France mapThe following is meant  by way of a vote of thanks and support to those excellent folk at the Ordnance Survey, Touring  Club Italiano, Hallwag etc., and, above all, chez Monsieur Michelin. Go on folks, keep on producing and updating your wonderful road maps and, please, don’t lose heart – we continue to appreciate you and raise a plea that you mustn’t become an endangered species but remain as an essential plank of civilised life as we know it.

I surprise myself by finding that any of these words even need writing since, for so many of us, the act of map reading is such second nature and a vital part of the joy of travelling with a car or bike. So, my concern arises from the recent realisation that a generation has imperceptibly sprung up somehow without this gene having been transmitted to it. My shock is in finding the large number of current travellers who not only never look at a map at all but now don’t even POSSESS one! They seem to feel able to rely entirely on a device which rejoices in names like Tom Tom, Garmin, or any other sub-species of GPS. Or simply just an I-Phone or I-Pad.

My particular navigational experiences date from the times when you disembarked from the Townsend Thoresen or SNCF Sealink ferry at, say, Boulogne, Le Havre or Dieppe with your car (usually an ageing product of BMC, Standard Triumph or the Rootes Group) stocked with well-thumbed yellow Michelin maps covering the whole of France – each one representing two or three hours of very solid motoring effort before moving across the join to the next one. In itself a great source of satisfaction and achievement.

Driving with TomTom in EuropeA significant time would have been spent before setting off, very enjoyably, tracing that day’s  route, often using the most direct of the “D” roads (routes départementales), and in the process unearthing endless information from the map. Crecy, Poitiers – of course battlefields (where was the Field of the Cloth of Gold?), a village called Camembert, a road through Burgundy or the Medoc which reads like a wine list – and does that symbol mean a ruin or a water tower? That looks like a great picnic spot where the river winds below a medieval village with a castle etc., etc. So many pleasant options then suggest themselves should either the car or its occupants become weary or if the trip – or lunch – for some reason takes more (rarely less) time than expected!

So why do I rant on like this and insist on standing in the way of progress? Surely nothing could be smarter and more efficient than tapping in one’s final destination, and obediently following the directions from your GPS, leaving you free merely to watch the time ticking down to the exact second when it is announced you have reached your destination? All you have left to decide is whether it is John Cleese or Joanna Lumley whose voice guides you there?

Because it doesn’t work properly, that’s why. Of course if you are lost in some sprawling city or need to navigate some featureless suburbs or a god-forsaken industrial estate to find a particular numbered address, then I agree this is a brilliant invention and an undoubted boon. However, make the mistake of using the “Sat Nav” when the idea is driving for pleasure and hoping to uncover the hidden delights of a new region in another country or district and the experience will be like being guided through a charcuterie by a vegetarian.

Firstly how must you feel about confessing to the stupid mistakes it allows you to make? You might be forgiven for not realising that there are 24 Saint Medard’s spread across a dozen or so French départements (although a glance at p.392 of your Michelin Atlas would have told you that) – or that the difference between Saint Colomb and Sainte Colombe would be a full day’s driving. Yet, if given the wrong instruction your mentor, the Sat Nav won’t alert you to that risk, but just subserviently but convincingly take you to the wrong one. Pretty infuriating I imagine when it happens and I have heard of both these – and many other such examples.

Classic Driving Tours with Tom TomIn the process you may helpfully be taken on the ugliest ring roads, following congested heavy lorry routes, via big towns with identical outskirts or on monotonous autoroutes which studiously avoid some sensational green edged river valley or mountain roads or passing lovely hill villages or abbeys and lakes or forests.

But does this matter? It’s progress, surely; just consign the old things to the bonfire.

But I feel it truly does. By what sane rule of life is the arriving necessarily better than the travelling? As you get older you tend to discover it is very much the reverse. Is the final destination and knowing your exact time of arrival there of far greater importance than the remarkable discoveries that might crop up along the way? And what about giving the time for allowing them to occur? Just for the sake of not using a simple, cheap but clever interpretive invention called a good map, preferably of the right scale and maybe with a guide book, too. It’s a thing of joy and a friend for life, believe me.