Dancing with the spirit of Marco Polo in Covent Garden

I confess: I will have to pop by Stanfords the travel-book and map shop before I fly out!

Yes, this is one of those little things I just absolutely have to do while in London this time, and I am killing two birds in one stone too: first to reminisce and also to introduce my niece, who is very interested in different countries in the world, to the shop.  What better place to bring her?

Well, she was at least a little impressed when I told her that this shop has stood in Covent Garden continuously for over 100 years, that English explorer Captain Scott was a frequent customer, as is Sherlock Holmes in fiction, while Florence Nightingale also used to “pop in” before her medical missions.

But her brows came together a bit when I started explaining that once upon a time people thought the world was not round, and once upon an even longer time people thought the Earth was at the centre of the universe.

Stanfords will tell you that the earliest maps had a view of our world that was not spherical, that a square Earth had appealed to many people, that the first to draw a world map using the assumption of a spherical earth was the Greek scientist Eratosthenes, and that the idea of a spherical earth was great for artistic imagination as a sphere could be symmetrically, even beautifully, subdivided in so many ways!  You can find much of that story hidden behind the book shelves here.

But then they definitely don’t beat those (more modern) maps you can dance over – large maps of various places covering much of the basement floor of the shop, that makes Stanfords so special.

It is where I and my sister had played on when we were still kids, whether it was the “world map” or “London” or the “map of England” section of the floor.  We were invariably waiting for a parent who was invariably going to an appointment nearby.  We would also invariably end up playing games that, invariably too, involved Lucy or Alice that is really about having tea parties at – and eventually expeditions to – some far-flung place like Christmas Island (what a name).  We might have preferred to go through wardrobes to Narnia, but we were missing some props there (note to myself: idea for a different kind of map shop).

In fact, if we had learned about Marco Polo’s travels then – which we hadn’t – we would have traced the journeys right here, on the floor, between the bookshelves.  Instead, we created and invented our own travels (that did coincide with Polo’s travels a little, without knowing it).  Afterwards, if we tire of playing, I would studiously go through the rows and rows of maps of places and countries, picking up names that I didn’t know existed and sounded interesting, storing them in my brain so that I could ask the “did you know there’s a place called … oh, you didn’t?” type of questions to embarrass those who didn’t know their world geography.

I’d play a game of “spot the island with an interesting name” too: that’s when I learned about Niue (an island with a 4-letter name containing 3 vowels and close to the international date line) and also Madagascar the other side of the globe (an island with four consecutive vowels being “a”!), of course not knowing that years later a good friend who is an renewable energy engineer would build one of the world’s earliest wind farms on the former (the island is targeting 100% renewable energy by the year 2020), or that the latter is a magnet for real-life pirates and one of the poorest countries in the world (despite its extravagant name and its being a beautiful travel destination)!

It was in fact at Stanfords that I had learned the meaning of longitudes and latitudes and triumphantly announced that I was in the city that is located at 51.5074° N, 0.1278° W.  (It was only when I became a fully-grown adult that I realised that this shop that must be called a “map emporium” literally does have the world’s largest collection of maps, travel books and globes.)

It was also later when I learned that the concepts of longitudes and latitudes were developed in the 2nd century; I marveled at how ancient geographer Ptolemy had already given the latitudes and longitudes for 8,000 places, and we and our maps 2,000 years later are still using his vocabulary.  The convention, second nature to us today, of orienting maps with the north at the top and the east at the right, also originated from Ptolemy.

The curious young girl I had brought with me on this occasion had just learned that the Earth goes in an orbit around the Sun, that the orbit is elliptical, and that the rotation of the Earth is tilted a little.  And so finding the famous Globes section was like a Highlight of Her Trip.  Of course, she will go on to learn in her physics lessons (at least I hope) that stars have their own light whereas planets don’t but rather reflect the light that fall on them, as the Earth does, that they all go around in elliptical orbits, and that the universe is a large place that is a force field of gravitational forces!

As I sat there pondering on how geography and physics come together in one small, map-filled corner of London – this time waiting for my niece indulging in her fascination with the globes – I chanced upon this book of quotations about maps.  The one that jumped out of the page announced:

A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.”

It was by Gilbert H. Grosvenor, father of photojournalism and the first full-time editor of National Geographic.  And so a house of maps is a house of dreams, then?

There are many places in London where spending time there expands your horizon and magnifies your spirit.  This was one of them, and it was hard not to linger and get lost in time.  The quote inspired me to wonder if you could move closer to fulfilling a dream by starting to draw up a map?  But it was soon time to head over to Heathrow and I wasn’t going to miss my flight (even if I wasn’t about to go on an expedition or a life-saving mission or anything of that kind).  Some magnifying thoughts did rush into my mind nonetheless: will my niece become the future astrophysicist, or the pilot who lands on the Moon, or an entrepreneur of a new drone company?  Memories and the future come together as we had a final look around this wonderful temple that reflects the vision of letting minds travel and tracing one’s dreams as our feet move along too.