Real orienteering: my O-maps

Click maps for larger versions

by Graham Relf

February 2012

A few weeks ago a magazine cutting was sent to me about an archive of British O-maps being created at Sheffield University. It prompted me to dig some boxes out of the attic with a view to donating them to the archive. That stirred many memories and caused me to write this page.

At school I hated most games but I was a good cross-country runner, gaining house colours for that. I have also always been fascinated by maps, so the most natural sport for me to get involved in was orienteering.

The first orienteering event I took part in was at Dorking, Surrey in 1967 or 68. It was a score event and just about the only things I remember about it are that the heather was very thick, I fared abysmally, and the event used a poor photocopy of the Ordnance Survey map (black and white of course).

I did my first degree in London and did no sport at all during that time but then I went to St Andrews University in 1971. I immediately joined the Orienteering Club, StAUOC. I was impressed by multi-coloured maps that had been drawn by the club, a huge advance over OS map photocopies. Brian Porteous was the driving force in the club at that time and he got the rest of us involved in all aspects of the sport. We attended events quite far afield. Three of us (Brian, Grant Carstairs and I) won gold medals for the British Universities Sports Federation (BUSF) relay event in 1973, organised by Newcastle University. (I see that Brian is now a Vice-President of the International Orienteering Federation.)

Me, Brian Porteous and Grant Carstairs with awards, 1973

Brian drew his first map in 1972 and that inspired me to start mapping. Further inspiration came from Gordon Petrie at Glasgow University. Gordon was behind the JK73 maps at The Trossachs which I remember caused a great stir for their first deliberate use of quite striking graphical design. I attended a 3-day cartography course in the Geography Department at Glasgow in September 1973, given by Gordon and his colleague John Keates. The course introduced me to two techniques of which I had been entirely unaware: photogrammetry and scribing.

[ Photogrammetry is a process for determining the contours from pairs of overlapping aerial photos. Machines plotted the contours while an operator moved a spot of light seemingly along the ground in the 3-dimensional model seen stereoscopically. The ability to create contour maps like this freed us from reliance on the Ordnance Survey for the base maps we used for our ground surveys. I expect that photogrammetry machines are much more automated now, less reliant on an operator.

Scribing refers to drawing the colour-separated sheets for printing by using special tools to cut red films coated on plastic. This directly produces negative images that can be contact-printed onto lithographic plates, rather than drawing positives with pens which have to go through a more complex photographic process, particularly to combine all the components for each colour. O-maps used 5 colours (perhaps they still do): black, brown, blue, yellow, green. Both the scribing process and the earlier pen and ink method will I am sure have been made obsolete by computer graphics now. ]

I was then equipped to create my first map using the novel scribing techniques, of Norman's Law in Fife. That was the venue for StAUOC's Badge Event in Spring 1974.

Meanwhile the summer of 1973 was also memorable for me because I went with the British Orienteering Federation (BOF) group, led by Tony and Jo Thornley, to the 5-Tage OL in Switzerland. We spent a week training at Beinwil am See before moving near Berne which was the centre for the 5 days of races. I still have the maps and computerised results (another novelty in those days). The Swiss maps were all excellent in their design, draughtsmanship, clarity and consistency. They set a very high standard for me to aspire to with my maps.

In the spring and summer of 1974 I mapped Craig a'Barns Wood at Dunkeld for the 1975 Scottish Championships. I created a very detailed map but it was criticised for being too detailed. It is pleasing to see, in a recent browse on the web, that that map is still referrred to in discussions about how much detail should be shown on O-maps, and not just in negative terms. I have also noticed that the area will be used again in 2012 for the JK individual event on 8th April. It has been remapped several times since my effort.

In October 1974 I moved to Newcastle and joined Kenton Kanterers (later we changed the name to Tyneside Orienteers and now I see it is Newcastle And Tyneside Orienteers, NATO). Clarissa Napier had been an important mapper in the club but I was immediately asked to remap Thrunton Wood for the Northern Championships 1975. Time was short so we had to get the whole club involved in the surveying. Gordon Petrie helped again by persuading Ian Newton and John Knipe in the Geography Department at Newcastle University to make a photogrammetric base map very quickly for us.

With the Thrunton map I established my personal style with a green border. The thick part at the top was intended to help runners see which edge was north when the map was folded up. Nowadays it looks very reminiscent of window frames on computer screens but Apple did not even start developing the first computer that used that kind of user interface (the Lisa) until 1978, so perhaps I should have patented my design.

So I ended up drawing the maps for two of the 1975 regional championships.

The summer of 1976 was memorable for me for many things, not the least of which was being awarded the Chichester Trophy, principally for my Craig a'Barns map.

The Chichester Trophy, the compass from Gypsy Moth IV

Also in 1976 the World Championships were held in Britain for the first time. My main contribution to that was to map one of the training areas, Alvie, a few miles south of Aviemore.

For Tyneside Orienteers I went on to map, for a night event, a large open area close to the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne called the Town Moor.

Then for the Northern Championships in 1978 I remapped Slaley Forest, south of Hexham.

In 1980 a group of us from the North East Orienteering Association (NEOA) went to the Lake District for a weekend as a mapping course, creating a map for North Tyneside Council's outdoor education centre at High Borrans, near Windermere.

I made the British Championships map for 1981, of Dipton Wood, Hexham. This is the map with which I am most satisfied because, having done all the surveying myself, I know that it is consistent across the whole area.

In 1983 I did something rather different: a computer simulation of orienteering. That was written in Z80 assembly code and ran on the Sinclair Spectrum in a mere 48 kilobytes! I drew a map to the usual standard and it was packaged and sold by Phipps Associates as "The Forest". It is still available from Retrogames who describe it as "Mega rare"!

The Forest was received well by orienteers and particularly by those who were also teachers. Here is a link to an article about The Forest that I wrote c.1985.

My final map was for the most prestigious annual event in the British orienteering calendar: the Jan Kjellström Trophy weekend. My map was for the 1985 events at Kyloe in Northumberland, near Lindisfarne. In drawing the JK map I made a bad decision to use the official international O-map symbols rather than BOF's approved ones and that again caused adverse criticism.

Kyloe was my last map and I gradually ceased orienteering after that, as I turned to other interests.

Map title
Scale &
contour interval
Size1, cmFirst usedLocation
Alvie1:15,000, 7.5m20.4x17.0World Championships Training Area
22 - 26 Sep 1976
4 km S of Aviemore
Craig a'Barns Wood1:10,000, 10m22.3x34.4Scottish Championships
4 May 1975
1km N of Dunkeld
Dipton Wood & Duke's House1:15,000, 5m28.2x34.4British Championships
May 1981
SE from Hexham
High Borrans1:10,000, 5m21.5x25.319805km NE of Windermere
Kyloe1:15,000, 5m31.6x33.3Jan Kjellström Weekend
5 - 8 Apr 1985
12km S of Berwick
Newcastle Town Moor1:15,000, 2.5m19.6x22.3Tyneside Orienteers Night Event
NW from Newcastle City Centre
Norman's Law1:10:000, 25ft (7.6m)34.0x25.1StAUOC Badge Event
24 Feb 1974
6km NW of Cupar, Fife
Slaley Forest1:20,000, 5m23.0x21.8Northern Championships
Sep 1978
10km S of Hexham
The Forest1:10,000, 5m18.9x27.61983Early microcomputers
Thrunton Wood1:15,000, 25ft (7.6m)22.3x24.8Northern Championships
21 Sep 1975
10km W of Alnwick

Note 1: dimensions are to the outer edges of the printed border, not the sheet.

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