The perfect guide-book

George Orwell tried to describe his perfect pub, which he called The Moon under Water — drawing together the best parts of other pubs: his perfect pub never existed. Nor are any of the pubs with that name anywhere near perfect. Not from that company.

Bill Bryson, in The Lost Continent, sought out the quintessential small American town in the same way, creating the town of Amalgam — again, it does not exist.

I have always harboured a distrust (as deep as the Marianas Trench) of the “one favourite” trope, which appears everywhere from Desert Island Discs to the trite sixty-second space-waster “interviews” to be found in every news outlet. How could anyone live such a one-dimensional life?

So what makes the perfect guide-book for walkers? Does it exist — can it exist? I was chewing the internet fat with Mark Richards the other day, and we got onto the topic. Was that just two aged walkers looking back to what was considered palatable when we were 35? There are more than enough people who stop developing their reading (and other) preferences then: this may be advantageous for publishers who can therefore reprint outdated books and formats, but is that useful? It calls to mind a friend’s attempt to navigate across Coventry in the 1980s with a map showing the “proposed route of new M1 motorway” off to the east. We can identify failings in individual guides, but nobody surmounts all the difficulties at the same time. There is no perfect guide-book.

Terse or verbose?
Some directions are terse almost to the point of telegraphese. L on rd; L at pub; L at PO. That seems like you’ll be back where you started, but the author has missed out all the right-hand bends in between. Then there are the guides which take half a page to cross a couple of fields, pointing out the direction with reference to the lichen on a utility pole. The better guide hits the spot where all the info is necessary and sufficient. And the abbreviations should be intuitive for those whose first language is not that of the area being walked (hint, use icons for changes of direction and such like).

Some guide-books give you the history of public transport every time a bus stop or station is reached. Others hide bare details (often just URLs) in an appendix. For a day’s walk, brief excerpts (again, necessary and sufficient) within the narrative — bus at xx36 to Kirkloaning (not Sunday) — with a backup generic URL (such as traveline) in the preamble to cope with timetable changes. For a multi-day walk, a transport/accommodation section with a bus or hotel icon in the text makes reading the route-notes easier. No prices, of course, just £, ££, etc. (or , €€, etc., and so on) with a table which gives the median price within each category with a reference date in the preamble, so that readers may adjust for inflation.

Spidery and inaccurate hand-drawn maps should be left in the past. If you cannot draw accurate maps with good visibility (through spectacles in the mist, for example), use the services of a good cartographer (the Ordnance Survey, for example) and/or back them up with a downloadable GPX file. And leave at least five minutes’ overlap between consecutive maps: when you see “Stone” at the end of one map and “henge” at the start of the next, you know that the author is just a miser. Two-way guides are notorious for having “second choice” directions adjacent to the wrong map — buyer beware, but author take care!

Extra information
All the pages about geology, social history and the like pad out the book with extra weight: they could be replaced by simple URLs to the same information on the author’s (or publisher’s) website. Even worse when the information is in boxes scattered around the book, taking up much more space than the route-notes. These extras are really for researching at home, so separate them out so that they may be enjoyed there, and cut to the chase on the text the walker really needs on the ground.

There is no excuse for working with out-of-date instructions. A URL to a table of updates since the last edition is enough. All you’ll need on the walk is a slim volume of notes and maps, and a few pages of printout updates which you have cross-referenced by annotations in the book. You’ll be buying the next edition when it comes out if you walk the route again, so don’t fret about spoiling the pristine page.

Summing up

The above paragraphs are my own preferences, which may be summed up as “minimise weight on the route, and use available technology”. I like looking at Wainwright’s drawings, but they are historical, just like the strip-maps of the Great North Road from the days of the stagecoach. My copy of A Coast to Coast Walk is still bum-concave forty years after I last walked the route with the book in my back pocket, but even in the late 1970s, there were outdated details. I would never use it today, preferring up-to-date options, though it is still nice to leaf through from time to time. Oh, and any format bigger than that book is too big for a normal pocket (jacket or trouser).

Much of the information other than the route-notes is either static (give or take the discovery of a new Roman villa or a new theory of boundary marks) or it is liable to render data out of date soon after publication. This is where our friend the internet makes it much easier than in the Wainwrightocene era: we must make best use of it.

Some authors split the publication into two separate books, often with maps in one and text in the other. We could usefully have map, route-notes (but not the padding narrative) and links to logistics together, with all the research-at-home extras in the other volume (if it is decided that downloading is too modern).

But these are just my preferences: others will have different pet inclusions.

Say it again, and keep saying it — there is no perfect guide-book.


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