From Plymouth to Penryn via Google Maps

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Google map

I wrote this piece for my MA in Writing, Nature and Place. It was originally published in Peninsula Magazine.

The journey from Plymouth to Penryn begins at my kitchen table. I set up my laptop, make myself a cup of tea and type Plymouth into the search bar of Google maps. I’m dropped down into the middle of the Royal Parade. I do a 360° turn, it looks to be a thoroughfare with shops on one side and a church on the other. Google Street View works by showing a yellow line along the road you are on. Arrows pointing backward and forward allow you to select the previous or next image, enabling you to “travel” along the road. I click on the arrow pointing east and set off under a grey and overcast sky. I reach a roundabout and try to navigate my way round it. It’s disorientating and I have to stop and check I haven’t missed my exit. I’m beginning to realise this journey is going to be a long and arduous process.

The images don’t quite match up: a sign reads “City of Plymoth”. There are cracks here and there, bits missing from the world. The sky has cleared up now. I reach another roundabout; this one has the shell of a church in the middle and I find myself wanting to walk around and explore it. But I can’t. This is the first time I’ve seen the centre of Plymouth and it almost makes me want to visit. That’s one of the advantages of Street View; it allows you to see a place before you go there, though it may not always be presenting the whole story. In Canada columnist Les MacPherson complained that spring was not an appropriate time for Google to be taking its images of Canadian streets. The complaint was that this would not represent the country in a favourable light because it doesn’t look as attractive during the snow melt period. Indeed the images were later retaken. Google Street View is ostensibly providing a candid representation of what’s actually there. In truth it seems there might be more of an agenda behind it. Maps are often said to conceal more than they actually reveal and this may be just as true of Street View as it is of an Ordinance Survey map.

I’m going down Mutley Plain now. It’s a road lined with the familiar collection of shops: Subway, Domino’s Pizza, charity shops, Somerfields, a tanning parlour, Indian takeaways, Ladbrokes, banks, Boots, travel agents and estate agents. This could be anywhere, this is Any Town. I reach another roundabout and finally I’m on the slip road for the A38. I make another cup of tea and grab some more biscuits. It feels nice to be on an A road where all I can see is tarmac and trees and there are none of the messy distractions of the city. My house mate walks into the kitchen and we talk about our respective days as I creep along the A38. The land to either side of the road starts to open up, but there is little to see besides trees. There’s a sense of not really moving, I click to the next image and nothing seems to have changed.

A break in the tree line reveals water, I must be nearing the Tamar. The last time I crossed this river by car I was navigating whilst my mum drove. We were driving from Manchester with all my possessions in the boot. It had been a slow meander down, with an overnight stop in Bristol, and by the time we reached the Tamar I was ready to be in Penryn. Crossing the river and entering Cornwall seemed like the last little push. I put on a Bob Dylan CD and we sang along to it whilst snacking on Pringles and mints. It was around St Austell that the CD went off. By now the setting sun was glaring in our eyes as the landscape became a monotony of fields and trees. Nearly there, I said, looking at the road map. Half an hour later we reached Truro, nearly there. I think ‘nearly there’ sums up the journey nicely.

I’m on the bridge now and again I find myself wanting to go through the computer screen and be there. Google have done something truly remarkable by taking the concept of a map and turning it on its head. We are no longer given the omniscient, bird’s eye view of the land. Instead the map reader is placed in the landscape. But there will always be a barrier, a border between reader and reality – the screen. I stop and take in a 360° view, the tide looks to be out and the boats are nothing but flecks of colour on the water. A sign states ‘No Stopping No Turning’. There is no going back. I could if I wanted, I could reverse backwards into traffic. I don’t have to keep going, but I do. ONE AND ALL Welcome to CORNWALL.

I’m heading through Saltash. I take a look at the satellite image on which my route is marked out with a blue line. There’s still a long way to go. I’ve been at this for hours now and I’m getting hungry. I try to speed things up a bit, click click click without waiting for the image to become clear. I’m travelling through a blurred landscape, everything has been smudged and I couldn’t tell you where I am. Somewhere green-grey-blue. There’s nothing much to see anyway, just road, road and more grey road. But all this clicking has upset my laptop and the map has gone blank, there is a black screen where the image used to be. I suppose cars break down, laptops get over heated and stop working properly. I wait for a minute or two until my laptop calms down and the image returns. I guess there’s no quick way to do this, I’ll stick to the slow method. I check my location again. I’ve only just passed Saltash. Another click and the sky transforms from grey and over cast to brilliant blue. I can almost imagine the feel of sun, magnified by the car windscreen, on my skin

At least the view is starting to open out a little now, I can see beyond the road to fields. I will see plenty more fields before the journey is over. There are primroses along the side of the road and the land undulates out in soft hills. But I’m too disconnected to appreciate it. It doesn’t affect me or impress itself upon me in any way. Everything goes by in a blur. Click, dark skies, click, sunshine. I drift through road works, no problem. Click, dark skies. The weather is getting neurotic now. Finally the fields are broken by the little white cottages of Tideford. If I can just make it to Liskeard then I can have another cup of tea. Road, road, fields, trees, pylons, grey road. Finally I make out a sign, Liskeard 3 miles (or 120 clicks of the mouse). I make it to Liskeard and set Par as my next goal, but I only get as far as East Taphouse before admitting defeat for the day.

The next day I’m back in permanently sunny East Taphouse. I have tea and biscuits and I’m ready to tackle the rest of the journey. I open up Google maps and get going. The houses of Middle Taphouse blur by. I reach the next village along, you’ve guessed it, West Taphouse. I pass a lay-by and spy on two women stood beside their car eating. For privacy reasons Google uses face recognition technology to blur out faces and these two featureless women look like something out of a science fiction film. I zoom slowly through the landscape, I’m like Roadrunner playing musical chairs. My laptop whirs away, trying to imitate the engine that I should be hearing. Lostwithiel passes me by. The name makes me think of tragic romance. Lost-with-iel, Lost-with-it-all, Lost-wistful-all. I cross over a railway line and outside my house the Maritime Line train rumbles past, offering its sound track.

This journey has become all about the destination, I just want to get there and for it to be over. This experiment in non-journeying has left me feeling cold. Par is my next destination, I just need to make it to Par. I get to the top of an incline and the land opens out. I can see the sea like a cool grey band on the horizon. It gives me hope. A sign on the road side reads ESCAPE LANE, I try to turn off down the lane but it’s not been mapped, there is no escape. I make it to Par, next stop St Austell, then Truro, then Penryn. I pick up the pace and hope my laptop will hold out.

The route suddenly diverges into a lay-by and for the first time I’m made aware of the person whose job it must have been to drive the Google car around. They must have stopped to rest and then couldn’t be bothered going back to get the section of road missed. It seems odd for a company whose stated aim is to “organise the world’s information”. Google have already created street views of the US, Canada, Mexico, most of Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, and they seem determined to map ever more countries. It reminds me of the short story On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges describes an empire in which the cartographers created a map “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Successive generations realise that the map is useless and leave it to weather away, until all that remains “are Tattered Ruins…inhabited by Animals and Beggars.” I have my doubts as to whether Google will ever be able to achieve their aim. Not only has the project been plagued by controversies over privacy but it is an aim that by its nature can never be achieved. The world is a constantly changing place, as soon as the images are taken they are out of date.

Welcome to the city of TRURO. Welcome indeed. I’m on the A39, driving through a sun-dappled avenue of trees. I’m on the home stretch now, nearly there. I can see the Maritime Line, a little train trundling along it. Nearly there. I’m on the B3292. I think I’m going to make it before dinner. I stop when I reach Penryn Bridge. The tide is out. It’s good to be there, here.

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