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Mapping the Byways of Britain

by Jim Crandall

Copyright 1998 Jim Crandall. All rights reserved.

If there's one thing I dislike more than surfing the Web with a slow modem, it's serving on a committee. To me, it's like trying to make a new operating system work on a computer with an obsolete processor and no memory. Some months ago, however, I found myself immersed in such an activity, up to my ears in the planning of a 2,000-mile car rally around Great Britain. Fortunately my fellow committee members, all owners of classic MG sports cars, were old friends, ensuring a working atmosphere that, with any luck, would take most of the stress out of the exercise.

At our first planning session, some were assigned the job of transporting 12 fragile, 50-year-old cars to London and back with all the attendant problems of loading, shipping, insurance, etc. Others took on the task of designing an interesting and challenging route over the "back roads" of England and Wales, planning hotel stops and locating points of interest along the way. Finally, a rally guide book that would integrate all of our collected travel information was needed for each participant, with large-scale road maps, small-scale town inserts and detailed driving instructions for each leg of the tour. In a moment of weakness, I volunteered to help with the publication of the guide. "Piece of cake," I thought. With all the resources of the World Wide Web at my fingertips, what could be easier?

Armed with a very general route plan, we started. My only experience with map programs had been with the well-known StreetAtlas USA by DeLorme on CD-ROM, but I was confident that the Web would be strewn with similar resources, not only for the U.S., but for Europe as well.

MapQuest, the highly touted mapping engine used by Lycos, Infoseek, CitySearch and 172 other major Web sites, seemed like a good place to start. As I clicked through the introductory pages, I reminded myself of a pledge to always click on the "Help" icon before trying out a new page, but as usual, I decided to explore the program intuitively. After an hour of wasted time, I forced myself to back up, read the instructions, and try to systematically decipher all the features of the program. And there are quite a few.

As might be expected, the initial choices are "Find a Place," "Driving Directions," and "Plan a Trip." Choosing the first option, I entered our first destination and pick-up point for our cars-Blackheath, England-and waited. And waited. Even on a 28.8 bps modem, it loaded very slowly in the default "full color" mode, but I soon discovered a "gray scale" option which increased the reload speed significantly. Unfortunately, the only Blackheath that MapQuest could find was in North Ireland. Knowing that there was, in fact, a Blackheath about 15 miles east of London, I selected "London" and surfed my way down the River Thames to my destination. Once there, I utilized another nice feature of the program which allows choices from a menu of attractions, such as lodgings, banks, transportation and similar useful stuff. These sites were posted on the map in the form of descriptive icons which in turn were clickable for more information. But again, the information was either incomplete or incorrect. The hotel information was minimal, with no hyperlink to the hotel's own Web site, and the Blackheath train station (which I knew to exist) was nowhere to be found. So far, not so good.

Switching to the "Driving Directions" mode, I decided to plot the course to our first stop of the rally, Brighton. I had hoped for a "preference" that would allow me to restrict the route to secondary roads only, but found no such feature. I found, in fact, no driving directions of any kind. It seems that MapQuest's Driving Directions are available only in the continental United States and some parts of Canada. And so an hour was wasted. I hate it when that happens! To be fair, Mapquest is a very full-featured mapping service for the U.S. only, and by signing up for a free membership (and probably the junk-email that goes with it) it's possible to transmit maps to friends online and even get help with fairly efficient trip planning via a Mobil Travel Guide data base. For our purposes, however, we had to keep looking.

As often happens when clicking and scrolling through cyberspace, I happened onto an offbeat site called Odden's Bookmarks, which promised entry into "the fascinating world of maps and mapping." While I'm reasonably certain that not all links to Internet map sites are found here, I can almost guarantee there are more than you will find at any other single source, and it was here that I found, at last, a map generator that understood England, Multi Media Mapping.

As the mapping utility of choice for such British institutions as the Automobile Association, as well as Smooth Hound's hugehotel finder and other leading European Web sites, Multi Media Mapping seems to be MapQuest's counterpart in the U.K., and while not as full-featured, it does what it does extremely well. A simple menu quickly presented five ways to search for a destination: UK Placenames, London Streets, UK Postal Codes, UK Phone Numbers and Grid Reference. Choosing "Placenames" and entering "Blackheath" provided a choice of five possibilities. Choosing the one nearest London brought up an extremely sharp, multi-colored map, quickly loading at the default, 100,000:1 scale with number-coded icons scattered over the terrain. Scrolling down on the same page revealed all of the registered Web sites in the map area, including such helpful resources as hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. Best of all, hyperlinked to each was a detailed street map with the exact location circled in red, plus a direct link to the site's own home page. These features, combined with the program's ability to search out any destination by address, phone number or postal code, became invaluable for creating map inserts for each of our 12 overnight stops. Still, disappointingly, no routing feature was available.

In the end, we were forced to fall back on other specialized Web sites and a CD-ROM to complete our task. A first-rate U.K. hotel finder called Infotel filled in whenever Multi Media Mapping failed, and a product from Microsoft called AutoRoute Express-Great Britain '98 was used to provide flawless 8.5" x 11" color maps with highlighted routings over our preferred roads, together with incredibly accurate written directions. The same CD-ROM also printed out information on a variety of historical, cultural, and scenic attractions along the way. It would also be unfair not to mention one traditional travel resource that rounded our research: the ordinary printed guidebook. A sampling of the books we used can be found at my personal Web site, Crandall Online.

As I have concluded so many times before, the Internet is still in its awkward youth, a mere teenager in Web years. I also must admit that planning our little odyssey turned out not to be a "piece of cake" after all. I have no doubt, however, that all of the above will eventually be accomplished with a single, easy-to-use travel Web site that will do in minutes that which took us hours. When that time comes, who knows? I may even volunteer for another committee.


Jim Crandall invites you to visit his personalWeb page, where you will find easy access to all of his WWWiz columns, summaries of all of his travel Web site reviews, and LINKS to some of the best travel pages on the World Wide Web. Email comments are also welcome.


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