GIS, Texts and Images: New approaches to landscape appreciation in the Lake District

  1. 1. Ian Gregory

    University of Lancaster

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The use of GIS in historical research, Historical
GIS, is now a well established part of the
discipline of history. The field has evolved to
an extent where it can be shown to have made
a significant impact in delivering high-quality
research in books and peer reviewed journals
including the
British Medical Journal
of the Association of American Geographers
American Historical Review
Journal of
Economic History
, and the
Agricultural History
. Most of these studies are, however,
largely concerned with quantitative, social
science-based approaches to historical research.
This paper explores how approaches based on
other sources such as texts and images can
be used to allow GIS to be applied across the
disciplines of the humanities. Early research is
already suggesting that it can and indeed a new
field, spatial humanities, is increasingly being
recognised. This paper will explore one example
of this approach focusing on how we can use
GIS techniques to integrate historical texts and
modern 'born-digital' photographs to gain a
better understanding of landscape appreciation
in the Lake District.
The paper starts by looking at two early tours
of the Lake District, Thomas Gray's proto-
Picturesque tour of 1769 and Samuel Taylor
Coleridge's 'circumcursion' of 1802. We are
currently working to extend this to include
a subset of William Wordsworth's work. This
project extracted place-names from these texts
and matched then to a gazetteer to turn
them into GIS form. The advantage of this
approach is that once the GIS database has
been created the spatial information in the texts
can be mapped, re-mapped, queried, integrated
with other material, and manipulated in a
wide range of ways. The project produced a
range of maps including: simple dot-maps of
places mentioned, density smoothed maps that
use techniques pioneered in epidemiology and
crime mapping to summarise complex point
patterns, and maps of emotional response to
the landscape. Some of these were of the
individual texts, some compared and contrasted
the different texts. Other forms of analysis
integrated data from other sources such as a
Digital Elevation Model of the Lake District, and
contemporary population densities. From these
we were able to show that Gray followed the
main valleys of the Lake District and stayed in
towns overnight. He rarely travelled to heights
of more than a few hundred feet although the
higher peaks, those of over 2,500 feet, attract
considerable attention in his writing. Coleridge,
by contrast, avoided the populous parts of the
Lake District, staying in the Western Fells and
climbing Sca Fell, the highest mountain in
England, among other things. While his ascend
(and hair-raising descent) of Sca Fell is well
known, what is more interesting is that much
of his account is also concerned with time
spent in low places, similar to Gray, and also
that he names places of all heights, especially
those between 1,000 and 2,000 feet which
Gray almost completely ignores. The two tours
barely overlap, the only place where they do
significantly is Keswick, where Coleridge lived
and Gray spent several nights, and the road over
Dunmail Raise between Grasmere and Keswick
although neither account has much to say about
this part of their journey.
This approach takes us into what F. Moretti
(2005) has termed 'distant reading,' a
methodology that stresses summarising large
bodies of text rather than focusing on a few
texts in detail. We also wanted to explore
whether GIS could help with more traditional
approaches to reading. To this end we created a
KML version of the GIS implemented in Google
Earth. This placed a text on the bottom half
of the screen with a Google Earth map on
the top-half. Super-imposed on the map were
the locations mentioned in the texts, which
can be switched on and off in various ways,
and a contemporary map showing the Lakes in
1815. This allows the reader to read the text
while following the locations named using either
Google Earth's modern arial photographs or the
historical map as a backdrop. This therefore
enriches the experience of close reading of
the text by visualising and contextualising the

places mentioned. Given the numbers of places
mentioned by both authors even someone highly
familiar with the Lake District is unlikely to be
able to accurately locate all of these mentally.
An alternative approach that this framework
provides is for the user to click on a location
and ask "what have the different writers said
about this place?" To enrich this further we allow
users to link from the site to the photographic
website Flickr. Flickr allows people to upload
and share their digital photographs. Users can
tag these with metadata such as 'landscape'
or 'mountain' and can also add 'geo-tags' a
latitude and longitude that give the photo a
location. Using these allows us to link from our
texts to allow the user to see what people have
photographed nearby.
The initial idea behind linking to Flickr was
simply to demonstrate what the different areas
of the Lake District looked like to an audience
who might be unfamiliar with it, and thus
to assist the in-depth reading. It became
apparent however that there are pronounced
geographies within Flickr – some areas are
extensive photographed and some ignored,
while the different tags that people place on
their images also have pronounced geographies.
As Wordsworth is claimed to have extensively
influenced the way people today view the
landscape, particularly in the Lakes, which poses
the question "is there are relationship between
the geographies of Wordsworth's writing and the
geographies of Flickr." Using the Flickr API we
were able to extract the number of photographs
geo-tagged to locations in cells of approximately
1km square across the whole of England. This
could be done for all photos or those with
specific tags such as 'mountain(s)' or 'tree(s).'
Mapping all photographs produces some
interesting geographies, in particular, most
photos seem to be taken in the urban centres or
the main valleys. Minor roads such as that over
the passes of Wrynose and Hardknott, also seem
to encourage photography. It may be therefore
that modern visitors to the Lake District, at
least as represented by people who upload geo-
tagged photographs to Flickr, follow a tour
that is more like the Picturesque tours of Gray
than the Romantic experiences of Coleridge or
Wordsworth. In this way we are able to return to
distant reading and to integrate two apparently
incompatible sources: historical writings and
modern digital photographs.
This paper thus demonstrates the potential
of using geo-spatial approaches to integrate
disparate and apparently incompatible sources.
In it we have integrated historical texts,
historical maps, modern environmental
information giving information on the
topography, statistical data from the census
giving population densities, and born digital
images from Flickr. By bringing them together
we have been able to shed new light on a
specific topic, landscape appreciation in the
Lake District. The implications, however, are
far broader. The amount of geo-referenced data
available from multiple sources is increasing
exponentially. This can be expected to continue
particularly given the growth of user-generated
content and the availability of techniques to
automatically geo-reference texts. The challenge
is to use these sources in innovative ways to
shed new insights into research questions in the
humanities. If this can be done successfully it
will lead to a re-awakening of the importance of
geography to the humanities.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None