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The Old Straight Track

The Old Straight Track

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The Old Straight Track

3.5/5 (3 оценки)
538 страниц
5 часов
11 сент. 2014 г.


A beautiful new edition of a classic work of landscape history, in which Alfred Watkins introduced the idea of ancient 'ley lines' criss-crossing the English countryside.

First published in 1925, THE OLD STRAIGHT TRACK described the author's theory of 'ley lines', pre-Roman pathways consisting of aligned stone circles and prehistoric mounds, used by our Neolithic ancestors.

Watkins's ideas have intrigued and inspired generations of readers – from historians to hill walkers, and from amateur archaeologists to new-age occultists.

This edition of THE OLD STRAIGHT TRACK, with a substantial introduction by Robert Macfarlane, will appeal to all who treasure the history, contours and mystery of Britain's ancient landscapes.

11 сент. 2014 г.

Об авторе

Alfred Watkins was an amateur archaeologist, who was born in 1855 in Herefordshire, where he lived his entire life. In 1921, he developed his theory of ley-lines in the landscape. Watkins was a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, an authority on bee-keeping and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He died in 1935.

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The Old Straight Track - Alfred Watkins

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Table of Contents




(Photographs by Alfred Watkins.

Diagrams and Sketches by W. H. McKaig)

Frontispiece: Alfred Watkins

Maps of Hereford and surrounds


  1.      The Woolhope Club at Goodrich Court (photograph by J. Parker)

  2.      Farmland near Abbey Dore

  3.      Bronge Age Cist

  4.      Watkins’ inscription at Dinmore Hill

  5.      Ruins of Wigmore Castle

  6.      Distant View of Knighton


  1.      Track sighted on Notch, Llanthony


  1.      Caple Tump, assembly point for amusement

  2.      Caple Tump, flat top, with earth walling

  3.      South Radnor Mound Alignment

  4.      Pilleth Mound Alignment

  5.      A Cotswold Ley

  6.      A Hereford Church Ley

  7.      Hundred House Mount

  8.      Turret Tump, Michaelchurch-on-Arrow

  9.      The Batch Twt, Almeley

10.      Mound, Capler Camp

11.      Hundred House

12.      Part of S. Radnor Mound Alignment

Based upon the Ordnance Survey Map with the sanction of the Controller of H.M Stationery Office

13.      Church Leys, Woolhope to Aconbury

Based upon the Ordnance Survey Map with the sanction of the Controller of H.M. Stationery Office

14.      Arthur’s Stone, mound sighted on Green Way

15.      Arthur’s Stone, near view

16.      Hills round Radnor Vale

17.      Radnor Forest, skyline with mounds

18.      The Black Mixen

19.      Avenue to Old Radnor Church – on Ley

20.      Ley through New Radnor Mound to above

21.      Scotch Firs, on barrow site, Radnor Vale

22.      Radnor Vale, eastern end.

Based upon the Ordnance Survey Map with the sanction of the Controller of H.M. Stationery Office

23.      The Four Stones, New Radnor

24.      Mark Stone, Knobley to Burfa

25.      Mark Stone, Kinnerton, and Whimble

26.      Natural Boulder, Old Radnor

27.      Burfa Camp, contour vallum

28.      Mark Stone, Beggar’s Bush, New Radnor

29.      Mark Stone, Cwm Bwnt, Clyro, Radnor

30.      Mark Stone, The Leys, Weobley

31.      Mark Stone, English Bridge, Shrewsbury

32.      Mark Stone, Leominster

33.      Mark Stone, at well, Michaelchurch-on-Arrow

34.      Mark Stone, Wergin’s Stone, Sutton

35.      Mark Stone, Vowchurch, at ford, in churchyard

36.      Long Stone, Staunton, Gloucestershire

37.      Long Stone, Wern Derries, Michaelchurch Escley

38.      Long Stone, Harold’s Stones, Trelech, Mon.

39.      The Clump, Mansel Gamage, distant view

40.      The Clump, Mansel Gamage, near view with Lady Lift

41.      The Clump, Mansel Gamage, with mark stone

42.      Mark Stone for ford, Wye Street, Hereford

43.      The Queen Stone, Huntsham, Symonds Yat

44.      The Queen Stone, Huntsham, Symonds Yat

45.      Holy Well, Cornwall

46.      Cresset, Llanthony

47.      Churches align to Dinedor Camp. (Telephoto)

48.      Devil’s Arrow, Boroughbridge, Yorks

49.      Herrock to Hanter, sighted track

50.      Hanter to Herrock

51.      Tre-Fedw Mound, with Skirrid Mountain

52.      Tre-Fedw Mound, sighted on road to south

53.      Tre-Fedw Mound, sighted on road to north

54.      Stoned Track, Hereford, section

55.      Stoned Track, Hereford, surface

56.      Hollow Road to Wye Ford, Much Fawley

57.      Hollow Road to Sky Notch, Wormsley

58.      Water Sight Point, Moat, Eardisland

59.      Water Sight Point, Causeway through Pond, Holmer

60.      Eardisland, track through mound and ford

61.      Longtown, hollow road to ford and notch

62.      Longtown, causeway of above through ford

63.      Longtown Castle Keep, on mound

64.      Longtown Castle, aligning with church to Black Hill

65.      Longtown Castle, camp earthwork aligning to

66.      Sight Notch, in desert, Ghaza

Photo by C. H. Harvey

67.      Sight Notch, Pandy

68.      Sight Notch, Cwm-y-Yoy

69.      Sight Notch, Llanthony

70.      Sight Notch, Black Darren, Longtown

71.      Sight Notch, Coldman’s Hill

72.      Sight Notch, Rhiw-cwrw

73.      The Dodman (snail)

74.      Bwlch-yr-Effengyl, Black Mountains

75.      Llanthony, sighted track through Abbey

76.      Llanthony, sighted track through Abbey, reverse direction to notch

77.      Llanthony Abbey, with mountain tracks

78.      Initial points, Malvern Range, Herefordshire side

79.      Herefordshire Beacon or British Camp

80.      Cole’s Tump, with Black Mountains, etc.

81.      Walterstone Camp and ley

82.      Ivington Camp and leys

83.      Credenhill, Magna, and Brinsop Camps

Based upon the Ordnance Survey Map with the sanction of the Controller of H.M. Stationery Office

84.      Dinedor Camp and ley

85.      Aconbury Camp and ley

86.      Capler Camp and ley

87.      Capler Camp, within the vallum

88.      Longtown Castle, Camp, and leys

89.      Sighting Staves, Long Man, Wilmington

90.      Sighting Staves, Statue at Tut-ankh-amen’s Tomb

91.      Sighting Staves, Pilgrim’s

92.      Sighting Staves, a Roman Optio’s

93.      Sighting Staves, a Pilgrim’s

94.      Method of using sighting staves

95.      Pembridge Market House and mark stone

96.      Grosmont, market stone – prehistoric

97.      Grosmont, market stone in Market House

98.      Pembridge: socket stone of Market Cross

99.      Bristol Nails (market tables) the oldest

100.    Bristol Nails (market tables) all four

101.    ‘Sacrificial’ Stone, the Malverns

102.    Giant’s Cave, the Malverns

103.    Holme Lacy Church, orienting over Wye ford

104.    Stonehenge, with aligning barrows

105.    Stonehenge, sketch of

106.    Cascob Church, on a mound

107.    Wigmore Church, on a bank

108.    Leys through Bristol churches

109.    Bristol Church Ley, through St.    John’s Gate

110.    Ditto, reverse view to Christchurch

111.    Offa St. ley, Hereford, from St. Peter’s, sighted on Cathedral

112.    Ditto, sighted on St. Peter’s, from Cathedral

113.    Ditto, from Aylestone Hill, showing above with Beechwood Knowl

114.    Ditto, above three points and a pond aligning

115.    Silchester, temples and churches on leys

Based on the Map of the Society of Antiquaries, with their sanction

116.    Richard’s Castle, church orients to mound

117.    Ewias Harold Castle, church orients to mound

118.    Kilpeck Castle, church orients to mound

119.    Exeter Castle, Saxon windows

120.    Skenfrith Castle, central keep on mound

121.    Wigmore Castle, on mound

122.    Ewias Harold Castle, mound site

123.    London Roman Walls, align to White Mount

124.    Cruger Castle, Radnor Forest

125.    Castle Farm, Madley, causeway to mound

126.    Castle Farm, Madley, aligning to Aconbury Camp

127.    Sutton Walls, camp and church ley

128.    Oxford City church leys

129.    Brecon Camps

* These six photographs did not appear in the original 1925 edition of The Old Straight Track.

Alfred Watkins



On the afternoon of 30 June 1921, a man was driving through Blackwardine in Herefordshire, when he stopped at a crossroads to study his Ordnance Survey map. Looking from map to landscape and back again, he was astonished by what he perceived. A series of notable landmarks – hilltops, a stretch of old lane, two encampments – lay in a dead ‘straight line’ that extended over several miles. Excited by his discovery, he ‘followed up th[is] clue of sight’ from nearby high ground, and soon understood that this Blackwardine line was not isolated, but part of a network of straight tracks that stood out like ‘glowing wires all over the surface of the country’, intersecting at the sites of standing stones, earthworks, wells, ridge-notches and other charismatic waypoints, or radiating out of hilltops like the spokes from a hub.

The man, whose name was Alfred Watkins (1855–1935), would often later recall that moment, and characterise it in Jungian terms as a ‘flood of ancestral memory’ – a seeing with ancient eyes that instantly transformed his sense of the terrain. Yet he would insist that what he had witnessed that day was not to be understood as a superimposition on the landscape. Quite the opposite – it was the sudden standing-clear of a truth that had lain in plain sight all along, visible, if only one knew how to look.

Three months after Watkins’ Blackwardine revelation, the members of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club gathered for an unusual meeting. The Woolhope was the field society of Herefordshire and its adjacent districts, and Watkins was its well-regarded president and long-standing member. Like many such clubs around England at the time, its character was sweet and very English – combining passionate antiquarianism and natural history (‘Fungus Forays’ and ‘Ladies’ Days’) with a head-down parochialism. While the rest of Europe had been engaged in the death struggle of the First World War, the Woolhopians had gathered to hear papers on ‘Bramblings in North Herefordshire’ and ‘The Gravels of the Basin of The Lower Lugg’.

On that September afternoon, around fifty members of the Club – Reverends, Lieut-Cols, Drs and sundry others – met at 2 p.m. at Holmer, then a village just north of Hereford. Waiting for them there was Mr McKaig, Watkins’ friend and assistant, who led them on a promenade of the area, taking in the church, Holmer Hill and the grounds of Holmer Park, and inspecting a number of old paths, as well as what McKaig curiously called ‘sighting ponds’ and ‘paved causeways’. This walk was the preamble to the main event of the day. That evening the Woolhopians regathered in the Club Room at Hereford Free Library to hear a lecture from Watkins entitled ‘Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites’, which was ‘fully illustrated with excellent lantern slides’.

That lecture, delivered by a retired local businessman in a county clubroom to a tiny audience, would have remarkable results. Its afterlives are with us still. Anyone now interested in British landscape, counter-culture, or both will – at some point – surely find their way back to Watkins. In the later 1920s and 1930s, he would send thousands of people fanning out into the English countryside, following paths and tracks, visible and invisible, actual and imagined, carrying maps, compasses, poles and string for sighting alignments, toting rudimentary theodolites, scouring hedge banks for waystones, river bottoms for cobbles and fish ponds for paving slabs. After the 1969 publication of John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis, which linked Watkins’ leys with the Chinese geomancy of feng shui, his work would spawn countless theories of occult earth mysteries and New Age psycho-naturalism: stories of telluric lines of force that ran invisibly across countries, their routes marked above ground by megaliths and tumuli, and with dowsing and crystal-swinging allowing their routes to be determined. His leys would inspire cults of goat-foot gods and black-dog lines, and would be folded into theories of psychic energies, magnetic fields, Atlanticism, aliens and other forms of extra-terrestrial presence. They would muddy the waters of mainstream archaeology, and extend archaeology’s lunatic fringes for decades. Ley lines would even end up in the songs of Jethro Tull, the land art of Hamish Fulton and the novels of Thomas Pynchon, to whom – arch-conspiracist and lover of red herrings and wild geese as he is – they must have been irresistible. And this wonderful, tangled web of consequence was set spinning by the murmurings of an amateur prehistorian to a small salon of county burghers.

1. Members of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club gather at Goodrich Court, Herefordshire, 1917. Watkins became president of the club in 1919.

Watkins’ revolutionary proposition that September evening ran as follows: his Blackwardine vision had revealed to him ‘the outdoor footprints of a long-past people’, which took the form of a ‘geometric aspect of topography’. For prehistoric man in Britain had traversed the landscape not – as one might have thought – by following the lines of the land: river and stream beds, mountain ridges and other such features that offered routes of least resistance. Instead, they had developed a vast system of tracks that ran arrow-straight between ‘terminal points’ – highly visible features such as hilltops – and joining up as they went subsidiary ‘marking’ or ‘sighting’ points. These tracks, counter-intuitively, did not go ‘along a selected route’, following the logic of the landscape, but instead proceeded up and over ‘whatever steep and seemingly improbable obstacles come in the way’.

Watkins called these tracks ‘leys’ or ‘ley lines’, and he suggested to his audience that during their afternoon tour around Holmer they had seen the relic evidence of one such ley. It was important to understand, he explained, that the tracks existed mostly as a series of aligned waymarkers, rather than as continuous track. This was why the countryside did not still bear the vestigial traces of thousands of continuous miles of paths. The ley system survived mostly as significant ‘mark-points’ and ‘cross-roads’. Changes to the landscape over millennia had encrypted and disguised the ley system, but Watkins had seen it stand clear again, and was now communicating its existence to the wider world. He invited his audience to imagine, as he would later put it:

a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and laid out until it touched the ‘high places’ of the earth at a number of ridges, banks and knowls. Then visualise a mound, circular earthwork, or clump of trees, planted on these high points, and in low points in the valley, other mounds ringed around with water to be seen from a distance. Then great standing stones brought to mark the water at intervals, and on a bank leading up to a mountain ridge or down to a ford the track cut so deep as to form a guiding notch on the skyline as you come up.

So the ‘contour-paths’ and ‘ridgeway tracks’ by which people now tended to walk the English landscape were, Watkins explained, regrettable aberrations from the old straight tracks. The ancient English road was not, in fact, G. K. Chesterton’s ‘rolling road’ or ‘reeling road’. Rather, the ur-path was a straight path. The meanders of modern tracks were due to the privatisations of the Enclosures, which meant that footpaths had to wind around obstacles, rather than running straight through common land. There are – in this evocation of a pre-propertied terrain – fascinating glimpses in Watkins’ work of the battles concerning access on foot to private estates that would combust into the Mass Trespass movements of the late 1920s and 1930s (notably at Kinder Scout in the English Peak District and in the Cairngorms in Scotland).

No matter that anyone who has ever tried to traverse open country on foot knows that straight lines are never the most efficient routes to progress. No matter that Watkins himself had once broken his ankle while trying to pace out a ley up a steep hillside. He argued hard for his vision, and even though he would later denounce his denouncers for their impertinence in assuming they could retrieve prehistoric phenomenologies of movement, he showed no reluctance in doing the same himself: ‘The outdoor hunter life’, he explained, had endowed our Neolithic ancestors with the ‘necessary physique’ for walking directly up mountainsides.

Why, though, had our predecessors created such a system of paths? To answer this question, Watkins moved fearlessly into speculative paleo-anthropology, describing a prehistoric population who were ‘tool-using animals’, obliged to move between ‘far distant spots’ in order to replenish their supplies of salt, flint, food, clay, which they then stockpiled in depots. It was for the purpose of reliable navigation between these depots that the ley system had been devised: the main task of the network was to ‘point the way’, to facilitate route-finding and to streamline trade. Its purposes were therefore purely pragmatic, at least in its first manifestation.

Early the following year, Watkins published an expanded booklet version of his Woolhope lecture under the modest title Early British Trackways. Nineteen twenty-two was the annus mirabilis of European literary modernism: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses appeared, both of them texts that – like Early British Trackways – were animated by the relationship between mythography and modernity, and both of them – like Early British Trackways – prolific in their quotations from other sources. Watkins’ book can, I think, be seen as a minor supplement to this moment of modernism: a document of romantic provincialism in which conservative and avant-garde sensibilities struggle together.

Three years later, after extensive fieldwork in support of his thesis, Watkins published The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones (1925), a 235-page book with 129 illustrations, which offered ‘the complete logical case’ for the existence of the path network along ‘with necessary evidence to prove it’ – and provided a how-to guide for would-be ley-finders. In the course of the book, Watkins also proposed a totalising account of the emergence of culture in Britain: a culture not just organised around the straight-track system, but actively produced by it. The straight path, he asserted, was the archetype out of which had issued the ‘Spirit of the British Countryside’. The straight path was the making of Merlin’s enchanted Isle; it was the midwife of Gramarye. In his narrative, what had begun as a system of navigation and trade morphed, over thousands of years, into a symbolic structure which infused its design into religion, settlement patterns and the practice of everyday life. Around 3600 BC, according to his dating, magic and faith started to merge with the trade-pragmatics of the leys. Temples developed at the points where leys crossed. Burial at mark-points became desirable. The mark-points and crossroads served first as meeting points, then as assembly points, then as cultural centres, and subsequently determined the location and growth of villages and towns (reading the pages in The Old Straight Track, over which Watkins describes the formation of culture, is not unlike watching the computer Civ in operation: the speeded-up game-play of civilisation coming into being in a matter of minutes).

Watkins was not an immodest man, but he was an ambitious one. He came to regard his discovery of the ley network in Herefordshire as merely a fragment of a vast global system of leys. Quoting George Borrow’s line about ‘the brotherhood of artificial mounds’ (the family of tumps, twmpas, tumuli and other organised earth excrescences that was scattered across the world) he suggested that conspicuous landmarks found in Uganda, India, Texas, Palestine, Egypt, Ireland, Burma, Mexico and Syria might all be evidence of ley work in those distant counties. As such, he felt his discovery to be world-circling in its implications, comparable to the discoveries of Layard at Nimrod or Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia. In this manner, he piggy-backed on the surge of public interest in archaeology not as a dry field science dedicated to incremental knowledge gain, but one which moved by sudden lightning flashes of revelation – a practice more like treasure hunting than history. Formal archaeology itself was instantly distrustful of Watkins, however: the editor and founder of the journal Antiquity, the eminent O.G.S. Crawford, refused to include a paid advertisement for the book, let alone to review it.

2. Aligned field gates near Abbey Dore, Herefordshire.

Much of that distrust concerned Watkins’ method. For his books are fabulous gallimaufries of quotation – audacious centos of proof. In a methodological mimicry of the ley system, he paid little heed to disciplinary boundaries, preferring to align significant items of data from wherever he found them. Devoid of anxiety over intellectual trespass, in The Old Straight Track Watkins ranges across philology, geography, archaeology, etymology, entomology, Egyptology and more. He practises a hectic and hyper-connective path-making, whereby the London suburb of ‘Tooting’ can be etymologically connected to ‘Tutankhamun’ and then back again to ‘Totteridge’; whereby ‘blag’, ‘black’ and ‘blake’ are all words stemming from the lexis of prehistoric surveying. No matter that supporting evidence for such relationships was meagre; the alignment was the proof. Watkins also worked to relate his own memories, taking back-bearings into his biographical past and describing how certain events that had seemed unconnected (the childhood discovery of a gold coin glinting in the shallows of the Honddu river; a glimpse up at notches in a Black Mountain ridgeline as a young man) suddenly appeared as conjoined waymarkers, pointing towards the Blackwardine revelation that had changed both his life and – he hoped – the contemporary understanding of prehistory.

None of it was true, of course. Crawford’s scepticism was well-founded. Watkins’ work was an example of what is known as ‘apophenia’ or ‘patternicity’, which Michael Shermer defines as ‘the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise’, and ‘the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency’. Once Watkins had incorrectly distinguished ‘pattern’ (the alignments) within ‘noise’ (the dispersal of significant landscape features), he then sought to generate ‘intention’ for his pattern in the form of a caste of prehistoric surveyors and way-makers.

But among the reasons for Watkins’ influence, beyond the sheer charisma of his central idea, regardless of its falsifiability, is his tone. Reading Watkins, I find myself repeatedly drawn into his worldview, intrigued even as I am frustrated, and aware as I am of its historical dubiety. In The Old Straight Track, he tells his researches and their revelation as an adventure story and a detective mystery, infused with the atmosphere of a quest, moving through the byways both of landscape and scholarship. He embodies the down-to-earth Englishman, hat-holdingly humble, wary of arrogance or over-claim (‘I only attempt the few obvious deductions’) and presenting himself as a ‘foot archaeologist’ – a provincial market-man who has, merely by going for a walk, discovered one of the landscape’s greatest secrets. As Stephen Daniel suggests in an excellent essay on Watkins, his discovery was, like gravity (relaxing in an orchard) and steam power (tinkering in a kitchen), profoundly English in its everydayness (although unlike the other two discoveries, of course, it was thoroughly wrong).

So everyday, in fact, that anyone could do it. What sent Watkins’ ideas viral was his urging of his readers to get out into the landscape and discover their own leys. His books conjured into being a collaborative cartography, a kind of crowd-sourcing avant la lettre. His recommendations came at a receptive moment, as walking and back-to-nature movements underwent their revival in Britain. ‘Ten years ago it was at very long intervals that we met other ramblers’, a journalist called Fred Hando wrote in the South Wales Argus in 1934, discussing Watkins’ influence, but:

3. Enthusiasts gather around a Bronze Age cist near Llanveynoe in Herefordshire’s Olchon Valley, mid-1930s.

[t]o-day the roads, the lanes, the meadow-paths are all ‘a-ripple with mirth’ at the merry bands of youngsters touring the countryside on foot. Take note, you sober-sided historians, how young, aged and middle-aged England greets post-War depressions. And you philosophers, look to it that the healthy, sturdy tramps arrive not before you at a solution of your problems. With great satisfaction therefore, let us record the happy return of the English lads and lasses to their own lovely heritage.

Hando’s prose is cutely of its time, but it testifies to the wayfaring revival of the late 1920s and 1930s – and to Watkins’ part in it.

Certainly, the green lanes, footpaths and hilltops of England were getting busier during these decades, and the countryside was increasingly being experienced as deep, rather than as wide. Rambling and tramping were often group activities, steadily politicised, involving the singing of folk songs and a firm investment in a communal claiming of the land. As Alexandra Harris puts it, during these years the public was increasingly engaged in ‘writing its own group history – and compiling a common guidebook to map its unknown paths’.

Watkins’ DIY ley method went something like this: take a map, ideally the inch-to-a-mile Ordnance Survey. Pore over it, and wherever you find suggestive place names or topographical features, circle them in black ink. Chapels, wells, fords, notches in ridges, standing stones and tumuli. Three Scots pines on a raised mound (shades of Caspar David Friedrich). Rock basins cut into beacon or ‘beckon’ sites (shades of Joseph Beuys). These are your mark points. Fieldwork is helpful, but not essential; the location of mark points can be done with a map. If you do go out on foot in search of marks, well, the faint traces of ancient tracks and earthworks are best seen late in the day, when the light slants long across the land; and ideally in winter, when the sun is low and lopsided in the sky, and when vegetation has been suppressed by the cold.

4. In 1876, the young Alfred Watkins carved his name, one letter per month, into a stone wall on Dinmore Hill, above the River Lugg.

With your mark points determined, and your map spotted with its black-ink circles, you need now to locate your terminal points. Pick an obviously significant site on the map: a hilltop, say. Stick a pin exactly in its summit, as an explorer might plant his flag. Place a straight edge against the pivot-point of the pin, and rotate it slowly until the edge aligns four or more of your mark points with the terminal point and – lo! – you have likely discovered a ley. Now go out into the land, walk the ley, log it, prove it and then add it to the great growing orthogonal mapwork of ley lines, spidering over England and Wales, surely soon to web the whole wide world.

If you have been to Herefordshire in the summer, you will know that it is a landscape which glows. Much of the surface rock is Old Red Sandstone, which lends a ruddy lustre to the soil, and gives to the already fecund countryside a supernatural rosy richness. In Herefordshire, it makes perfect sense that Watkins should have dreamed his straight-track dream there. Unmistakably, the county was the cradle for his theories. It felt, to him – proud provincial – like a kingdom apart, ringed around by mountains and woods (the Malverns, the Black Mountains, Long Mynd, Radnor Forest, the Forest of Dean), and by virtue of its sandstone, geologically separatist. What he lovingly called its ‘fertile undulations’ had about them the bosomy clasp of an earth goddess. He imaginatively configured Herefordshire to himself as a Tolkienish Shire, populated by good ‘folk’, and in which the air was sweet ‘like wine’. It was, for him, a deep-time landscape in which legends easily mustered themselves, and in which ancient history was thickly layered.

Watkins’ father, Charles, was a Hereford brewer and in 1872, at the age of seventeen, Alfred began working for his father as an ‘outrider’ – travelling in horse and gig between country pubs to gather orders. Watkins’ outrider years gave him an early detailed acquaintance with the people and landscape of his county: he became thereafter a lifelong explorer of his landscape (occasionally on foot and in canoe, but mostly in gig and car) and a lifelong collector of artefacts, data and anecdotes. His first solo publication was an article entitled ‘A Summer Amongst The Dovecots’, which appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine in 1892, and was subsequently published as a booklet. It recorded in prose and photographs the dovecots – surviving and ‘lost’ – of Herefordshire, including details of their architecture, nest-holes and locations. Research for the booklet had taken Watkins two summers, and had entailed, he wrote, ‘many a pleasant tramp, camera on back, through orchard and fallow, along by-roads, over wooded hills and past thatched cottages’. Already, it is possible to discern the preoccupations and habits of thought that would condense

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    “Ley lines” are a particular variety of woo-woo which, like phrenology, have mostly disappeared after initial popularity. The Old Straight Track is the Bible of ley lines (and, in fact, cites the Bible as evidence). Author Alfred Watkins wandered all over England finding alignments of tumuli, standing stones, hill forts, and miscellaneous other Neolithic to Iron Age monuments, then expanded these to include castles, churches, crossroads, farmsteads (all of which he assumed were built on the sites of ancient predecessors), topographic features, and just about anything else he could find on an Ordnance Survey map that lined up with something else on that or some other Ordnance Survey map. Watkins, of course, was absolutely convinced of the reality of his “tracks”, repeatedly begging the question by asking “What are the chances that {some number} of these would be in an exactly straight line unless people had laid them out that way?” without ever approaching anyone with enough statistics to figure out exactly how good those chances would be in a country so littered with history and prehistory as the British Isles. To his credit, Watkins did not go completely over the top, suggesting that his lines marked trade routes or religious processional ways or something else more or less plausible (explaining why a religious processional way would go through a lake by armwaving, or by triumphantly proclaiming that the lake was part of the alignment). The over the top stuff was reserved for his successors, who decided that “ley lines” were not mundane tracks but lines of “geological energy” (or something) that had been tapped by ancient Britons (who obviously knew about this sort of thing) so they could build Stonehenge (or Avebury, or Callanish, or whatever other pile of rocks and dirt that struck their fancy). There are still a few ley line groups out there busily drawing ruler-straight lines through anything arguably ancient on their maps.
    A classic for those interested in the history of woo-woo. Unfortunately this paperback edition doesn’t reproduce Watkins’ original photographs very well, reducing unequivocal proof of ley lines to indistinct blurred halftone blobs. The line drawings are all well depicted though, showing the alignments in various areas where the ancients had performed their geometrical wizardry, only requiring a little nudge now and then or the assumption that a particular stone or other feature had been moved slightly since its original exact placement. The amount of effort and scholarship that went into this is a little saddening.

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