Home > Uncategorized > Location, location – er, where was that again?

Location, location – er, where was that again?

Thursday, August 27, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Of all the national land-based mapping I’ve encountered in my travels, that produced by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain is the best. The maps are clear and you can quote a grid reference which locates a position within a 100m square, with ease. I learned all this in Geography at O-level in about 1960 and it’s still being taught for GCSE today (I just checked).

So why does apparently no-one (except the armed forces, scouts and hikers) use this system?

I tried it once, before we had postcodes, when asked for delivery instructions for something I’d bought. All I got for my trouble was the telephone equivalent of the blank uncomprehending stare which “normal” people reserve for those who are either unfashionably clever or just weird.

Of course, we now have postcodes. Having eschewed the OS grid reference for decades, the Great British Public has discovered postcodes and is obsessed with them. You can put them into your GPS unit in the car; how exciting! You could equally well put OS coordinates in, or latitude and longitude for that matter, but not many people seem to know that. The manufacturers realised quite early on that they’d have to put the entire postcode database in there, on top of the perfectly good system they already had, to enable the cartographically challenged majority to use the equipment.

Postcodes were designed to help sort letters into their proper mailbags for delivery. Therefore the number of postcodes in a given area tends to be roughly proportional to the number of people living or working there. So postcodes as navigational coordinates work well in towns but can be next to useless in the countryside. If mariners had to rely on a similar system, they’d be lost nearly all the time: 100 codes for Milford Haven might be useful; just one for the entire North Atlantic would certainly not be.

But postcodes at least do half the job. More annoying, by far, is being given “directions”, especially over the ‘phone:

“Will you be using the M6?”


“Which direction?”

“Do you mean the direction I’ll be driving in, or do you mean the direction I’ll be coming from?”


“Just tell me the nearest junction to you; I can find my way there unaided.”

“Junction 26.”

“Then where?”

“Which side will you be leaving the motorway?”

“Tell me, does your company have a map of where you are?”


“Please email it to me; I’m sure I’ll find that much easier.”

“Oh! … OK. What’s your email address?”

I’ll spare you the pain, in this imaginary conversation, of the spelling of my email address (twice) using the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet – which is something else hardly anybody knows.

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  1. Peter Bushell
    Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 18:12

    Having recently bought a “car” GPS, I’ve discovered that I can’t use the OS grid reference after all! I can, of course, with my “walking” GPS, from the same manufacturer. Still, there’s always Lat. and Long. (in three different formats). International standards prevail!

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