The Elephant Stone


I was driving up the A1 between Newark and Doncaster the other day and was struck by a feeling that I’ve experienced before. And not just that the Little Chef is a rip off; standing at the side of the road like a little, fat modern day Dick Turpin. But why is it that when you travel North you feel like you’re going uphill? Well that’s the impression I get, anyway. I always undergo the same sensation whether it be the M6 skirting the edge of the Lake District up through Penrith making towards Hadrian’s Wall, with the big muscley curves that would have made Brunel nod his head with satisfaction, or The Great North Road along the rough Northumbria coast past the modern castle of Torness Power Station heading towards Edinburgh, or en route home to Yorkshire from the cosy time warp of the Isle of Wight – making each of these journeys from North to South gives me a sense of climbing a slope. And visa versa. At the back of my head I even get to believing that I use more fuel clawing myself up the rising tarmac on the Northbound journey say from Edinburgh to Dundee than I do when cruising South heading to London down the M1 when I feel to have the gradient pushing me onwards and gravity is my friend. Travelling East to West or West to East – say on the M62 over the Pennines that separate me up above Halifax from my destination in Manchester or Liverpool as obstacles –  and the sensation is different. Then I get the feeling that I’m not really travelling either uphill or downhill from A to an ultimate B but simply moving sideways. Going over Saddleworth Moor to a height of 1221 metres above sea level is just a hurdle to clear whichever direction I’m going in. It’s not the same as travelling South to North/North to South.


So why do I think this? Is North really going uphill or is it simply that my brain is so heavily preconditioned with how maps traditionally represent North and South running from top to bottom? An orientation implemented by Ptolemy way back in the second century AD. That somehow because of that habitual custom (continued from Ptolemy and firmly established by Western cartographers like Mercator who helped Europeans claim the globe as their own for the next millennia) I associate say Newcastle with up and Portsmouth with down, and my journey through this physical landscape with the orientation of the map in a book or pinned to a wall?


Ordnance Survey maps indicate the height above sea level of the A1 at Newark to be approximately twenty metres. By the time I got to junction 37 outside Doncaster I’d climbed to about forty metres above sea level. A journey of something like thirty miles. Would I really feel that twenty metre difference in height over such a distance, even assuming that the climb was regular and constant? Perhaps. But continue travelling north past Donny and tour up to Berwick-upon-Tweed and the motorway – with ups and downs along the way – has barely risen at all and still hovers between forty and sixty metres, sometimes higher sometimes lower, by which time I’ve travelled another hundred and eighty or so miles. So why do I feel this sensation of going uphill when I travel North? Do we really travel up to Aberdeen and down to Plymouth?


At times I have a Teutonic cast to my brain that’s something of an Achilles Heel. I find myself operating with a mind occasionally made up of assumptive, absolute thoughts. Some of these are obviously and categorically right. Like ginger haired people have short tempers and Barnsley Boys do it better. But others are accepted too easily and without any reflection. I put this habit of thought down to the moral bearings I was given when growing up and my own unswerving personal exactitude. Honestly. Perhaps. But for whatever reason, I sometimes take things literally and without broader reflection. Black is black and white is white. North is up and South is down. It’s like many things in life, we take points of reference. So North now traditionally orientates us (as opposed to East, from where the phrase ‘orientation’ comes; from a time when East/The Orient was placed at the top of maps). But it’s like those pictures made up of two colours, where at first glance you see a woman’s face in profile and then you squint or shift your perspective and suddenly there’s an elephant there or a bloke on a bike coming out of the second colour. We rarely stop to think about the second image, being happy to accept the first. And there’s also the fact that I have an un-technical mind. There are two kinds of men in this world, my friend, there is the man who takes his understanding of his surroundings intuitively and the man who perceives the environment around him through science and technology. I am a hairy hunter gatherer. I don’t own a Sat Nav and never read the instructions to self-assembly products. My relationship with the world is symbiotic and my responses tuned to a primeval compass that beats inside me. In other words I am a tub thumping Neanderthal. Hit it with a rock and see what happens, that’s my way forward. Live and learn through trial and error. So I am quite willing to make an assumption that a thing is so until it proves to be otherwise. For example I am of the generations (perhaps the last) whose primary experience of recorded music was playing a slab of vinyl label side up on 7 inch singles or LPs. The needle would hit the groove and you’d get sound. I remember when I got my first CD player back in about 1988 and my mind made an assumption that never really left the box at the back of my head that the playing side was label up. I never thought about it, never questioned how the disc worked, I just accepted that it did and somehow made an association with it and the old vinyl records. North is up, South is down. The earth is flat and all the planets revolve around us. Given our familiarity with discs through CD-R and DVD-RW etc since Windows and the home computer shook up our lives, I now understand it because I use it differently. I take an active role in burning a mix CD or backing up my files. But it shows how easily we can come to accept convention simply by making an assumption unconsciously. It’s not that I couldn’t understand it but simply that I never bothered to think about it. Just like North is up and South is down. The convenience of conventional wisdom. It’s easy to look without thinking and never see the elephant.



  1. technomist · March 14, 2010

    Its an interesting observation you make there. I also have felt that on the A1, even when I have gone from London to Lincolnshire, some of which is barely above sea-level.


  2. GSmudger · April 17, 2010

    Perhaps you’re looking too deeply into this. Shouldn’t you just accept that northerners are superior to southerners?

    Consequently, driving south will feel like a dip in status and intelligence, whereas driving north feels like going up in the world.

    Spare a thought for how mockneys must feel when they drive past Peterborough; the Little Chef there is always crammed with the poor blighters bleeding from every orifice and expressing the pain of social altitude sickness with brutal consonants and warped diphthongs.

    Perhaps north is at the top of the map simply because it’s always better there.


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