You can tell an awful lot about the history of London from its maps. Not that there were many London maps to begin with, because they weren't needed. But the British Library has amassed an enormous collection of London maps from the last 500 years or so, and their new cartographic exhibition makes for fascinating viewing. I thought I'd better visit on the first day before it gets too popular, because it surely will.
The exhibition is divided into eight sections, from the old walled City to postwar suburban sprawl. Inbetween you get to watch the capital expand, gradually at first, then with increasing speed towards the docks in the east and the prestigious estates to the west. See how quickly ye olde London was wiped from the map by the Great Fire, only to be rebuilt in ten years flat. Watch the fields north of Piccadilly sprout streets and squares and mansions. You can even track the River Fleet as it evolves from stream to ditch to underground sewer... or maybe that was just me. Some of the maps are bloody huge, which is great because it means you can get up close and inspect the really small detail. Many of the earlier maps are more pictorial than planar, but they're all equally beautiful and intricate in their own way.
What many visitors seem to do (and I'll confess to being no exception) is to pay extra special attention to the place where they live. It helps if you live somewhere fairly central, of course, and I'm fortunate that Bow often crept onto the very easternmost edge of certain maps. I was able to trace Bow first as a medieval village on the banks of the Lea, then a tiny 'town' surrounded by grassy meadowland, and finally a suburb swallowed whole by expanding London. If you'd have been wandering around the exhibition with me I'd probably have bored you silly by pointing out every time I spotted precisely where my house now stands, and you'd probably have done the same.
It's just my sort of exhibition, filled with frame after frame of cartographic porn to salivate over. I'm sure I'll be back for another visit at a later date, just so I can stare again at the million and one details I overlooked the first time. But in the meantime there's plenty to view from home. The free exhibition guide folds out to reveal a high quality print of Richard Newcourt's pre-Fire London map of 1658, which is gorgeous. I was also inspired to buy a copy of the book accompanying the exhibition, as did a surprisingly high proportion of departing visitors. At £15 a time (£25 hardback) the British Library have a worthwhile moneyspinner here, and very lovely the book is too. And if you can't get to the exhibition yourself, or can't get there yet, there's an excellent website to explore complete with images of several of the maps. It's based on a virtual Google map, of course, and there are some real gems tucked away on there. You've got three months to get your A-Z out and find your way to the British Library to see for yourself.