A day in the life of a surveyor in London

We’re often asked about the work Ordnance Survey does, and unsurprisingly the role of surveyor crops up most often. I asked Tristan Shearing, one of our London surveying team, to give us an insight into his role…

Tristan at work in LondonWhen I tell people I work for  Ordnance Survey as a surveyor, the most common response is ‘But isn’t everything already mapped?’. Confusion truly sets in when I tell them I work in an area of North London, far from the mountains and moorland they associate with Ordnance Survey mapping. When I explain that every time a house is demolished and rebuilt, or an estate is regenerated, or a prestigious new tower block is constructed, the London surveyors are on the scene taking measurements and updating the large-scale mapping, it starts to make a little more sense.

Nowhere in Great Britain has the concentration and scale of development of London, such is the demand for space, and the strategic and economic importance. This goes some way to explain why, in Greater London, there are 18 surveyors covering a size of area that would require just one surveyor in more rural parts of the country. The small area does not make for an easy life however, as surveying in one of the most diverse and highly populated cities in Europe presents its own challenges, and rewards.

My working day starts with one of the easiest commutes in London: my living room is also my office. Living within the area of geography I work in means I am always close to the action, I know the area extremely well and can keep tabs on new developments easily. Local knowledge is the key to working efficiently and making sure surveys are completed on time.

First job is to plan my work for the day, and download the data I need. I may have one large site to survey that could take a day or more, or I might have a number of smaller jobs to complete. This could be a mixture of small new developments, locating addresses, checking developing sites for progress, or updating our routing network if there are changes to a road junction. To plan my day, I’ll look at the locations of these tasks in a GIS programme – it’s far easier to visualise the jobs on a map and plan the most efficient route between each job. I must take into account traffic conditions – getting stuck on the North Circular for an hour is not a good start to the day. Local knowledge helps me to avoid the traffic hotspots and road works, and knowing where you can and can’t park near a site is essential. Often, it’s quicker and easier to park the car and go on by foot or public transport if I don’t have heavy survey equipment to carry.

Survey work in Greater London can vary massively from one job to the next. In the morning, I could be working at a new, £20 million pound mansion near Hampstead Heath; in the afternoon, at the redevelopment of a 1960s housing estate in Stonebridge. We may be lucky enough to survey a prestigious development such as the Olympic Site or Wembley stadium, or we could spend two days plotting the new sewage works near Beckton. What we can be sure of is that every job presents its own challenges. Persuading a home owner who speaks little English and has never heard of Ordnance Survey to allow me access to their garden can appear impossible at first, as can the survey of an architecturally complex new office block in central London, when the tall glass buildings prevent us getting a fix for our GPS surveying equipment. We must be able to deal with enquiries and comments from members of the public, who understandably are slightly bemused to see a man with a satellite dish on a stick and aerials projecting from his rucksack. I have listened to many residents’ complaints about the blocked drains, unfair parking fines and noisy neighbours, and disappointed one member of the public when I explained I couldn’t come and sort out the ‘ghost problem’ in his attic.

Once I’ve completed the surveys, located the addresses and updated the routing network, I’ll return home and send the new data back to head office in Southampton, where the database is updated. Despite the challenges that come with working in a congested and busy city, the surveyors here in London know that we get to work on some of the most high-profile and publicised projects in the country. With the survey of the Olympic site very much underway, we look forward to such diverse projects as the Thames Gateway cable car, the ‘Shard’, and the Crossrail stations. Of course we’re always aware that the thousands of new homes, and occasional sewage works, are just as important to our customers as the more famous landmarks.

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