book. The new design is thoughtfully laid out with plenty of space for the hundreds of maps realised in high definition.

Pouring over them would be diverting enough, but Whitfield’s accompanying text is an enlivening romp through London’s past and into its present.

Deftly divided chapters and subheadings allow the casual reader to dip in and out, whilst those reading cover to cover will appreciate the visual markers that allow you to pick up where you left off to give an illustration a closer look.

Illuminated manuscripts show some of the earliest depictions of London's geographyIlluminated manuscripts show some of the earliest depictions of London's geography

There’s no need to worry about map fatigue here. Whitfield’s work weaves together art and cartography, mapping very human stories on to its pages.

For a city in constant flux Whitfield takes a wry amusement in the fact that some things never change. Problems of immigration, housing supply, deep wealth divisions and the scourge of rapacious property developers are a constant refrain down the centuries since the ink on the first map of London dried.

The birth of the London property market is just one of the many fascinating stories Whitfield finds by scratching beneath the surface of the maps.

The facts of Henry VIII and the break with Rome is standard History textbook fare. Using reformation era maps of London, Whitfield illustrates how the dissolution of the monasteries and the divvying up of Church land birthed the London property market, as the King’s favoured aristocrats found themselves suddenly in possession of valuable land to sell on. Hampstead might never have become part of London proper had Westminster Abbey not been relieved of its land.

A map from 1898 shows tboundary of the London County Council's jurisdiction and the boundaries of the 'Sanitary Districts and Parishes'A map from 1898 shows tboundary of the London County Council's jurisdiction and the boundaries of the 'Sanitary Districts and Parishes'

Interesting tales and funny anecdotes about Hampstead and Highgate pepper Whitfield’s lively romp through hundreds of years of history and well over a hundred full colour images of maps.

Today it is a pretty big stretch to describe the postcodes of NW3 and NW6 as village-like in anything but the faint hangover of history.

Villages are, by very definition, small and separate and as London broke its bounds the once isolated settlements of Hampstead and Highgate were swallowed up by the great city, becoming one of what Whitfield describes as ‘fashionable suburbs’.

Prior to the 19th century the local area was notable mainly for the accident of its topography. Whitfield notes that the higher ground to the north of the City of London made it an attractive (if misguided) refuge in times of turmoil, notably during plagues and apocalypse scares.

The Great Fire of London changed the face of the city foreverThe Great Fire of London changed the face of the city forever

When Hampstead’s hot springs became suddenly fashionable in the 1860s, the area rapidly transformed into what Whitfield archly describes as a ‘cockney Bath’, the spa quickly attracting the wrong sort of crowd.

When the scurrilous Belsize Pleasure Gardens were paved over in the mid-1800s and refined houses erected in their place the area began to attract a more cerebral set, with famous residents such as Blake, Keats, Constable, Lawrence and Freud name checked by Whitfield as responsible for the reputation for bohemian intellectuals and artists that still endures today.

The Heath gets a certain amount of airtime too, its shape forged by near-collisions with blockbuster historical events.

In 1856 what could be called the first Battle for the Heath commenced, as Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson attempted to enclose his land. When the Metropolitan Board of Works attempted to purchase the land for public use the avaricious aristo valued it at £5,000 an acre.

John Nash's plans for Regency London were daring and disruptiveJohn Nash's plans for Regency London were daring and disruptive

Luckily, after his death 13 years later, his brother accepted a mere £45,000 to relinquish the rights and the Heath was handed over. In 1888 Parliament Hill Fields was added to preserve the hilltop views and create ‘the most convincing illusion ever created of real country brought to the heart of a vast city’.

The Heath had another near miss around this date when the Railways arrived. A Deus ex Machina for much of London, which was sinking under the weight of overpopulation, the Heath lay right in the path of progress. It was only the presence of mind of the rapidly formed Commons Preservation Society that saved it from the steam engine.

The drumbeat of the unstoppable march of progress underscores Whitfield’s whistlestop tour of the mapped capital.

In his new chapter on King’s Cross development the author looks towards the future of London with a conflicted mix of hopefulness and scepticism.

Early maps of the London Underground looked quite different from the neat and simple version we use todayEarly maps of the London Underground looked quite different from the neat and simple version we use today

London, he reckons in his closing argument, is a contradiction, ‘no more easy, or agreeable, or pleasant than it ever was. It is impossible to cover and impossible to leave ungoverned’.

The city only conforms to three tenants. It is unpredictable in its capacity for change, at its core a machine to make money and show it off with architectural flair, and above all permanent in its impermanence.

Whitfield doesn’t set much score by what he deems the failed experiments of the Modernist estates of the post-war period, but it is his words on the lessons learned by the failures of architects to plan for human nature that perhaps sum up the overarching message of this treatise most succinctly.

Town planners, he claims, learned that ‘the city did not consist of buildings alone, but of the spaces and the lines between them’.

A book of maps could easily be a dry and dusty tome but Whitfield’s eye for an interesting anecdote and a sound narrative structure allows him to extract so much from his source material, injecting dynamism into the two dimensional renderings of the city and realising the vast scale of the teeming humanity that lived, lives and will live in this palimpsest city.

London: A Life in Maps, by Peter Whitfield, £14.99, The British Library

New edition published Februry 23

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