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To be able to read the shape of the ground (relief) from a map is the most important part of map reading as well as the most fascinating. It is this aspect of understanding the British map that most people find difficult: The common methods of showing relief (shape of the ground) on maps are: a. Hachures (light and heavy shading to show slopes).

b. Hill shading (shows by depth of tint what hachures show in line). c. Spot heights and trig points (see legend).

d. Contours (a thin brown line representing height above sea level).

Layer tints (over shading used in conjunction with contours). Form lines (approximate contours that have not been accurately surveyed in). The list above may seem formidable. In fact (a) and (b) are variations of the same thing and their use is mainly limited to showing outcrops, cliffs and scree (see the legend at the side of a map under the section headed 'Heights and Rock Features'); (c) are points on the ground indicated with a dot on the map and number next to the dot which is the height in metres above average sea level; and (d), (c) and (f) are all variations of the same thing - contours - and make no attempt to give any illusion of ground shape.

e. f.

Contouring is the most usual way of showing the shape of the ground on British maps. As already stated, contours make no attempt to give any illusion of relief and it is the failure to realize this that gives some people difficulty in understanding them. Contours are entirely conventional but once the convention is understood a general idea of the country can be got very quickly, without detailed study of the map, and heights and slopes at any point can be read from the map.


The idea of a contour is very simple: it is an imaginary line following the surface of the ground at a certain level. If you walk around a hill at a certain level, going neither uphill nor down, you will be following the contour for that level. Your path drawn on the map would be a contour (this is where the term "Contouring" comes from). Imagine that you walk round the hill at a number of different levels, at the end of each

circuit climbing up until you are 10 metres higher than your previous level. Then your paths drawn on the map will give a contoured plan of the hill with a vertical interval of 10 metres between contours.

Another way of thinking of contours is to imagine a hill cut into a number of horizontal slices. The line of the edge of each cut is a contour and is the same as the path you would have taken if you had been walking round the hill at that level. The diagram to the side shows an elevation (side view) and plan (birds eye view) of a hill with its contours.

You should be able to see that the shape of a contour indicates the shape of the ground. Imagine again that you are walking round a hill at successive levels, where the slope of the hill is gentle your path will be a considerable distance, horizontally, from your last path below: on gentle slopes contours are far apart. Where the slope of the hill is steep your last path will be close below you: on steep slopes contours are close together. See the diagram to the side which shows two different slopes as both the plan (on the map) and the elevation (on the ground). When you come to a spur, if you go straight on, you will have to climb up to go over it. To remain on the same level, like the contour, you must turn away from the top of the hill. Where there is a spur, contours jut out away from the top of the hill. When you come to a re-entrant the opposite happens; you, and the contours, turn inwards towards the top of the bill. Further explanation of spurs and re-entrants is given later on. So, without any calculations, the contours show quite simply the comparative steepness of the slopes, the spurs, and the re-entrants. If the ground is broken and rugged there will be many small spurs and reentrants and your path will he constantly turning in and out: broken and rugged country is indicated by irregular, sharply turning contours. Where the slopes are smooth, as on the Downs or the Plains, your path will curve smoothly, bending out as it follows the swell of a spur and swinging in at a re-entrant: on smooth slopes the contours lie in smooth flowing curves.

On a map, each contour is drawn at a specific height above sea level and each contour is the same vertical distance above the one below. The difference in height between contours is called the Vertical Interval (VI). It is from the height and spacing of the contours that the shape of the ground is worked out and, if necessary, can he calculated accurately. The heights of contours are written into the contour lines at intervals along their length. On maps of Great Britain these heights are always written so that they read facing uphill; in flattish country this is a great help In discovering the direction of the slope. The VI is always given in the marginal information . New map editions show heights in metres.

Each ground shape, such as a spur or a knoll, produces its own particular contour pattern. To know these patterns makes map reading much easier and helps in understanding contours. The drawings below show some forms and their contour patterns. Look for these forms when using a map on the ground; do not try to learn them indoors, as they will mean little without practical examples. Note that unless you know the direction of the slope each pattern might be its opposite: thus a spur and a re-entrant have the same pattern. When there are no contour heights marked close by, and there Is no feature such as a river to show the direction of a slope, always follow the contours to some point where their height is marked, so that you can tell which way the ground falls.

These are the most important things to remember about contour patterns: a. Contours close together mean steep slopes. b. Contours far apart mean gentle slopes. c. When contours are evenly spaced the slope is uniform. No natural slope is perfectly uniform, and such slopes will always have small undulations and contain pockets of dead ground (i.e. ground that cannot be seen). d. When the spacing of the contours, reading from high to low, decreases, the slope is convex. Convex slopes mean short visibility and fields of fire; dead ground comes close. e. When the spacing of the contours, reading from high to low, increases, the slope is concave. Concave slopes mean long visibility and fields of fire; there should be little dead ground. f. Meandering contours a varying distance apart, but never very close, mean undulating ground. In such country it is important to note the direction of the general fall of the ground. g. Gentle curving contours indicate a country of rounded slopes. As the country becomes steeper the contours come closer together; as it becomes more rugged the curves become less regular.

Uniform Slope. A uniform slope is shown by equally spaced contours. An example can be seen in GS 0995 (Sheet 99), where the hill rises uniformly from about 250m in the NEcorner of the grid square to over 330 m in the SW corner. Note that each contour is approximately 75 m apart. It can therefore be seen that the hill rises about 10 m vertically in every horizontal 75 m. The hill in fact rises like this:

Concave Slope. A concave slope 'bends in' rather like a cave and is usually associated with a re-entrant. The contour lines are close together at the higher end of the feature than they are at the lower end. A good example of a concave slope can be found to the north of the Shooting house at GR 083824 running from GS 0882 to GS 0783 and West Scrafton. Note how the 470-340m contours are about 50 m apart, whereas the interval between contours increases noticeably from the 330-250 m lines. The slope runs north-west of the road like this:

Convex Slope. The opposite to a concave slope, a convex slope 'bends outward' and are often associated with the forward slope of a spur where one cannot see the ground (dead ground) forward of the top of the slope. The contour interval decreases as the slope descends. Look now at the GS 1084 Jenny Binks Moss and a line running NW to Honey Pots GS 1084 for an example of a convex slope. Spurs and Re-entrants. A re-entrant invariably lies between two spurs like this:

Now look at GS 1082 and note how the stream runs from SW to NE down the reentrant between the two spurs in the areas of GR 102828 and 109824. Knolls. A knoll or 'hillock' can easily he found by finding an area in which joined contour lines get smaller within each other. A good example of a hill can be found in GS 1083, whereas an example of a knoll can be found at GR 107848. The hill should not be difficult to read, but the knoll would look like this:

Note also that the knoll is on a spur. Cols. A col is the low ground that forms a type of valley between two knolls - hence the alternative term 'saddle', which is more descriptive of the feature.