Geography – where am I?

When I was a kid, I had a jigsaw which consisted of a map of England and Wales, and quite possibly Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each piece had a tiny stud on it, with which you could lift the piece and slot it into place, and each piece was a county. So there was a time in my life at least when I could tell you exactly where every county in England was, because I became adept at dropping the pieces in. I know that I’ve been to every county (I think Cornwall was my last conquest, and that was in 1975), but my sense of where is where, and what size it is, has started to vanish. I wonder if you can still get these jigsaws, because they would certainly be useful to me, and would certainly also have been useful to all the Devonian students I taught in FE – I’ll come back to them in a minute.

I mention this because I went to a literature festival on Saturday in Bollington, and I did what I always do, which is to go the AA route-map, and print off directions. Our household has only just reached the satnav stage, and it has only just got to the stage of switching it on in the kitchen, where it says that the satellite reception is intermittent, and also advises, in a gentle Irish voice, that it would be best to ‘turn round if you can’ and turn left, which is the best way to get to the fridge, as it happens.

Anyway I got there, and discovered that I was in Cheshire, and, more surprisingly, that Cheshire is next to Derbyshire. I would have got that wrong in a pub quiz. I have some problems visualising Shropshire, and working in Bucks over the last two or so years has thrown up the surprising proximity of Northants and Bedfordshire. Nope. I definitely need that jigsaw. It may be that they went out of fashion when the 1972 act re-did the counties, producing such short-lived fads as Cleveland and Avon, remiving Rutland (which the arch-sentimentalist John Major restored), muddling the borders of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, and replacing the part of the county in which I was born (Durham) with the conglomerate, Tyne and Wear, which doesn’t sound like a county, more of a mish-mash.

Not needing to know where you are – a side-effect of satnav and perhaps also email – means that more and more people haven’t a clue about local geography. In Devon, possibly because it is at one end of the country, my former students had no idea. This emerged when they were prompted to select a university to which they might go. I used to start by saying that it was pointless choosing until you’d decided whether you wanted to be in a rural or urban place, or in London. The second question was, how far from ‘home’ do you want to be? ‘Any distance.’ they said. Newcastle? Sheffield? Aberdeen? Fine.

All right, I went on. How long a train journey? Five hours, say? The blood drained from their faces. Five hours? So that was Newcastle, Sheffield, and Aberdeen out, then. Usually they defaulted to Bristol, realising that this was a shocking sixty minutes away. South-Westerners are not seasoned travellers – at least not in this country.

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