GPS, the Internet and hand-held devices have revolutionised the way we use maps. If you've already downloaded Time Travel Explorer, you'll be more than aware of the possibilities that digital technologies have opened up for the map fiend. Sometimes, though, nothing beats the experience of pouring over a crisp paper copy. If you want to get your hands on some original cartography, I can recommend one house of charts above all others: Stanfords.
This topping shop in Covent Garden specialises in maps, atlases and travel guides of all kinds, proudly claiming the distinction of ‘world's largest stock of maps and travel books under one roof'. But don't take my word for its charms; ask Mr Sherlock Holmes. The savy detective knew a thing or two about cartography, and relied on the shop for an Ordnance map of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles (although Watson mistakenly records the name as Stamford's).
The shop predates even Holmes by several decades. Edward Stanford (1827-1904) learnt his trade as assistant and later partner to map seller Trelawney Saunders at number 6 Charing Cross, a short stroll away on what is now Whitehall. The company fragmented in 1853, and Stanford took on sole ownership, putting his name above the door. The resourceful young man, still in his mid-20s, capitalised on Britain's imperial expansions with his own spot of empire building. He acquired neighbouring properties and set to work commissioning new and detailed maps of every corner of the globe. In 1873, a printing works was purchased on Long Acre, later to become the headquarters of the company that I and thousands of other Londoners know and love to this day.
One of Stanfords' most successful works was the 1862 Library Map of London, widely hailed as the most accurate of the time (you can see just how clear it is by opening the Time Travel Explorer - it's one of the featured maps). The business also provided charts for the Cabinet War Rooms, to help Churchill plot his way to victory in the Second World War. At the other extreme, Stanfords also produced tiny toy atlases to populate Queen Mary's dolls' house. I noticed that one such example is on display at the current Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library, right alongside the world's largest atlas. (I also recommend tracking down the fabulous dolls' house, on permanent exhibition at Windsor Castle.)
Stanfords remained in family hands until 1947, when it was sold to George Philip & Son. It has since de-merged to once again trade under its famous old name. Make sure you pop inside next time you're in the area.
Stanfords can be found at 12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden. A more detailed history can be read on Stanfords' own site.