Much as I love photographs and journals, if I had to choose my absolute favourite type of document I am almost sure it would be maps.
Maps take you back to a place as it was, and allow you to see directly how the landscape has changed over time. Some are beautifully illustrated and some are simply utilitarian. Fortunately lots of maps are out of copyright so I can share some here (copyright on British Ordnance Survey maps expires fifty years after publication).
One of the oldest and most famous of maps is the Mappa Mundi (map of the world) held by Hereford Cathedral which dates from the 13th century. It is hard to see on a reproduction of this size, but Jerusalem is the centre of the world and round the fringes it becomes decidedly fantastical, with one-legged monopods and one-eyed cyclops among other peculiar beings. There are some wonderful little details, such as a man skiing in Norway, but it certainly isn’t the sort of map that would show you how to get from A to B. All the land had to be rather squished together to make it fit! You can explore the Mappa Mundi in detail through Hereford Cathedral library’s website here.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
By the 16th century maps were beginning to be more representative of the place they showed. Here is an extract from a map of Oxford drawn by Ralph Agas in 1578, with wonderful 3D buildings:
Image: Wikimedia Commons
As an example of the changes that can be traced by looking at maps, this Ordnance Survey map shows Dallow Farm in Luton as it was in 1880:
By 1924 the same area looked like this as the town of Luton expanded and developed westwards. No more rural farm, just streets of early 20th century housing:
While this is a rather dramatic example, comparing any early Ordnance Survey map with a more recent one will show up changes in both the buildings and the landscape. One of my favourite internet map tools (along with Google Streetview) is the collection of old Ordnance Survey maps put online by the National Library of Scotland, who very considerately have included English maps as well as Scottish. All their online map series can be found here, but the section which can keep me endlessly entertained is the 6 inch Ordnance Survey maps. The site gives three options: zoomable individual maps and – the most fun – the choice to either overlay a modern map on the old map and switch between the two, or to see the modern and old maps side by side on screen. Magic!