Alfred Watkins (1855-1935)

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935), perhaps photographing a ley line…

From Neolithic trackways to channels of mystical energy

Ley lines (often known more simply as Leys) are the most enduring and well known of the New Age archaeological beliefs. Leys are supposed to be alignments that stretch across the landscape (generally that of Great Britain, although other places are said to possess them), they thought to have been established in the distant past by prehistoric people. They are usually identified by so-called ‘ley-hunters’ using maps showing ancient sites, churches, crossroads and so on located along a straight line that can range from one or two to many kilometres in length. Most ley lines are identified simply by an aligned placing of marker sites, but some are supposed to be marked by straight tracks along part of their alignment.

The idea of ley lines came to Alfred Watkins, a locally well-known Herefordshire businessman and amateur archaeologist, on 30 June 1921. He was looking for features of interest on a map of the Blackwardine area when he spotted a straight alignment passing through various ancient sites and churches. He later claimed that he saw “in a flash” a whole pattern of lines stretching across the landscape, although he had no underlying theory for their function, whilst out riding near Bredwardine in 1920. After this sudden revelation, Watkins gradually became convinced that these ley lines were the remnants of Neolithic trading routes. His first publication, Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps, and Sites in 1922, did not receive much attention. The next book, though, created a minor storm of controversy, although not for the right reasons.

At the end of The Old Straight Track, published in 1925, he wrote:

…imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and paid out until it touched the “high places” of the earth at a number of ridges, banks, and knowls. Then visualize a mound, circular earthwork, or clump of trees, planted on these high points, and in low points in the valley other mounds ringed round with water to be seen from a distance. Then great standing stones brought to mark the way at intervals, and on a bank leading up to a mountain ridge or down to a ford the track cut deep so as to form a guiding notch on the skyline as you come up. In a bwlch or mountain pass the road cut deeply at the highest place straight through the ridge to show as a notch afar off. Here and there, at two ends of the way, a beacon fire used to lay out the track. With ponds dug on the line, or streams banked up into “flashes” to form reflecting points on the beacon track so that it might be checked when at least once a year the beacon was fired on the traditional day. All these works exactly on the sighting line. The wayfarer’s instructions are still deeply rooted in the peasant mind to-day, when he tells you—quite wrongly now— “You just keep straight on”.

The writing was visionary and compelling, offering a new dimension to the prehistoric past that locked it firmly into the present day. Gone were the then-popular waves of invaders, constantly reinventing the British landscape; in Watkins’ vision, this ancient web still exists, albeit in fragments, and we live our lives unknowing in its midst. As a network, though, it was a purely practical one: it enabled Neolithic traders to move around Britain, exchanging their goods in return for sustenance. His ideas soon attracted followers, who were able to identify ley lines everywhere in Britain.

Watkins tried to use a mathematical proof to show that the distribution of the key points along the ley lines he identified could not have been a result of chance, Correctly believing that the more points found to lie on a single line on a map would improve the credibility of the alignment. Their interpretation as prehistoric routes was as far as Watkins was prepared to go, despite the fact that numerous ley lines travelled across prohibitively steep hillsides, across rivers at points that cannot be forded and through the middle of bogs. He was convinced that his mathematics showed that too many lines with four or more markers could be identified than would be predicted by chance.

The archaeological community was unimpressed, though. The prestigious, recently founded journal Antiquity refused to carry an advertisement for the book, treating it as beneath the dignity of the publication. In retrospect, this was a mistake, as it has allowed believers in ley lines to accuse the editor, Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford (1886-1958), of censorship and attempting to stifle debate about new theories. However, Crawford’s reasons were straightforward: for ley lines to be acceptable to the archaeological community as prehistoric trackways, Watkins would need to demonstrate that either the alignments could be shown to be genuinely ancient by archaeological means or that the markers along their lengths were similarly ancient. This was something that Watkins had not done and never did. While some markers, such as standing stones, were genuinely prehistoric, the majority were not. Instead, he speculated that most medieval churches were built on sites that had been sacred in prehistory, that lanes in the countryside have run on the same course for millennia and that straight lengths of Roman road adapted these earlier tracks. This was not good enough to convince archaeologists who wanted to see evidence they could recognise.

Moving towards the mystical

Speculation about the meaning and purpose of ley lines continued after Watkins’s death in 1935. His leys were too different from what was acceptable to the mainstream to be allowed to keep their original, all-too-mundane purpose as mere trackways. A start was made in 1936 by the occultist Dion Fortune (Violet Mary Firth, 1890-1946), whose novel The Goat-Foot God put forward the idea that ley lines were ‘lines of power’ linking prehistoric sites, although she neglected to specify what sorts of ‘powers’ might be involved. After the Second World War, Guy Underwood (1883-1964) believed that nodes in the system – places where two or more ley lines meet or cross – could be detected by dowsing. Indeed, he believed that dowsing revealed buried lines of energy that could explain the layout of Stonehenge, including why some stones were not upright, the design of the Uffington White Horse and other well known ancient sites, right through to medieval cathedrals. The scene was thus set for the elevation of ancient trackways to something more spiritual.