I do love a good walk. And as an amateur historian, I love the ancient paths and tracks that cover these islands. Not only the Roman roads which criss-cross the country – those upstart Roman new-comers often merely built upon the ancient paths that were already there. Then they took the credit. History is always written by the winners.
And I will walk, er, 90 miles….
I’m thinking about the really old paths, dating back to Neolithic times – the New Stone Age. Ancient Britain was covered with forests. So, the safest and easiest way to travel was to climb high up on a ridge. There you would have an uninterrupted view of your next destination way-mark, and an advance sighting of any potential attackers.
Look at the Ridgeway for example – aptly named. It stretches 90 miles or so across southern England from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire. Thought to be the oldest path in England, and probably originally used by neolithic sheep drovers. I’ve walked the very first few miles of the track, from its source in Wiltshire; the views are certainly panoramic – and stunningly beautiful.
But this ancient network of paths that cover this country – paths whose skeletons are still there to be seen – can wait. They’re for a later post. This one’s about paths that aren’t actually there, but which have been magicked up to appear as real as the Ridgeway.
I am talking about: ley lines.
I can see clearly now…
It all started in the 1920s with Alfred Watkins. He was a keen walker and amateur historian. Alfred walked ancient high tracks like the Ridgeway, and remarked how, as you followed them, things like tree clumps or cairns could be used as sight points. They guided the observer from one high point to another to their destination.
So far, so scientific. But then, looking at his Ordnance Survey map, Alfred remarked on something strange. Multiple landmarks on his map could be joined together with a straight line. For example, three churches might line up, or a series of woodland clumps. He was astounded – and rather excited. He’d stumbled, he thought, on a hidden, ancient path network. Not visible on the ground, but there to see on a map. And they covered the entire country.
In 1925 he published “The Old, Straight Track”, suggesting these now-lost paths, identified by landmarks, were ancient trade routes. A year later, he founded the “One Track Club” and started a craze. Soon, enthusiastic acolytes were out on their weekends, armed with map and compass, looking for landmarks which formed straight lines on the maps, to reveal hidden ancient paths.
Ley, lady ley
Alfred named these mysterious tracks ley lines. It’s the old English term “ley”, meaning a cleared space. It’s found in so many place names – I posted before about Thundersley in Essex – where a clearing was cut in the forest to worship the old Norse/Saxon god Thor.
He speculated that certain ancients, called “coleman” or “dodmen”, were specialists in creating the ley lines. They used sticks as sightlines, much as a surveyor today uses a theodolite. Arthur thought that’s why you find these words as common English surnames. And why “cole’ and “dod” crop up in many place names. He even surmised that the word “doddery” originated from the slow progress made by neolithic dodmen in a heavily wooded landscape.
As a magnificent final triumph of a fertile imagination, Alfred suggested that the chalk hill figure of the Long Man of Wilmington represents a neolithic dodman, with sighting sticks in hand.
Soon, his followers had identified hosts of paths across the country, using landmarks making straight lines on the map. And that’s where the problems began. Back in the 1920s, they’d probably have thought it “near enough the truth”. Today, we’d call the issue “data manipulation”.
So, if the third of three churches was found to be slightly adrift of a straight line, there was no harm in amending the walk description, to show a straight line. “Almost” was near enough. Conversely, if a line connecting three points went across a river, through bogs and over a mountain, rather than through the adjacent, more accessible valley, then the ley line prevailed. Inconveniences on the straight line route were ignored.
What about the landmarks themselves? Often, buildings identified on the leys were historical anachronisms. How on earth could a neolithic dodman have used the landmark of a church or folly that was only built say, a hundred years ago? Arthur’s acolytes would counter no arguments. A modern building on a ley line must have been built on the site of an earlier neolithic structure – because otherwise the ley line would not have been there. What a wonderful example of a circular argument!
This is the dawning of the age of….
The One Track Club, its founder and members might have quietly sunk into the mires of history. It was actually disbanded, after the second world war. As luck would have it though, their quirky and eccentric ideas were re-discovered and taken up with enthusiasm in the sixties, by the usual suspects – New-Agers and Hippies.
They added a sprinkling of fairy dust: ley lines were more than physical paths constructed by ancient folk to get from one point to another. Leys represented channels of psychic energy and power. The ancients, who possessed a wisdom of such things that we had lost, could interpret them, but we no longer have the skill. New leys were discovered by dowsers, tapping into the energies. Romantic and mysterious names were bestowed, such as the Apollo Athena, the Saint Michael and the Belinas lines.
One faction declared that of course the paths are physically there – because they were built to guide alien spacecraft which were visiting Earth. You can read more in John Mitchell’s The Flying Saucer Vision, 1967, if this idea grabs you..
What’s it all about, Alfie?
I so, so wish that I had thought of this para heading. What a brilliant pun! But I can’t claim it. It was dreamed up by John Timpson, the journalist. Once retired, he spent his time wandering around the countryside, writing about the things he saw. He read Alfred Watkins’ theories, and decided to follow some of the paths documented by Alfred and his followers.
Timpson was sceptical of the claims, and wanted to “follow the data”, as a scientist would say. His explorations are described in his book, Timpson’s Leylines – A layman tracking the leys. I happened across it in a second hand book-shop, and snapped it up. It describes 65 or so walks around England, and the strange and wonderful things he found at the landmarks on the lines. But Timpson also exposed the “nudges” Watkins and his followers made, to make data fit the theory.
Crossing the leys
Let’s look at The Rutting Deer Ley Line, in my home, ahem, “deer” county of Essex. Timpson named it so, because it had no name originally, and of course it needed one. As he wrote, according to some ley-hunters:
“where ley lines cross, deer will rut”.
Years earlier, a One Track Club member, Miss Slade, had documented a walk along a leyline running from Luton in Bedfordshire, in a straight line across-country to Clacton, on the Essex coast. It was intersected with a north-south line, running from Thetford in Norfolk, to the Thames. Timpson followed just a segment of the west-east line from Bishops Stortford to Rivenhall.
And the running of the deer…
He didn’t get off to a good start. Near the start point, Miss Slade’s ley line passed through Wallbury Camp, an iron age fort, and so a good candidate for a ley line marker. Sadly, when Timpson drew a course between Miss Slade’s other noted landmarks on the map, the camp was way off the straight line.
Carrying on regardless, Timpson looked for the next landmark – Little Hallingbury Camp. He couldn’t find it, either physically, or on the map or in the references . He detoured into the village of Hallingbury, not on the original ley line description, but a far more logical route. And so he continued, trying to follow Miss Slade’s original route, but often not finding the landmarks she mentioned.
Soon, he arrived in Ford End. The original ley line picks up the church before crossing the ford, but Timpson was unable to place the church on the straight line. Perhaps Miss Slade used a little poetic licence there too. Timpson then followed the line through the sites of three churches, to Rivenhall End. At least, there his straight-line route agreed with Miss Slade.
Richard Rich territory
One of those churches was at Little Leighs – in the territory of that bad Essex boy Richard Rich – buried at its sister church at Great Leighs (I love how history joins everything up).
With another fine example of nudging the facts to fit the story, Miss Slade named the church as Little Leys, and suggested the church name was very significant. In fairness, the spelling of the names of these Essex villages has meandered somewhat over the ages, so she can perhaps be forgiven.
And so, at the end of this particular ley hunt, Timpson scored a few hits, but probably as many misses, in trying to adhere to an allegedly straight ley line between the two points.
Join the dots
So, what to make of the ley theory – fact or fiction? If a series of ancient landmarks can be plotted on a straight line, it can’t be co-incidental, can it? Well, actually, yes. What Watkins and his army of Miss Slades missed was that, for each ley line, they conveniently collected the data that fitted their theory, even if it needed a nudge to fit, and quietly discarded the data that didn’t. It’s a bit like reading your horoscope, and discarding the inconvenient bad news.
What’s more, these islands are crammed with historic and prehistoric landmarks – layer upon layer. It’s what makes our history so very absorbing, and what keeps me writing these posts.
The ley-sceptic archaeologist Matthew Johnson pointed out:
“the density of archaeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere will ‘clip’ a number of sites”.
You can demonstrate this point, with any collection of things that you have a lot of. There will always be straight lines that can be devised. A ley-sceptic contributor to Wikipedia demonstrated this nicely with an 8-point leyline of pizza restaurants in London:
Let’s end back in Essex, land of the strange and quirky. I found this great example of a ley hunter’s ingenuity in finding lines between landmarks: pubs called the Compasses. It’s not far from The Rutting Deer line-end in Rivenhall.
Peter Fox the author remarks on the coincidence that a straight line can be plotted between The Compasses at Littley Green, The Square and Compasses at Fuller Street, and The Compasses at Great Totham. Interestingly, he notes that also on this line is the church at Little Leighs – mentioned earlier.
By extending the line westwards he writes, you pass through the old Ridley’s Chelmsford brewery: surely not a neolithic remnant, though? And by extending eastwards, you pass through the church at Tolleshunt D’Arcy – or at least 100 metres to the south of it. Near enough? Miss Slade would have agreed.
Here’s the link – you can make up your own mind. To mine, it’s a touching tribute to our very human trait of trying to find patterns amongst the randomness of the universe, but nevertheless a painstaking piece of work .
Hiding in plain sight
We love our old stories, and it’s so tempting to snatch at anything that supports them, ignoring any inconvenient truths. I have learned this lesson so many times, when researching these posts. But, if you’re a responsible writer, you have to find the facts to support your story. Sometimes the facts aren’t there, or are very tenuous.
That’s all right. What you should do then is differentiate between fact and opinion, between legend and myth. A legend is an old story, where you can tease out at least some validation to support it. For example, the sacredness of hares to the ancient celts, as I mentioned in my post on Easter bunnies. The contemporary Roman writer Cassius Dio wrote his own eyewitness account about this very thing, so the facts are there.
Myths are stories too, but they’re symbolic. They might not be supported by facts, but we think we can feel their underlying truths. Think of the legends of Joseph of Arimathea, underlying Blake’s Jerusalem. So, you tell your readers that your view is built on surmise, on ideas which may or may not be true, but which are nevertheless interesting.
The fault lies in not declaring which side of the line you’re on – a lesson for these strange times.