OS Maps: Scale, Distance and Direction

As part of your skills development in GCSE geography, you will have learnt about map scales, working out distances and directions from Ordnance Survey and other maps. Without a scale, a map is of little use. It can show you how the features in an area are related to one-another but it gives no idea of distance. The earliest maps were all hand drawn and scales were not particularly accurate which made using them quite difficult.

A map represents a sector of landscape. Large scale maps show a small area in great detail whilst a small scale map shows a much larger area but in less detail. This can be a little confusing at first as the scale number of a large scale map is smaller. A 1:100,000 scale map is a small scale map but 1:5,000 is a large scale map.

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The scale number on an OS map indicates how many centimetres on the ground are represented by a centimetre on the map. On a 1:100,000 scale map, one centimetre on the map represents 100,000 cm on the ground, in other words, one centimetre on the map represents one kilometre in reality. A scale of 1:5,000 therefore means that a centimetre on the map represents a distance in real life of 5,000 centimetres (50 metres). This method of representing the scale of a map is called the fractional method, but you will also see graphical representations or written representations like 2 cm = 1 km.

Ordnance Survey maps are printed with north at the top. East is therefore to the right, south to the bottom and west to the left. The four points north, east, south and west are called the cardinal points of the compass. There are four other directions exactly half-way between the cardinal points - north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west. These are often abbreviated to NE, SE, SW and NW. Between these and the cardinal points, there are eight others, each beginning with the closest cardinal point e.g. the direction between north and north-east is called north-north-east. Using these descriptions for a direction is usually sufficient unless you are trying to navigate in difficult terrain. Then you need to use exact compass bearings. North is a bearing of zero degrees, east is ninety degrees, south is one hundred and eighty degrees and west is two hundred and seventy degrees. If you were required to follow a bearing of thirty degrees, you would be travelling in a direction somewhere between NNE and NE.

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  1. Using an OS map of the Peak District, the source of the river Ashop is in grid square 0691. It flows a few kilometres into Ladybower reservoir in grid square 1687. In which general direction does it flow?
    You should know that the first pair of numbers in a four figure grid reference are the 'eastings'. These increase as you move further east on an OS map, so you can eliminate the first two alternatives as the source is further east than where it reaches the reservoir. The second pair of numbers is the 'northings' and they decrease towards the south so you can eliminate the fourth option. The change in eastings is 10 squares but the decrease in northings is only 4 squares which confirms the third option as being correct
  2. The photo shows a picture of Leeds, a large city in the UK. On an OS map, scale 1:50,000, a student drew a line, direction 90° east for 2 cm then continued it for 2 cm, in direction 180° followed by 2 cm in direction 270°. In the landscape, how far away from the starting point is the end point?
    On the 1:50,000 scale map, 2 cm represent 1 km on the ground. The first direction was therefore 1 km east, the second was 1 km south and the third was 1 km west, meaning that 3 sides of a square were completed and the final point is 1 km due south of the starting point
  3. The scale of this plan is 1:5,000. Each grid square measures 2 cm x 2 cm. What area is represented by one grid square?
    1 cm on the map represents 50 m in the landscape. A grid square of 2 cm therefore has sides of 100 m in length. 100 m x 100 m = 10,000 m2. For the exam, you need to know the relationship between the different units of area - sometimes geography can seem more like maths!
  4. If you were drawing a map of the Warrego Highway, how many cm would you need between Ipswich and Toowoomba?
    The two towns are 92 km apart on the highway. On a scale of 1:25,000 1 km is represented by 4 cm on the map and the number does not correctly take into account the distance between the two towns, so this answer must be wrong. That immediately makes the fourth option wrong too. A scale of 1:50,000 represents 1 km using 2 cm which is 184 cm therefore the second option is correct
  5. A group of students on an exchage trip to France were given a town map. They needed to get to the station (marked B on the plan) as quickly as possible. They were at point A on the map. In which direction did they need to walk?
    If north is not marked on a map, in most cases, you can assume that it is at the top
  6. Montreal is a city in Canada. Its coordinates are 45.5° N, 73.6° W. Which of the following European cities would be almost exactly due east of Montreal?
    The climate of the two cities is very different even though they are at similar distances from the North Pole
  7. This is a picture of an actual road sign in use in Switzerland. If you were using a road map with a scale of 1:100,000, how many cm from the location of the sign would Lugano be?
    The scale tells you how many cm in the landscape are represented by one cm on the map, on this scale of map, 1 cm represents 1 km
  8. The Togolese Republic in Africa lies on the Prime Meridian of the World. In which direction is it from London?
    In 1884, the meridian used by British ships was officially adopted as being the internationally agreed Prime Meridian for maps and navigation
  9. Which of the following scales would be appropriate to produce a plan of your school and school grounds?
    The other scales would show very little detail
  10. The photograph shows a trig pillar. What were they used for?
    They are also called trig points and no longer in use. They were built in 1936 to help the Ordnance Survey produce very accurate maps of Britain using a process called triangulation. It took 26 years to complete the work! The OS now use GPS to add new map features more accurately and in just a few seconds

Author: Kev Woodward

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