Road Maps

Here’s a thing: how did Jonson and his companion know the way? We’re completely reliant on signposts, maps and, increasingly, GPS, so it’s hard to imagine navigating your way between places without them. In a world before the Ordnance Survey and the A-Z, though, how could they be sure to stay on track?

Nixon, Anthony Footpost image, 1616, p1

Maps from this period don’t tend to show the roads between towns, so carrying a copy of John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain wouldn’t have been much help, even if they could have fitted one in their luggage. Early on, though, the travellers were walking along a very well trodden way indeed – the route of Roman Ermine Street, which headed north out of London making for Lincoln and then York. More use to them, however, would have been the fact that they were sticking to the post route. King James’s double reign made the maintenance of good communication links between London and Edinburgh a high priority, and he ensured that those links were kept in good order. Crucial to this was a quick and efficient way of conveying official correspondence between his two capitals, so the proper organisation of a system of local postmasters was necessary. These postmasters would have the job of ensuring that correspondence was carried up and down the road to the next post town; private travellers could make use of their knowledge of routes and distances, and of the horses they kept ready.

As this reliance on postmasters shows, and as Andrew McRae and Catherine Delano-Smith have pointed out, finding the way required the traveller to be able to make use of local knowledge. Jonson and his companion, therefore, would have been dependent on their hosts in particular localities to guide or escort them, and that’s what we see happening in the account. Usually, they’re being met or taken on their way by local dignitaries and their servants; on one occasion, it says, they hired a guide to show them the way. On occasion, they’re accompanied by perhaps more regular travellers, who might be presumed to have a working knowledge of the way.

Norden, Intended Guide, 1626

Table of distances for Hertfordshire, John Norden, Intended Guide for English Travellers (1625)

By the early seventeenth century, some people were making attempts to gather up these kinds of scattered local information in ways that would be of general use. In 1625, John Norden published his Intended Guide for English Travellers, with its innovative tables for working out distances. Much later came John Ogilby‘s famous and elegant book Britannia, which contained pages of beautiful, scroll-like maps of particular well-travelled highways, and detailed descriptions of the routes to be taken and avoided. Ogilby also introduced accurately standardised distances, rather than relying on local measures or estimates. But none of this would have been available to Jonson.

So we have to imagine his walk as a social enterprise – conducted in company, reliant for guidance and direction on his hosts and fellow travellers. In later generations, poets might wander alone through an unpeopled landscape. But in 1618, walking was a – literally, etymologically – convivial activity.

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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