A small village on the Somerset Levels … a large hill in Armagh … or perhaps an American photographer? In fact, things aren't what they seem.  Mountweazels are apocryphal places which were conceived to be misleading – as opposed to potentially real things that were never built, such as the Edinburgh Opera House, or simply fictitious places such as Brigadoon.

Some are copyright traps set by cartographers so that plagiarists are caught out: these include trap streets which don’t exist, real streets with deliberately mis-spelt names, and even towns that never were. Best known was the town of Argleton, which either Google Maps or Tele Atlas created around 15 years ago – in reality its location is a series of grass fields between Aughton and Ormskirk. Journalists reckoned it was a copyright trap, and in due course it was deleted from Google’s maps.

Another was the aptly-named Lye Close, a small cul-de-sac which appeared in an A-Z street map of Bristol. This cartographic easter egg was designed to catch out the map publisher’s competitors – the kind of people who don’t want to wear out their shoe leather when they can pinch someone else’s research instead.

As well as artifice, cartographers are also guilt of sins of omission. Until recently, the former Royal Ordnance Factory at Bishopton, west of Glasgow, wasn’t shown on maps. Comprising several square miles of buildings which made the explosives for artillery shells and propellants for rocket motors, the factory is no longer active, and remains fenced off. There’s a faint irony in the fact that Ordnance Survey deliberately missed a huge ordnance factory from their survey…

Conversely, biking campaigners are sometimes responsible for creating lengths of phantom cycle path. I used to overlook a pocket park with some handsome trees, a square of dogshit grass, and a through road which had been stopped up decades before. A few years ago, I noticed the 150 metre stretch of dead street had been designated on maps as a cycle path – despite being blocked by kerbs, bollards, and hillocks of rotting leaves.

Other mountweazels are false trails, deliberate confusions, and even grand deceits. During World War II, Jasper Maskelyne built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, and anti-aircraft batteries. Effectively he created a fake city, intended to conceal with real Alexandria and the Suez Canal from German bomber raids.

One well known confusion tactic came at the start of the War, when the authorities removed road signs to hinder German paratroops if they landed in rural Scotland and tried to navigate through the countryside. Of course, fake road signs have been a popular prank through time. Around ten years ago there was a fake road sign project in Lyons, France, in which "105 street signs, realised by 47 worldwide artists, and just similar enough to real traffic signs to give one pause, have been attached to street-side poles around the french city of Lyon."

All of these art pranks, honesty tests and metaphorical elephant traps seem to ring that much truer today, in an era of alternative facts and fake news. Perhaps I should also mention their patron saint, Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the “fountain designer and mailbox photographer” who haunted the pages of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, excerpted below…

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