The British Cartographic Society

The British Cartographic Society (BCS) was formed in 1963, and since then map-making has undergone a revolution, from land survey using theodolites to digital survey using satellites. But the infrastructure for the old ways still exists and the most recent issue of Maplines, the BCS membership magazine, calls for Ordnance Survey benchmarks to be given greater protection.

Cut into stone at the base of a building, church, or bridge, benchmarks consist of a horizontal bar above an upward-facing arrow. The height above sea level of every benchmark is known, so surveyors can use this to find the elevation of any other point above or below that of the benchmark using a theodolite and a measuring rod. ‘Benchmark’ has thus entered the language to mean the standard to which something else is compared.

About half a million of these ‘lower order’ benchmarks are in existence today (another 250,000 have been lost through wartime damage, wear and tear, and building demolition or refurbishment) so protecting them all is a forlorn hope, but there are fewer than 200 fundamental benchmarks (FBMs) that could be protected. Mostly constructed in the first half of the 20th century, FBMs comprise a foot-high stone pillar, anchored to the bedrock, with a nameplate declaring it to be an ‘Ordnance Survey BM’; about half of them are surrounded by railings.

The BCS describes itself as a ‘unique forum for exchanging ideas and sharing knowledge on all aspects of maps and map-making’. The society offers a very full programme of online events, from monthly teatime talks by members on maps that have had an influence on their lives in some way – perhaps as the inspiration for their career – to three special lectures on topics like mapping the Arctic, the seabed, or caves and tunnels underground. The in-person annual conference this year will celebrate the society’s 60th birthday, and includes the presentation of a range of awards for cartographic excellence.

Working with the next generation of cartographers is a core BCS activity. Their GCSE Geography module, called ‘Restless Earth’, asks students: ‘How would you produce maps to support the aid workers in response to an earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear disaster?’ – just one example of the many ways in which geospatial knowledge plays a fundamental role in human activity.

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IMAGES: C Catling Text: C Catling
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