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Religion and Navigation, you'll be surprised

Religion and Navigation

So what is the link?

I’m sure that some of the early explorers appealed to their Gods before setting out on their expeditions, imagine those setting out over the sea in small craft to find out what happened over the horizon. Later when the world and the seas were charted and they navigated by the stars and a sextant, did they pray for a safe journey? I expect so.

But for us today, walking in the UK, we may pray for a safe trip, good weather or give thanks for the beautiful countryside we find ourselves in. Perhaps the desperate prayer of a walking group leader to whichever God happens to be listening

‘Dear God, please let me find myself before the rest of the group realise I don’t know where we are.’

But how would our God help us, send us a bolt of lightening? or perhaps we might find a hint that we are on the path,

or perhaps a more definite sign.

However the link I’m thinking about is physical evidence of religious activities over the ages which can help us to find our way. Especially if we are using an OS map.

On the OS maps of GB there are three symbols for places of worship, those with a spire or minaret, those with a tower and those with neither. All three contain a cross, for a spire or minaret it is mounted on a circle, for a tower it is on a square, and for all the others it is just a cross.

Check the legend on your OS map or visit

A distant church spire
A distant church spire.

In the great British countryside the majority of places of worship will be mostly churches and chapels. Those with spires or towers can make excellent navigational aids because they are usually big and can often be seen for some distance.

A church with a tower clearly seen from a road.
A church with a tower clearly seen from a road.

Although some though can be hidden away deep in the countryside, behind trees, large houses or in farmyards they are usually still in place, unlike many features marked on maps.

A small country church hidden by trees
A small country church with a tower hidden by trees

A country church, its tower hidden by a large house and garden
A country church. its tower hidden behind a country house and garden.

A small chapel

A place of worship can be used for

· Aligning your map to your surroundings if seen from a distance.

· A tick feature you can walk past on your route.

· A collecting feature, if you reach the church you have gone too far.

· An attack feature, walk to the church and then navigate for a shorter distance to your destination from a really obvious place.

In some places it is possible to see more than one church, so before you start walking towards it its best to make sure it is the correct one. You could use a compass and take bearings from both churches, triangulate and find out exactly where you are!

If on your wanderings you find a church then they are usually aligned East West with the altar at the East end and the tower at the West end. So you can use the church to align the map to the compass. (When I get out of lockdown I’m going to check this out.)

Prior to churches, stone crosses, circles and standing stones held significance in some unknown way. Usually I need my navigation techniques to find these things, but if stumbled across when lost, they may be marked on a map and help you find out where you are, a line of stones might also help you to align your map.

In more remote areas small burial mounds or cists are also supposed to be aligned east west. These are tricky to find even if you are looking for them although a few are obvious and close to paths, as to the alignment that’s also something I want to check (after lockdown).

The use of the cross for a place of worship on a map clearly stems from when Christianity was the major religion in Britain and the symbols in my current experience encompass The Church of England, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists and Quakers. It does not seem at the moment to extend to Hindu temples, synagogues or mosques. One evening searching online for non Christian based places of worship largely came to nothing. The only Mosque I was able to find on an OS map was the Central Oxford Mosque. It is marked by a simple cross even though the building has a large minaret. Again once I can get out and about I will follow this up on the ground.

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