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OS Maps: Symbols

This GCSE Geography quiz will test you on symbols found on OS maps. Reading maps involves several different skills - a knowledge of scales, directions and the symbols used by map makers (cartographers) to indicate certain landscape features on maps. Early maps drawn by monks or explorers were like works of art, with landscape features being added as drawings of the actual feature. It was realised that much more information could be placed on a map if simple symbolic representations of the real world were used.

The systematic mapping of Britain was first carried out for military purposes and the maps carry the name of that original Ordnance Survey (the word 'ordnance' means military supplies). Although there are other manufacturers of maps that cover the UK, Ordnance Survey (OS for short) are probably the best known and most often used.

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Your geography syllabus requires that you know a variety of symbols used on OS maps. Most of the symbols are the same on the different scale maps but there are a few differences. For your exam, you are most likely to be tested on the ones that are common to all OS maps.

Some of the OS map symbols represent natural landscape features. Together with the isolines known as contour lines, they provide you with a powerful way of knowing what terrain lies in a specific area. There are symbols for cliffs, rocky outcrops, different types of woodland, rivers, streams, lakes and so on. If you are planning your geography fieldwork, knowing these symbols can guide you to the best areas to visit for your particular project.

Other symbols represent human-made features in the landscape. Buildings are marked on as regular shapes coloured with a light brown shade. Roads, tracks, bridleways and public footpaths are also added, each has its own distinct symbol. Some features don't have a pictorial symbol, items like footbriges, post offices, mile stones and town halls for example. These are represented using letters, FB for footbridge, PO for post office and so on.

Symbols are colour coded to a degree. Water features are coloured blue so it is immediately obvious where there is a stream, river, pool or larger body of water. But there are other blue map symbols too. Motorways are marked as blue lines, but it is easy to identify that they are human features rather than natural water features, as they do not have any meanders. Tourist information is added to the maps in blue too, for example viewpoints, camping sites, parking areas and places equipped for picnics. These stand out against the rest of the map making them easy to locate.

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  1. Which of the following is NOT true?
    The red rectangular symbol indicates a principal station
  2. What commercial activity would take place (or has taken place at some time in the past) at the location indicated by this map symbol?
    This symbol indicates a quarry from which rock is (or has been at some time in the past) extracted. There are separate symbols for gravel quarrying and sand quarrying
  3. Which of the sketched symbols represents an unfenced secondary road?
    Even if you didn't know that the orange-brown colour meant a secondary road, you can tell that C was the answer as it is the only one that shows it is unfenced (dotted lines at the edges instead of unbroken lines)
  4. What type of trees would you see if you visited this woodland?
    Broadleaf woodland has little conventional tree drawings in it, orchards are a grid of green dots and mixed woodland has no little drawings of trees - it is just green
  5. The sketch shows:
    Water features in the landscape are represented in blue so that immediately rules out options three and four
  6. What does this symbol indicate?
    This symbol indicates that the campsite is intended for tents only, if the site takes caravans as well, there will be a small blue caravan symbol with it
  7. This symbol was added to a map by a student carrying out some fieldwork. Which of the following structures had they seen?
    The wavy line indicates some sort of electromagnetic radiation and the triangle represents the mast itself
  8. Where would you find the features depicted in this sketch map?
    The junction between the blue and the pale brown indicates the low water mark of the sea, the black line is the high water mark. Also shown is a wave cut platform, cliff and beach
  9. A group of students were drawing a sketch map of a village as part of their fieldwork. One of the buildings was used as a place of worship. Which of the symbols should they use to represent it?
    You need to know if the building has a tower, spire, minaret, dome or none of these features before you can decide on the correct answer
  10. Which of the following is most likely to be interested in both of these two OS map symbols?
    Just in case you are not sure what a backpacker is, it is someone who is travelling on foot or by public transport using a rucksack (backpack) to carry their belongings. The symbols represent a youth hostel and a bus or coach station. The other three types of person may be interested in one or the other of the two locations, but it is a backpacker who is most likely to be interested in both at the same time. One is their means of transport and the other is where they will find a bed for the night

Author: Kev Woodward

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