Water Dogs

I apologise I cannot share with you the map I  am referring to by Jacob Millerd, of Bristol. I am thinking of a bigger, more detailed version of the many he produced, but this one from 1671 will give you an idea.

The river Avon winds through the city, and is dotted with a wide range of craft, from rowing boats with cows and canons to full rigged sailing ships. But the pattern is far from random. the big ships moored further downstream, to save them having to manevre whereas the smaller boats, such as the welch farmers boats moored on Welsh Back.

The big version also had a few ducks and what I assumed to be seals, apparently a long way inland, but they seemed to be dog paddling and had ears. I was bemused until I found a story about a couple having an argument near Bristol Bridge. He threatened to throw their baby into the river; she thought he did and jumped in. Then comes the interesting bit – locals launched their water dogs as was usual practice.

I looked at the map again. Could these seals be water dogs? Then I realised, they were only upstream on the map, where the old waterside houses were, not round the quays and warehouses. One of the seals had a t-bar on its back. A rescue dog. It has to be. In the centuries before the quays were properly constructed, the waterside was a long slope of mud, so many people fell in, and if this was between boats, was incredibly difficult and dangerous trying to rescue them, day or night.

These old maps are brilliant, full of character and life. Sometimes I feel like I  can wave to people in their back gardens. More so than the text, they  tell us so much about  the old city, how people saw it, how they used the streets. and more than just a picture, because these maps are lots of pictures, they must have taken an immense amount of walking about, thinking, looking, they required an understanding of the city, its dimensions and activities that we can only dream of today.

As a writer of walking books, I have spent a lot of time drawing maps, but this is in the modern age, with nice wide open spaces, clean lines of sight to get a good idea of what I am looking at. and plenty of affordable paper to jot stuff down on. Drawing maps is a great mental exercise. It is a wonderful way of exploring your environment and thinking how things fit together. How a city works.

16 thoughts on “Water Dogs

      • 🙂 Bit off piste for a blog about maps, I know. But am I wrong in thinking that some early drawings of dolphins (in common with other creatures) were based on ideas of what artists thought they looked like and something they had seen? I pretty sure that images of zebras were simply horsey shapes with black and white barrel-like stripes until artists and photographers captured profiles and patterns more accurately. Oh, and you are sort of right: My visual acuity is progressing deteriorating due to macular aberrations – which goggles do not improve. Ha!


      • early pics of animals were based on what they were thought to represent – as in beastiaries. drawing from life is a very recent idea. as are accurate biographies. ostriches were described as chickens that could run fast so were shown as chickens with the legs of horses. elephants in this country were seen in crowds, so they often were shown with horses legs also.


    • I think it is in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, but can’t recall the date. I have just moved house but if you need the details and have access to this – copies in Britsol Central Library or British Library – I can hunt it out when I have unpacked. Glad you liked it.


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