Friday, 20 May 2016

As Seen from Space

I mentioned in the comments to a previous post that I had downloaded a high-resolution satellite image from Google Earth Pro of the area explored in my recent book England and Nowhere. I had originally planned to include it in the book, primarily as a way of showing how closely interconnected the various landscape elements are, but in the end it seemed both superfluous and distracting, and I left it out. Here it is:

          1: St. Catherine's Hill
          2: M3 motorway (Twyford Down cutting)
          3: Twyford Down
          4. Hockley Viaduct
          5. Itchen water meadows
          6a-c: River Itchen and Itchen Navigation canal
North is at the top. The area covered by the image is roughly five square kilometers (two square miles). Winchester lies immediately to the north.  The large building to the west of St. Catherine's Hill is the St. Cross Hospital, the terminus of the "Keats Walk". If you park in the lay-by next to the viaduct, it takes no more than an hour or two to complete any number of pleasant circular walks, even at the annoying stop-start pace we might call a "photographer's dawdle". Note the handy pedestrian bridge over the motorway between the hill and Twyford Down, and the tunnel beneath the motorway between the viaduct and the southern stretch of the Itchen. There is nowhere that cannot be connected to anywhere else, on either side of the road.

Obviously, satellite imagery tends to flatten out topography.  For example, you get little sense of the depth of the valley between St. Catherine's Hill and the motorway, with its very steep rise up to the left-hand side of the cliff-like cutting. Also, from space Twyford Down looks like a flat field; it's hard to imagine the exhilarating sense of elevation you experience when walking on that rolling high ground. What you do see, however, is the way everything diverges and re-converges as it flows around the hill, like a rock in a stream. Or perhaps like a gigantic green eye, gazing back at the satellite.

In fact, the main road into Winchester used to run along the west flank of the hill, tight alongside both the canal and the old railway line that crossed the river on the viaduct. The only way to really understand how entangled it all once was is to use a very large-scale pre-War Ordnance Survey map. Or, better still, an online service like that provided by the National Library of Scotland, which enables you to view and compare OS maps of different scales and vintages. A good map makes all the difference: is there anything more intriguing than seeing words in close proximity on a map like "Plague Pits", "Ancient Fields", "Roman Road", and "Earthworks"? Not to mention "Sludge Beds", or "Sewage Farm"?


Anonymous said...

I agree that the satellite picture wouldn't have added a lot to the book, since it is more about the layered nature of the English landscape in general and not so much about the place in particular (at least if I got the preface right). On the other hand, the linked map (National Library of Scotland) could have been of interest, perhaps matched against a contemporary map. This would make the history visible - human artifacts which have vanished (e.g. "Camp" on St. Catherine's Hill - a hillfort, I assume?), and features which have been preserved like traffic routes. The M3 seems to follow the railroad which is next to River Itchen - here one has the history of transport infrastructure. Also, there seems to be a road on the satellite picture which follows the course of the roman road on the map.

Recently I came across an example where a satellite map actually makes sense. I bought "Streaming South" by Doug Eng, which is about exploration of the swamps in Florida by canoeing. When one looks at the pictures, one gets the impression of a pristine wilderness; but a satellite map in the book shows that those swamps are embedded into a rather urban area (Jacksonville), and the locations of the canoe landing spots are marked. This gives a sense of place, but this is a book about this particular place.

Best, Thomas

Zouk Delors said...

Where is Swampy's tree?

Mike C. said...


Somewhere near Newbury, if memory serves? So, north a bit, left, and about 25 miles up the A34...