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Geography and maps

What is the history and hidden meanings of Britain's place names?

Seemingly ordinary place names on the map of Great Britain often hide fascinating stories of the landscape and local history. You can read the background to that development in How Ordnance Survey helped trace the roots of British place names.

We also have information on the following:

  • Welsh origins of place names in Britain
  • Gaelic origins of place names in Britain
  • Scandinavian origins of place names in Britain
  • Scots origins of place names in Britain
How do I find the height of a location above sea level?

OS Explorer Maps show contour lines at five-metre intervals. You can estimate the height of a location by:

  • locating the height number set into a contour line near your location (125m in the example below);
  • tracing the contour line around with your finger until it is close to your location (red line in image); and
  • counting uphill or down in multiples of five, until you reach the band in which your location appears (blue arrows in image to give 115m).

You can also do this online using OS maps.

Please visit our map shop site for more information.

When was the first Ordnance Survey map published?

The first Ordnance Survey map is recognised as the 1 inch map of Kent published in 1801. Work on the Kent map started in 1795. It was of military significance due to the proximity of the area to the coast. The survey was started at 6 inches to the mile but work progressed so slowly that it was finished at three inches to the mile and was then 'fairdrawn' in the Drawing Room of the Tower of London to the scale of 1 inch to 1 mile.

The scale of survey of the Kent map was found to be immensely time consuming, as at 6 inch scale there had to be accurate survey of the boundaries of every field. It was therefore agreed that the next map, that of Essex, should be carried out as 'a proper military map', exactly similar to that of Sussex but surveyed at a scale of 2 inches to the mile and reduced for publication to 1 inch. This less accurate survey allowed a speedier result. Essex was started in 1799 (as Kent was completed), and published in 1805. Kent and Essex together providing a military survey of the Thames Estuary.

Where are the extremities of Great Britain?

Based on data from our latest release of Boundary-Line, the extremities of the UK are as follows:

Most northerly point

Out stack, north of Unst, Shetland

Grid ref HP613203

Most southerly point

Pednathise, Isles of Scilly

Grid ref SV839053

Most easterly point

Lowestoft Ness, Suffolk

Grid ref TM556937

Most westerly point

Gob a’ ghaill, Outer Hebrides

Grid ref NA055015

How long is the coastline around mainland Great Britain?

The coastline length around mainland Great Britain is 11 072.76 miles.

What is Geographic Information (or GI)?

Geographic Information (GI) can be defined as:

  • Information about places on the Earth’s surface
  • Knowledge about where something is
  • knowledge about what is at a given location

GI can be very detailed, for example: information about the locations of buildings in a city or information relating to the postal address of a building.

Geographic information touches upon many aspects of life from:

  • Planning the delivery of health services
  • Managing the coastal zone and flood defences
  • Managing epidemics - such as an outbreak of Foot & Mouth
  • Monitoring pollution
  • Tree preservation orders
  • Access to the countryside and public rights of way
  • Satellite monitoring of land-use
  • Geographic provision of emergency services
  • Crime and disorder analysis
  • Vehicle routing and general traffic management
  • Tracking of parcel deliveries
  • Planning the built environment
  • Delivering water, gas and electricity to customers
What is a Geographic Information System (or GIS)?

A Geographic information system (or GIS) is software that displays digital map data and allows you to query and analyse that data.

GIS software has evolved from a combination of two well established types of software: the way in which map features are handled is based on graphics and computer-aided-design (CAD) technology; the way in which attribute information is handled has been developed from conventional spreadsheet and database technology.

There is a large industry in GIS software, with hundreds of companies producing thousands of products and solutions. Many of these are our partners and we work closely with them to sell our products; their software can be used to question and analyse Ordnance Survey data.

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© Ordnance Survey 2019