We were trudging along a path through a farm field. It was beautiful. It was a gloriously spring sunny day, the perfect for a walk in rural Dorset. Our goal for the day was to walk to Melbury Hill, and for most of the walk, it was something we could see ourselves walking towards. We could no longer see the hill. And I wasn’t entirely sure we were in the right place. With my handy Ordnance Survey Map in hand (number 118), I paused to figure out just where we were. My fiancé, Jackie, was getting increasingly annoyed with the sinking feeling that we were hopelessly lost.
The journey started the year before in the Travel Bookshop in picturesque Notting Hill, made famous by the film of the same name. The bookshop is no longer there, but in the early 2000’s it was a must-stop for fans of the eponymous film. When I visited for the first time, I also discovered something I’d never seen before: Ordnance Survey Maps.
We have no equivalent here in the United States. If I wanted a helpful map that perfectly laid out the geography around my house, along with public rights of way and interesting things to see along the way, I would be disappointed. It simply doesn’t exist. When I first cracked open map 118 in that bookstore in London, I was entranced. Here was a detailed map of my most favorite place, Shaftesbury, Dorset, and the surrounding lands. It was like finding a map of Middle-Earth: I had found a map of my secret place, and it would tell me where everything was.
I happily paid £6.99 for that map, which was a lot in my poor college student days.
For the next year, I got lost in that map. It became a personal totem. I would carry it with me everywhere (this was my University days, so I always had my backpack with me). Whenever I had a break between lectures or time in the library to research the latest boring paper I had to write, I would pull out that map and study it. Its language was foreign to me, and I was determined to learn it. I wanted to return to Dorset and let it guide me amongst the hills around Shaftesbury. By doing this, I would no longer just love Gold Hill, but I would trod everywhere within the famous view and know the place much more than a simple tourist snap can allow.
When it came time to return to Shaftesbury, I’d made great preparations to go on my first walk with my OS Map. I’d done my homework and planned my route meticulously. I’d even done something horrible: I’d taken a highlighter and drawn our complete route (I would never do this now! I was young and naive, please forgive me). We were going to follow the roads and public footpaths from Shaftesbury and walk to Melbury Hill and climb it.
Melbury Hill is the large hill you always see in the background of pictures of Gold Hill. To prepare for the walk, I’d even bought my first pair of rubber Wellington Boots (from before they were sold off and began to be manufactured in China – my Wellies are PROPER). I had a waterproof coat, so we were prepared for any weather. When I told our innkeeper at the B&B we were staying at our route, he was impressed and wished us well.
So, we departed early. We followed my route meticulously. When we ran into a local rather worryingly carrying a chainsaw, he said “Good Morning.”
“Good morning,” I replied.
“Americans, eh?” Even two words give away our accent and the fact we are not locals and never will be.
“Lovely day for a walk, just on my way to trim a hedge for a friend,” he said noticing my orange OS map. “Where you headed?”
“You’re on the right road, French Mill Lane. Just keep following it to the end and then turn left.”
It gave me far too much confidence that I knew what I was doing. We continued following French Mill Lane and then came to our first public footpath, which I was very excited to traverse. It was so strange to be on a public footpath. It was like we’d entered a secret world. The road disappeared, and we were on someone’s land, but the path was a clear way through, and according to the map, we had every right to do so. Coming from the land of the ‘no trespassing’ sign, this was all quite disconcerting.
So, I shouldn’t be surprised at what happened next.
I guess I didn’t study the map well enough. I began to curse myself for being a bad Boy Scout. I never did earn my Orienteering badge. I could hear my Scoutmaster laughing at me in the back of my head (I was, generally, a terrible Boy Scout – I still can’t start a fire properly).
I simply could not find us on the map. The pressure and stress of not being able to perform made me sweat. All the lines on the map began to blur together. The map key escaped my head completely, and I couldn’t remember what anything meant. We came across a busy road and began following that, but that was not the route I’d planned for months. Cars zoomed by until we came across another footpath. I’ll never forget the look of fear combined with consternation on Jackie’s face.
We walked along further, past quaint cottages and more farm fields. I still could not figure out where we were. We followed another road.
At this point, Jackie was getting quite cross at the man she was with who couldn’t read the map he’d been obsessing over for a year. Neither of us was going to admit out loud that we were lost. The reality of mistranslating the lines on a map versus the real world was just too much for my inexperience. Miraculously, she didn’t take the map out of my hands and take over. We continued on, lost, but we could see Melbury Hill so figured we were going in the right direction.
But while we were lost, we were lost in a beautiful landscape. My digital camera, back then they were still a relatively new technology, got quite a workout as I took picture upon picture. At one point, we walked through someone’s farm, and that was so strange. We peaked in his empty barn. Artsy photos were taken. But we could not shake the feeling that we were trespassing even though we weren’t. This was freedom, the right to roam!
Eventually, I found us on the map again, and we found our way to Melbury Abbas, the small village at the base of the hill (which oddly has an American style mailbox at one of the houses). The hill had been this distant thing our whole walk, and for my whole year previously, and here we were, right in front of it. It was rather surreal.
And we were absolutely shattered. Having not been on many long walks for the previous year, we didn’t realize how much a stroll through the countryside, getting lost, would take it out of us. The thought of climbing the hill almost made us want to cry. But we’d walked all that way; it made no sense to stop now.
The climb was breathtaking (literally, for this out of shape for a college student). It was painful. We were huffing and puffing. The hill became slippery, and the wind picked up the further you climbed. About halfway up the hill, the path started to fade away, and the grade became so steep, we were afraid to go on.
Jackie had had enough and was going no further. But we’d walked all that way! I did the unchivalrous thing and left her behind (it was very cold in the B&B for the next few days after). She stayed at a good spot to rest while I continued the climb, slipping and huffing and puffing my way up the hill. My muscles in my legs were on fire. I didn’t have anything to drink and was incredibly thirsty.
And then something remarkable happened. I made it to the top. There was Melbury Beacon, the trig point. The view around me was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. Melbury Hill was so high; I felt like I was above the world. Dorset and Wiltshire surrounded me in a carpet of green rolling hills. Off in the distance, I could see a plane take off from Compton Abbas airfield.
As I snapped a million pictures, I heard footsteps and whispers as an elderly couple sauntered their way to the summit, having clearly taken an easier path from towards Compton Abbas.
“Lovely day for a walk,” the old man said.
“Indeed, glorious weather for it,” I responded.
My solitude at the summit over, I did the only sensible thing and headed back down the hill to my fuming fiancé.
Having had quite enough of getting lost and not wanting to get lost on the way back, we noticed that the local bus would be stopping in a few minutes. So, we did the most American thing ever and waited for the bus to let someone else drive us back to our B&B in Shaftesbury. Having visited Shaftesbury a dozen times since that fateful walk, the irony is that I could now do that walk with my eyes closed, without a map. But the only way I was ever going to learn, was to get lost in the process.