Notes Towards a Social History of Ley Hunting

Roger Sandell
Magonia 29, April 1988

In 1985, during the confrontation between the police and supporters of the Stonehenge Festival one newspaper reported that to prevent gatherings at any alternative place, police were guarding other sites “where ley-lines intersect”. Bizarre as this image is (one wonders if police chiefs perused back issues of The Ley Hunter, or whether the police national computer was programmed to find such sites) it is nonetheless a testimony to widespread familiarity with the ley line theory.

Briefly, the idea, first propounded by Alfred Watkins, a Herefordshire amateur archaeologist in the early 1920′s holds that the early inhabitants of Britain deliberately placed mounds, camps and standing stones across the landscape in straight lines. As time went by later structures were added to these sites. Some Roman roads followed the leys, Christian churches were built on what had been ley markers in order to take advantage of the age and sanctity already attached to them, and the keeps of mediaeval castles were sited on mounds that had marked leys millennia before. As a result it is still possible to trace these alignments on maps.

When Watkins first propounded these ideas in The Old Straight Track, the archaeological journal Antiquity refused to accept advertisments for its publication. the reaction of professional archaeologists has remained dismissive ever since, apart from an occasional willingness to consider the concept provided the claimed alignment is short, consists entirely of indisputably prehistoric sites visible from each other, and can be shown to have an astronomical significance (and provided the actual word ‘ley’ is not used to describe it).

The credibility of the theory in the eyes of the professionals is not enhanced by other beliefs held by the ley hunters. Watkins held that leys marked ancient trackways, or in some cases sightlines of astronomical significance (at least in his published work: it has been claimed that privately he held more occult ideas), but most contemporary ley hunters see them as being linked with mysterious but beneficial ‘earth forces’.

When Aimé Michel claimed to have discovered similar straight lines linking UFO manifestations in the 1950s, attempts were soon made to link the two concepts. The 1960s saw a long series of low-grade, but for a time highly publicised, UFO events around Warminster, an area rich in prehistoric remains, which seemed to add credibility to this idea. This soon became part of a body of fringe beliefs associated with the counter-culture of sixties Britain.

In recent years computer technology has been brought to bear on the ley line question. Bob Forrest, mathematician and fortean researcher has attempted to establish whether leys really do occur beyond chance expectancy and has concluded that, while this is an adequate explanation in most cases, there are one or two where chance does not seem probable. However it is not very likely that statistical arguments will resolve this controversy any more than similar statistical arguments have resolved the ESP controversy.

What is certain is that the idea of leys has an appeal that expands far beyond those who subscribe to The Ley Hunter or attend the annual ley hunters’ Moot. In 1974 a Sunday Times journalist, having read The Old Straight Track but apparently unaware of anything that had happened in the field of ley hunting since then, wrote a piece on the subject for the paper’s leisure section. The result was an enormous postbag as readers sent in their own discoveries. Some time after an item about the subject on the now-defunct TV programme Nationwide produced a similar large responce from viewers. What is the secret of its appeal?

Part of the answer may be found by going back to Alfred Watkins himself. By trade the owner of a flour mill, his spare time was filled with a wide variety of activities. In addition to work as a local councillor, Justice of the Peace and school governor, his interests included not merely archaeology, but bee-keeping, conjuring and photography (he invented several photographic devices and some of his photographs of rural life are still on display at Hereford Museum), and the selection of epigraphs at the head of the chapters of The Old Straight Track testify to his wide range of reading beyond these subjects.

It was wealthy amateurs of this nature who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had laid the foundations of archaeology. Aristocratic collectors built up their own collections of artifacts, and had no compunction about vandalising or looting sites in order to do so. Nineteenth century capitalists had staked their claim to being part of the cultural elite by engaging in similar activities. At the same time some of the Anglican clergy, isolated from large parts of the life of their rural parishes, had done much of the basic work on English local archaeology, in the same way that others had made a major contribution to English natural history.

There can be few readers of The Old Straight Track
who have not been intrigued enough to take a ruler
to their local Ordnance Survey map
to see if any leys leap to the eye

When The Old Straight Track was written in the twenties, the scope for archaeology of this type was becoming much more limited. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 preserved many of the older traditions. The aristocratic Lord Carnarvon had ventured out to an imperial setting to unearth a fabulous treasury replete, at least in popular imagination, with associations with curses and ancient magic. But this was a last triumph, as archaelogy was becoming more the preserve of the academic professional. Techniques drawn from the physical sciences were increasingly being used to enlarge archaeological knowledge. In Britain the Ministry of Works and the National Trust were playing an increasing role in the conservation of historical monuments, limiting the scope for independent amateur investigation. The new climate in archaeology found its most influential expression in Professor Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History, a major study partly influenced by Marxism which attempted the task of a detailed reconstruction of life and culture in Neolithic Europe.

In this climate ley hunting seemed to offer once again a form of archaeology that the amateur could participate in fully. There can be few readers of The Old Straight Track who have not been intrigued enough to take a ruler to their local Ordnance Survey map to see if any leys leap to the eye. The appeal of Watkins’ book to his fellow amateurs was such that it soon led to the foundation of an Old Straight Track Club, whose members exchanged discoveries and held outings to significant sites, throughout the thirties.

Members of the original Old Straight Track Club
at a visit to Stonehenge

On a wider level, Watkins’ ideas seem to be in keeping with the changing perception of the countryside. On the one hand Britain was becoming increasingly more urbanised and economic changes were making the countryside more marginal to the national economy.On the other hand the motor car, the rural hotel and the branch lines were making the countryside more accessible to the town dweller. As a result the countryside was being seen more as a timeless haven away from immediate social concerns, rather than a place where people actually lived and worked. A development which was assisted by the fact that agiculture was becoming less labour-intensive, and hence rural labour became less visible to the outsider.
The picture of Britain depicted in the photographic guide books
and travel posters produced for a new mass audience in the 1920′s
is of a gentle, tranquil, unchanging rural land

These changed perceptions of the countryside were becoming more central to definitions of the nation. Before 1914 Britain had gloried in its imperial, military and financial might, but in the post-World War I era all these things seemed under threat, and the picture of Britain depicted in the photographic guide books and travel posters produced for a new mass audience in the 1920′s is of a gentle, tranquil, unchanging rural land – a vision which had sustained many in the horrors of the Western Front.

It is easy to see how ley hunting fitted in with such perceptions. It presented a countryside whose continuity and unchanging nature were emphasised. When churches, castles, manor houses, farm ponds or stretches of highway were found on ley lines it became proof that they represented continuities going right back to prehistoric times. History and nature became fused with each other as human constructions were were found to be sited on leys that stretched from one hilltop to another, and notches or indentations on hillsides turned out to be sighting markers for leys. The countryside was transformed into a place of mystery, in which a mundane and unnoticed landmark might be the key to a great pattern stretching back to prehistory.

Viewed in this way, ley hunting seems to offer interesting parallels to what was going on in British art at the time. The twenties and thirties saw a revival of English landscape painting. However the themes of these paintings were very different from the eighteenth century when landscape painting depicted the estates and hunting parks of the aristocracy, or the works on nineteenth century painters depicting the work of rural labourers. The new landscape painters like Paul Nash used the techniques of modern art that had developed in Europe, such as cubism and surrealism, to present visions of the English countryside in which everyday landscapes become transformed into mysterious places, or reduced to semi-abstract patterns. This work reached a massive audience as a result of its use in advertising campaigns for petrol (a long running Shell campaign) and the railway companies. One of Nash’s paintings, Equivalents for the Megaliths, showing huge abstract shapes arbitrarily placed in the middle of an English rural landscape seems especially to evoke the world of ley hunting.

Interest in the concept of leys waned during the 1940s and 1950s. Its revival to an even larger audience began in the early sixties with a pamphlet, Skyways and Landmarks by Tony Wedd, a designer, art teacher and ex-RAF pilot, which for the first time made the link between leys and UFOs. A slight work of just a few pages, it nontheless attracted some attention in the ufological field, stimulating a revival of interest in the whole ley concept which was to culminate in the later sixties with leys being incorporated into the culture of the sixties’ underground. Sites like Avebury and Stonehenge became centres of pilgrimage. The long out-of-print Old Straight Track was reissued in paperback.

Tony Wedd, who helped spark off this revival was a very different figure from Alfred Watkins. By the time he wrote Skyways and Landmarks in 1961 he was already an exponent of many of the beliefs and practices that would later in the decade become identified with the underground, including anarchism, free child rearing, cannabis smoking, organic gardening, and fringe medicine. He opens the pamphlet by making a contrast between the presumed benevolence of the space visitors, terrestrial economic crisis, the arms race, road deaths and commercial advertising.

The disappointment with the ideas of progress and modernisation that Wedd voiced would emerge as a major social and political force in the sixties, not merely amid the underground, but on a wider level in many conservation and ecological movements. Against this background it is easy to see the appeal of the ley line as an alternative relationship between humanity and the past, between nature and culture. The invisible lines spanning the countryside linking the landmarks of one era to another, joining the holy places of Christianity to those of Paganism, taking in sites like the old stone circles and hillside chalk figures – that themselves seem to lie on the boundaries between the natural and artificial – provided this new consciousness with a potent symbol of integration. They were a sign that a life in harmony with the natural environment was not only possible but a secret that our earliest ancestors had possessed and we might regain.

Many years before W. H. Auden had presented a similar vision of that landscape in terms that, consciously or otherwise, precisely echo The Old Straight Track:
Across the Great Schism, through our whole landscape
Ignoring God’s vicar and God’s ape
Under their noses, unsuspected
The Old Man’s road runs where it did.
When a light subsoil, a simple ore
Where still in vogue true to his wherefore
By stiles, gates, hedgegaps it goes
Over ploughlands, woodlands, cow meadows
Past shrines to a cosmological myth
No heretic today would be caught dead with
Near hilltop rings that were so safe then
Now easily scaled by small children
Shepherds use bits in the high mountains
Hamlets use stretches for lovers’ lanes
then through cities threads its odd way
Now with gutters, a thieves’ ally
Now with green lamp-posts and white curb
The smart crescent of a high toned suburb
Giving wide berth to a new cathedral
Running smack through a new town hall
Unlookable for by logic or by guess
Yet some strike it and are struck fearless
No like can know it, but no life
that sticks to this course can be made captive
And those that know it are not stopped
at borders by some theocrat.
(Auden: 'The Old Man’s Road', quoted in Janet and Colin Bord’s Mysterious Britain)

With the revival of interest in leys came a revival of other fringe ideas about Britain’s past. In particular Glastonbury in Somerset was revived as a place of pilgrimage, with its legends of the foundation of its church by Joseph of Arimathea and the bringing of the Holy Grail to Britain. Like many legends they meant different things to different audiences. To Catholics, Glastonbury’s traditions and its Abbey ransacked by Henry VIII symbolised the ancient continuity of Christianity in Britain that had been interupted by the reformation. To the Anglican, Glastonbury’s traditions of Joseph of Arimathea gave English Christianity a lineage stretching back to the New Testament, independent of missionaries from Rome. To occultists, the mysteries of the grail and the presence of a Christian shrine in an area rich in traces of pre-history were signs of the continuity of Christian and Pagan beliefs.

To these the late 1960s adeed a revival of another theory first proposed by an archaeological amateur in the twenties – Katherine Maltwood’s Glastonbury Zodiac, the belief that trackways, roads and field boundaries around Glastonbury had been shaped in prehistoric times to form representations of signs of the zodiac miles long. Not only was the Glastonbury Zodiac revived in the late sixties, but other zodiacs were discovered inscribed across the English landscape. The most detailed exposition of any of these has been earth mysteries researcher Mary Caine’s Kingston Zodiac, covering a large area of south and west London. It is not necessary to be a believer in earth zodiacs or to be resident within the Zodiac to find a fascination in Mary Caine’s exposition as she finds traces of zodiac tradition in pub signs and street names on housing estates or amid derelict industrial areas. At one point she quotes a snatch of poetry which might serve as an epigraph for the whole earth mysteries and ley hunting movement:
The angels keep their ancient places
Turn but a stone and you will start a wing
‘Tis but you and your estranged faces
That miss the many splendoured thing.
If Alfred Watkins failed to win othodox archaeologists over to his comparitively conservative presentation of his ideas, Tony Wedd or Mary Caine’s ideas are too far away from any seriously received notions of prehistory to attain any consideration from established archaeologists. Perhaps it is more illuminating to see such writers as visionaries capable fo creating symbols that for many people have given a new meaning to the landscape and the environment. Certainly Alfred Watkins describes how the concept of leys came to him in one visionary moment, and his description of the lines is at times lyrical in style:
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… then visualise a mound, earthwork or clump of trees planted on these high points and 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… Here and there a beacon fire to lay out the track… with ponds dug to form reflecting points on the beacon tracks so it might be checked once a year when the beacon was fired on the traditional line.”

It is perhaps significant that Tony Wedd was an art teacher, a field in which Mary Caine and Paul Deveraux, the leading contemporary writer on leys, have both worked. For, considered as a symbol, the ley bears a strong affinity with some of the major themes of modern art. The Surrealist idea of the found object, the work of art created by a random process sometimes making arbitrary connections, and the idea of conceptual art, the school that seeks to divorce art from its association with purely technical skills and create a work that exists as far as possible as a concept, might both provide a frame of reference for ley hunters. In recent years the Californian artist Robert Long has experimented with creating works of art like fence,s kilometers long and hung with various materials, that in their scale and placing in the landscape resemble the leys.
If the ley hunters are right, and some of their likes really were placed there in the remote past, perhaps they are neither trackways, astronomical sightlines nor channels for earth energy, but simply early works of art, showing that the concept of the straight line across the landscape fascinated Britain’s early inhabitants as much as some of their descendents.

This article was based on a talk given, largely extempore, by Roger Sandell, at the Anglo-French UFO meeting held at Hove in March 1988.