What has Brentford Ikea, Primrose Hill and Hendon Motorway Services in common?
If I were to ask you this question you might reply that they have very little in common, except that they are all places in London. Boil a shop, a park and a service station down to the very simplest of notions and you may say, at least I can mark them all on a map. They are landmarks of a sort. For me they are new venues on my mental map of London that a few weeks ago seemed insignificant and now seem fundamental.
The mental maps we have of our home place is built up over years of use. Sometimes it undergoes transformation, and that transformation is happening to me right now.
I love maps and in fact have created one or two of my own. I once drew a map of architectural masterpieces in my own area. I turned it into a pamphlet and would conduct a walk around the area once a year. I have a couple of Pinterest boards too that are linked to maps. One of my boards documents the location of vegetable gardens and potagers that are open to public viewing. This map is a world map, though because I rarely venture out of Europe these days, the map is definitely Europe-centric.
Points on a map can lead us to make all sorts of connections, not all of them real. The famous London Underground Map of 1933, drawn (not really designed) by Harry Beck was a breakthrough for transport maps, because it relates station to stations in an ordered and stylised way. Stops may not be as regularly placed as the map suggests, lines may in fact waver this way and that, but Beck translated London into an Art Deco version of order, straight lines and dynamic diagonals. Ever since this map was drawn, ever since you kept it in your handbag or wallet, you have been laboring under Harry Beck’s illusion. In reality London is nothing like the shape of the tube map. The stations are not equidistance. The lines don’t follow such regular patterns. Regents Park Station is depicted equidistant between Baker Street (a slog) and Great Portland Street ( practically next door). Borough Station seems remote from the river and The City, yet it is far closer than the map would indicate. perhaps that is why Borough took so long to become gentrified. City slickers believed the underground map to be a true replica of the proximities above ground.
Kevin Lynch, the Californian Urban Planner discovered that everyone’s metal map is different. A trucker would describe his city in terms of the truck stops and gas stations. An elderly lady might locate herself by proximity to churches and the tea shops. Children use schools and their friends’ homes as markers. Planners and Architects use ‘landmarks’ to which the public may be completely blind. I’m sure it is one of the reasons why our cities never seem to work out as we plan them. We are all seeing different landmarks, with different eyes.
The map is decoded in that deep, elemental part of our brains called the hippocampus. Research students at University College London discovered that cab drivers develop an enlarged hippocampus as they revise for the knowledge, the mapping exam that they all have to pass before they are allowed to trade. Really experienced cabbies have a really large hippocampus. That part of the brain that can remember maps is our old brain. It is the emotional, frivolous and cussed part of us. It is the same part of the brain that we use for memory and emotion. We use the hippocampus to extract meaning from the cacophony of information we receive, whether it is locational information, audible instructions or those mysterious expressions that appear on the map of our faces and can register disgust, happiness, disapproval or dismay. So in spite of their seeming to be practical things, maps it turns out are rather emotive.
My brain is undergoing one of those transformation because we’ve just taken delivery of an electric car. I’m suddenly trying to get to grips with the location of charging points. Brentford Ikea and Primrose Hill both have good fast charging points. It is rumored that Hendon Services has a super-fast charging point, though I haven’t tried it yet. I’m pretty sure that these new landmarks will change my mental map of London and with it will change our family habits. We are already taking Rosa for walks on Primrose Hill instead of Regents Park. Last weekend we took a trip via Harrow Waitrose in order to charge the car en route and, of course, we did our shopping there.
I’m not sure that Ikea and Harrow Waitrose are the most beautiful parts of the metropolis, but I’m finding myself intrigued by the transformation that my changing mental map is producing. It is said that we don’t like change, which is one of the reasons that we hang on to our mental maps so valiantly, but I’m quite happy to be levered out of my old groove and forced to consider mew byways in my brain and in my city. Who knows where it might lead.