Ley Hunter's Guide
Revised edition of the seminal 1979 book
The Ley Hunter's Companion
Now out of print
THE LEY STORY
(shortened, with footnotes removed)
Most inhabitants of modern society cannot help but view the world in terms of urban perspectives, for that is the nature of the present culture. Great cities sprawl into the countryside, forming conurbations that breed their own consciousness: automobiles hurtle along motorways that are merely urban arms stretching across the landscape between towns; passengers sleep, read or eat as the countryside flashes past their train windows at 100 mph – a countryside which is viewed culturally as an inner-city zone where farming for urban needs is carried out under the dictate of an international, urban economy.
Even those who live and work in the countryside have their rural sensibility subtly eroded by radio, television and other media which usually engender urban goals and concerns. There are no mental city limits.
Beneath this complex of urban consciousness the landscape still broods, the elemental cycles of the planet still function. The difficulty encountered by people in becoming aware of this primordial backdrop, against which the actions of the modern world take place, characterizes the cultural isolationism of our times. It is an isolationism which leads inevitably to ecological insensitivity, and a complementary decay in understanding the subtle needs and realities relating to the mind and spirit.
The subject of this book requires that we look back to a remote time when people's lives were closely in step with elemental and spiritual realities, when the landscape, the heavens and the human mind were understood as one deeply interdependent whole.
It is hardly surprising that the nature of structures and marks which such a society left behind is not always fully understood by archaeologists of our era. Even less can it be expected that more enigmatic qualities, such as the relationship between these sites, will be readily recognized. Such perception would require an exceptional person existing in circumstances that minimized urban consciousness.
Such a person was Alfred Watkins, living half a century ago in Herefordshire.
'A flood of ancestral memory'
In 1921, when he realized the existence of ancient alignments, Alfred Watkins was sixty-six years old. The complex rhythm of the twentieth century had barely begun, particularly in the rural county of Herefordshire. As a partner in a firm of flour millers, Watkins needed to make frequent tours of the local countryside, and there is no doubt that he was a man with his native landscape 'in his blood'. He was a respected local figure and highly regarded at a national level for his work in photography. A man of broad interests, independent thought and varied talents, his mind was open, exploratory and not restricted within the con fines of a single discipline. In addition, he had spent a great part of his life getting to know, at a direct and intimate level, his local countryside and its inhabitants. He knew its lore, its ancient sites and its little-known places. The appropriate mind and physical circumstances were set up for the flash of insight that came on a summer's day in 1921. It was like experiencing 'a flood of ancestral memory', Watkins was to tell his son, the late Allen Watkins. In his own words, Watkins describes his insight in his book Early British Trackways:
I had no theory when, out of what appeared to be a tangle, I got hold of the one right end of this string of facts, and found to my amazement that it unwound in an orderly fashion and complete logical sequence...
A visit to Backwardine led me to note on the map a straight line starting from Croft Ambury, lying on parts of Croft Lane past the Broad, over hill points, through Backwardine, over Risbury Camp, and through the high ground at Stretton Grandison, where I surmised a Roman station. I followed up the clue of sighting from the hilltop, unhampered by other theories, found it yielding astounding results in all districts, the straight lines to my amazement passing over and over again through the same class of objects...
It is by no means unprecedented for new understandings to be based on an individual's sudden vision. Watkins's ley theory is a leap of cognition a process abhorred by orthodox scholar ship which prefers a slow, meticulous process. But perhaps there is room for both approaches.
After his realization that alignments of ancient sites existed, Alfred Watkins committed himself to detailed fieldwork investigation, frequently taking photographs of sites, alignments and other features he came across in this work. His first, short, book on his discovery, Early British Trackways, came out in 1922 and was the development of a lecture he had delivered a year previously. He continued his study of the alignments, and his main book on the subject, The Old Straight Track, was published in 1925. Later books were The Ley Hunter's Manual (1927) and Archaic Tracks Around Cambridge (1932). A little after the publication of The Old Straight Track the Straight Track Postal Portfolio Club was formed, in which ley hunters circulated postal notes, viewpoints, research and photographs amongst themselves. Major F. C. Tyler was secretary of the club, which, in the Thirties, organized field trips for its members. These took the form of special tours around chosen areas, often in fleets of cars.
But the deaths of Watkins and Tyler in the Thirties, and the coming of the Second World War, took the impetus out of the club, and it was closed in 1948. A handful of individuals and fringe groups kept a caretaker's interest, as it turned out, in Watkins's work up until the Sixties when a whole new cycle of interest in leys began to form.
Alfred Watkins felt he had caught a glimpse beyond the modern face of the landscape and was tracing the remnants of a system of straight trackways belonging to remote antiquity. He postulated that these tracks were laid out with certain types of markers, some of which may have developed into sacred or important sites in both pagan and Christian times. Some ley markers were therefore original while many others were evolved features, such as ancient churches and castles, standing on sites of former significance. Odd sections of the old straight tracks were still visible, Watkins thought, in some lengths of roadway and old paths aligning on ancient sites. He considered that some of his alignments had astrological significance.
Alfred Watkins adopted, 'rightly or wrongly', the Saxon word ley as the name for the alignments, which he found had formerly meant a cleared glade. In the Concise Oxford Dictionary we have found an even more satisfactory terminology: 'ley' is linked with 'lea' which means simply a 'tract of open ground'.
'The sequence seems clear,' Watkins wrote. 'First, the straight sighted track, then a clearing of the woodland, through which it passed, then the fields which evolved in the clearing, the same name ley, lay, lee applying to each stage, a logical sequence.' (Numbered references indicate an alphabetical list of sources at the end of this book.)
The dictionary traces 'lea' tortuously back to the Latin lucus, meaning grove, derived from lucere (to shine). This indicates a possible association of 'ley' with brightness or light. Watkins noted that 'leye' was an obsolete word for flame or fire. He rationalized this as referring to the fiery beacon ley marks which, he believed, together with ponds used as reflective points, were instrumental in both laying out the alignments and periodically (perhaps ritually) checking them. He found, too, that glade derived from glaed meaning bright.
Watkins concluded that even if the 'ley' name was a mistaken one, 'this in no way weakens the fact of the thing named'.
A number of place-names were studied by Watkins, who surmised that names involving the colours 'red' and 'white' might indicate pottery and salt routes respectively. He originally thought that 'gold' as a place-name element could have indicated a route for precious metals and ornaments, but when he noted such names on a ley at the angle of midsummer sunrise, he felt it more likely that they were a reference to solar alignment. 'Black' was an element that related to the surveyor who laid down the leys; the man who lit the beacon fires as a part of that process. 'A word of difficult history', as the dictionary has it, 'black' meant in Anglo-Saxon times 'shining, white or pale'. The word 'bleach' is apparently derived from this source.
'Cole' or 'cold' place-name elements might also refer to the ancient surveyor, possibly being related to the Welsh coel, Watkins reasoned, which derived from gole meaning light or splendour. Perhaps our 'coal' refers to the effect when the sub stance is burned rather than its colour. Watkins also unearthed a reference to 'cold-prophet' meaning a wizard or diviner. The ubiquitous 'Cold Harbour' place-name, usually near rather than on a ley, recalled the shelter of the Cole Man, the surveyor. In Welsh, the word Coelcerth apparently means omen of danger, beacon, bonfire. (Old King Cole's daughter was supposed to be Helen, or Elen, who instituted the building of roads.)
The early surveyor is also recalled in 'dod' names. Watkins realized this when idly watching a snail at Llanthony Abbey, in the heart of the Black Mountains. 'It came as a flash', he wrote; the snail was nicknamed the dodman because of the two 'sight ing staves' he carried on his head. This observation led to a number of remarkable allusions. There is the 'Hoddyman Dod' of nursery-rhyme fame, and the builder's hod may perhaps go back to the mound-building practices of the ley surveyor. Old folk are referred to as 'doddering ' along, a similar series of actions as would be performed by a surveyor moving his rod back and forth until it accurately lined up with another one as a backsight or foresight. We have a similar word and meaning in 'dodge'. In Welsh, dodi means to lay or place.
Only one profession or trade required the two rods, Watkins pronounced, and that was the surveyor or 'dodman'. Accordingly he believed that the image of the ley surveyor could be seen in the very chalk figure known as The Long Man of Wilmington, in Sussex.
According to Watkins, leys were sighted like a 'bee-line' between two intervisible spots which he called initial points, one at least of these being a hilltop or raised ground. The line between was laid out with artificial markers such as cairns, mounds and stones as the surveyors went along. In the first instance, these markers would be as minimally constructed as their function would allow. Watkins pointed out that a ley could be beyond the second of the initial points.
It must not be forgotten that leys originated in almost unimaginable antiquity, and all present-day attempts to plot them on maps, to walk them, to measure them, or to subject them to statistics have usually to be at several removes from the original features. Watkins himself felt that the ley system 'was brought to efficiency by Neolithic man, even if later additions and refinements were made in the Bronze Age'.
For those unfamiliar with the standard archaeological chronology for prehistory, the periods that concern us here are, approximately expressed: Neolithic – 4000 to 2000 BC; Neolithic/Bronze Age overlap (Beaker Culture) – 2200 to 1700 BC; Bronze Age –2000 to 800 BC; Iron Age –800 BC to AD 43 (Roman conquest). We deal with the ley markers in the order of importance ascribed to them by Alfred Watkins.
These exist in a number of forms, their ages ranging from Neolithic times to the latter end of the Bronze Age, with a smaller number of examples originating in Roman or even Saxon Britain.
The oldest type of mound is the Neolithic long barrow. Its earliest form seems to be the earthen or unchambered variety and, though nearly always containing burials, its exact nature is not fully understood. Barrows of this type are mounds of earth or chalk up to a few hundred feet in length and 100 feet in width.
One end, usually at the east, is normally higher and broader than the rest of the feature, and this is where the burial, if any, is contained. Long barrows have ditches running along their long sides, and these ditches sometimes form a 'horseshoe' around the barrow. There are only a few hundred surviving examples of this type of feature in Britain. Remains of post structures found within these barrows suggest that the earth covering was itself only the last stage in the development of some form of sacred enclosure used for considerable periods of sepulchral and unknown purposes. So even as far back as the Neolithic period we are probably considering evolved sites.
A variation of the long barrow is the bank barrow, a particularly long form of Neolithic barrow. One in the Maiden Castle earthwork is no less than one third of a mile long.
The cursus is another mysterious type of Neolithic structure. These features are earthen avenues formed by parallel banks with ditches outside them. Similar banks usually terminate both ends of such avenues. Some examples incorporate, and are aligned on, long barrows, and so may be associated with them. The longest cursus so far discovered is in Dorset and measures over six miles. This may even have had an astronomical function. Cursuses seem to be older than henge monuments: one of the Thornborough henges in Yorkshire, for example, is known to have been constructed over a silted up cursus. The purpose of these features is quite unknown but they clearly display a 'linear consciousness' in prehistoric landscape engineering. Cursuses are mainly straight, or straight in sections.
Megalithic tombs are mounds or cairns containing some form of stone chamber or passage, and their function seems to be different from that of the unchambered long barrows. These 'tombs' allowed a series of interments over periods of time and thus were probably constructed with that in view. Evidence has been found indicating that ceremonies were carried out in front of these structures, so their overall function was very likely to have been that of a temple, and not restricted to purely sepulchral activities.
Cairns, constructed as a rule from small stones, are often Bronze Age features usually encountered in mountainous and moorland areas. Here the functions of burial and sighting are often dramatically combined.
Dolmens, quoits or cromlechs are more or less horizontal stone slabs supported by upright stones. They are thought to be the remains of the central chambers of no longer extant burial mounds. Watkins treated them in this way, but some modern ley hunters are not satisfied that this standard archaeological interpretation is always correct, since they cannot see why the wind should have eroded the earth coverings of some dolmens and not of others. It is also odd that there are no examples of demi-denuded dolmens.
Round barrows are the most numerous type of mound, there being up to 20,000 surviving examples in Britain. These barrows or tumuli are known by many colloquial names, such as howe, low, mount, toot, tump, bury and castle. They are primarily Bronze Age features and occur on open moorland or hilltops. The hilltop examples are often below the actual top, on the 'false crest', as noted by archaeologists as well as Watkins, so that they can be seen from the valley below.
Watkins considered all prehistoric mounds to be the principal ley markers. He often found, as we have in our fieldwork, that leys go over the flanks of mounds rather than over their tops. This led him to surmise that the original marker mounds had in many cases been enlarged asymmetrically at a later date.
While Watkins saw mounds as ley points, he never disputed their sepulchral characteristics (although it is a fact that not all mounds contained burials). Admiral Boyle Somerville, a pioneer in astro-archaeology and a member of the Old Straight Track Club, put it succinctly: 'Some ancient and forgotten connection exists between orientation and sepulchre.' As an idle thought we may speculate whether this connection set up an association between the words 'dead' and 'dod', and whether the phrases 'dead on' and 'dead straight' (denoting aligned accuracy) reflect such an association.
Apart from prehistoric mounds, there are in Britain about 100 extant examples of conical Roman barrows. These should not be automatically dismissed as possible ley points, because they could have been erected on the site of an earlier marker of some sort: we know that the Romans often sited their structures on or adjacent to prehistoric features, and we will come across examples of this type of site evolution in our selection of leys. In addition to the Roman mounds there are some Saxon barrows. We will consider Norman mounds in the section on castles.
Standing stones or monoliths vary considerably in height and occur singly, in groups, and in rows. These prehistoric remains can be found in hedgerows, fields, and out on open moorland.
Markstones are a particular type of feature associated uniquely with leys and are, as a consequence, controversial. In old village and town areas, as well as out in the open country, one can come across smaller, sometimes squat, stones that are little worked, if at all, and do not come into the category of monoliths. 'In theory it is difficult to distinguish a markstone from other casual stones,' wrote Watkins, 'but not in practice, for a markstone was always selected to appear different, either in shape, size or kind of stone from other stones about the district.' They were placed either directly on or to one side of the ley. But markstones should not be confused with protection stones laid alongside walls. Watkins considered that markstones gave their name to markets: 'Note how closely akin in verbal origin are the mark or march or merch stones, the market or mercate, the merchant or marchant, and the god Mercury, whose symbol was an upright stone,' he wrote.
Ancient crosses developed from markstones, Watkins felt, either replacing the original stones or using them as socket stones. So all pre-Reformation crosses should be viewed by ley hunters as likely ley markers. But it is important to remember that these may have been moved from their original location.
Stone circles are to be found mainly in the highland areas of northern and western Britain. There are about 900 extant examples in varying states of preservation. Not a great deal is known about their origins or purpose, but most circles are considered to date from the late Neolithic through to the early Bronze Age. Their diameters vary from a few yards to over a hundred. In some circles there is a distinct gradation of stone height. Quartz in various forms has been associated with a number of circle sites.
As a result of decades of meticulous research and surveying by Professor Alexander Thom, we now know that megalithic circles are not simply crude rings but consist of careful and precise ground plans. Leys can strike a stone anywhere, but Alfred Watkins noted 'that ancient methods of alignment... tended to pass through the edges of circles, not taking their centres as is now the case'. He also drew attention to a peculiar form of edge alignment in sets of circles. We show here one of the examples he mentioned, the Stanton Drew circles in Somerset.
Henges are circular areas delimited by a ditch which usually has the bank outside it. Their purpose in unknown. As many henges enclose stone circles that have become famous monuments, such as Stonehenge and Avebury (both on leys presented in the selection), we include the features in this section. From map and fieldwork the present authors conclude that any henge is likely to indicate the presence of a ley.
Stone rows are Bronze Age lines of small stones ranging from a few hundred yards up to a mile or more in length, and are found on Dartmoor, usually related to a mound or stone circle.
Rows can be single, double or even triple. The longest row known is on Stall Moor on southern Dartmoor; it is over two miles in length and links a stone circle with a prehistoric cairn. The row at the circle is aligned on the cairn which is set at the extreme limit of visibility from that point. These rows again indicate that linear features linking sacred sites were a feature of Bronze Age landscape activity. Nothing is known of their purpose.
Watkins considered circular moats to be fairly safe ley points. They developed from ditches around tumuli, he surmised. He sometimes found causeways in moat beds that he felt might indicate the direction of leys, and he quoted a number of examples in his books.
Square moats were later features, and Watkins viewed them with great suspicion as ley markers because of the practice of surrounding dwellings with them for defence, or as a symbol of prestige. Although they do sometimes fall on leys, they 'are apt to prove mare's nests from the ley hunter's point of view,' Watkins warned. Therefore if a square moat falls on a ley, the alignment must be indicated by other more convincing sites: a 'ley' made up primarily or completely of square moats is unacceptable.
Ponds are sometimes found to fall on leys. Watkins knew of several instances of this, and one particularly convincing example was at Holmer in Herefordshire, where his excavation revealed a paved causeway at the bottom of the pond. In amongst the cracks between the stones, fragments of Anglo-Saxon pottery were discovered, testifying to the antiquity of the pathway. Many ponds not known as moats were really such, Watkins thought, and central islands had been used as sighting points.
The reason why water points are on leys is 'that the ring of water was a valuable sighting object, as it reflected light from the sky (and perhaps at times from a beacon on the ley).' Watkins noted that the word hlaew, used in the ancient epic Beowulf as a term for barrows, significantly meant 'halo'. He also recalled that Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress described a causeway through a 'slough' or pond, and indicated that it lay on a straight track which aligned to a beacon.
Ancient fords could also be considered as possible ley points, Watkins felt sure, particularly if a hollow road led down to or up from one.
These may often be evolved sites developed from earlier structures. Castles were usually built on mounds or high points so that they could command a view of the surrounding country side: military purposes required the same properties as ley points. In Watkins' opinion, Norman castles proper, and the earthen type of castle known as 'motte and bailey', originally had their site settled by a prehistoric mound which the Normans then enlarged by heaping up earth from their defensive trench or earthwork. This enlargement was often on one side of the prehistoric feature.
To support the theory that Norman castles were evolved sites, Watkins cited the castles at Worcester, Duffield, Penwortham, Arkholme and Warrington, all of which have had pre-Norman articles found in their mounds.
Watkins pointed out that there were 'castle' names around the country at places where there were no defensive structures at all. He found that earthworks much earlier than the Norman period sometimes bore the castle name.
Watkins did not realize the relationship of these features with leys until a year after he had published Early British Trackways. It was the frequency with which he noted beacon spots aligning on leys, often as initial points, that aroused his interest: 'The prehistoric purpose of a beacon fire was to guide and direct', he wrote.
Hills with names such as Tan (modern Welsh for fire), St Anne (tan), Cole, Black, Midsummer, Beltane, etc., are indicative of ancient beacon sites. On one occasion Watkins was able to prove by personal excavation that Malvern's Midsummer Hill possessed a beacon pit. It was Watkins' contention that, because of our obsession with beacons as warning signals in relatively recent times, their earlier use as surveying instruments had been overlooked. In the Beacon chapter in The Old Straight Track Watkins mentions, amongst many fragments of evidence to support his theory, the bonfire lit on Mount St Michael at Carnac during the summer solstice. It was known as 'Tan Heol'. Heol is Celtic for street, road and lane.
Beacons gave light by night and smoke by day for the sighting purposes of prehistoric surveyors. Watkins believed that ponds were used as plane surfaces to reflect the beacon light and thus determine the precise angle of alignment.
Watkins listed these sixth in importance as ley markers. In The Ley Hunter's Manual Watkins states unequivocally that wells on leys must be initial points, but in his first book on leys, Early British Trackways, he stated that wells were 'sometimes' terminals and 'sometimes included as secondary points'. Our own work in the field suggests that wells usually are at ends (or beginnings) of leys, but on rare occasions when a well happens to fall on an alignment, or has been deliberately sunk there, it has been developed into a sacred, or at least a frequented, site.
Wells have been incorporated into churches, churchyards and cathedrals (eg. Wells and Winchester cathedrals), thus hinting at the way ley points were interrelated according to some forgotten set of traditions. Some wells are associated with stones – Francis Jones made a survey of 1,179 wells in Wales and no less than 62 of these are associated with megaliths. Well dedications to Christian saints (usually female) are simply the Christianized evolution of dedications to pre-Christian deities.
Most modern ley hunters consider pre-Reformation churches and other ecclesiastical buildings as major ley points, but Watkins thought of them – in theory at least – as confirmation ley points only. In practice, however, he seems to have used them as primary points.
For churches to play a major role in indicating alignments that are supposed to have originated in prehistory, they have to be considered as evolved sites. Fortunately, there is strong and widely accepted documentary and field evidence to support the view that pagan sites were Christianized.
In June, 601, Pope Gregory wrote to Abbot Mellitus as he prepared to leave for England:
'I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed... I hope the people (seeing their temples are not destroyed) will leave their idolatry and yet continue to frequent the places as formerly, so coming to know and revere the true God'.
In The Old Straight Track Alfred Watkins quoted from Johnson's Byways in British Archaeology:
'It is on record that Patrick, Bishop of the Hebrides, desired Orlygus to build a church wherever he found the upright stones or menhirs'.
Orthodox archaeological figures such as Burl agree that the Christianization of pagan sites took place, and Glyn Daniel has written: '... I find it difficult to envisage why there should be a Christian occupation of some megalithic sites unless a real tradition of their importance as special and sacred places was carried through the period of the Bronze Age and Early Iron of barbarian Europe and into historic times.' Such archaeologists would probably not be prepared to accept as widespread a Christianization of former sites as would ley hunters, but such an attitude would be based on negative evidence rather than positive information to the contrary. Either there was 'a real tradition' or not. And there clearly was.
There is a Gaelic phrase, Am bheil thu dol don clachan?, meaning 'Are you going to church?', clachan signifying both a stone circle and a place of worship.
A body of folklore, touched on later in this book, relates to pagan-Christian conflict in the siting of churches.
The markstone, Watkins suggested, could have formed the foundation of some churches, and thus could have given rise to the tradition of the foundation stone. When two half-buried boulders were found under the western end of a church in Cornwall, no less an opponent of the ley theory than 0. C. S. Crawford admitted that they were 'doubtless the sacred nucleus round which the chapel was built'.
The three-tiered evolution of a particular place was well illustrated in The Old Straight Track: Watkins referred to a Roman altar found in 1837 at the west end of Michaelchurch church, Ross. It had an inscription reading, in translation: 'To the God of the Three Ways Bellicus gave this altar.' Watkins felt the Roman altar had been carved from the markstone at the meeting of ways. Track meeting, Roman shrine, Christian church – a place marked, in quite different ways, for millennia. Roman altars have been found at other churches too.
'There is, occasionally, a connection between stones and fonts,' Watkins wrote. He described puzzling over a niche in the font at Callow church near Hereford before realizing that the font had been made from the socket stone of a disused cross. He also remarked that the Michaelchurch Roman altar seemed, by a hole cut in it, to have been used as a font at an early period. Major F. C. Tyler made the point that some churches at least must be alongside leys 'either because they were built close to a mark spot and not on it (where a churchyard cross exists this is presumably the case), or because the mark stood on a spot not found suitable for building upon'. He felt that churches standing close to the line should be accepted as evidence. Watkins would have none of it: he felt sure, from his own experience, that churches were built on the ley. He had noted that in ancient towns churches often blocked roads leading up to them.
It has already been shown, by the Roman altar discovered at Michaelchurch, that crossways were venerated in antiquity. They were certainly of importance in Celtic times as well. Martin Puhvel wrote a fascinating paper in Folklore (1976, ii) called 'The Mystery of the Crossroads', in which he pointed out that the meeting and parting of ways (not only the usual conception of crossroads) have left a deep imprint on the human mind and were considered places where 'mysterious praeternatural phenomena occur'.
Suicides were traditionally buried at crossroads, and there are several traditions which state that crossroads are the haunts of witches and, indeed, of the Devil himself. These are the sort of associations that have also been attached to megalithic sites – the 'Devil' being perhaps a Christian-inspired term for the beliefs and practices of pre-Christian spirituality. In the Abruzzi Mountains of Italy it was thought that the spirits of the dead could be seen at crossroads on All Hallow's Eve, if one stood there resting one's chin on a forked stick. This could indicate that the tradition had faint echoes of a sighting memory incorporated in it: the Romans used a forked stick called a groma for surveying.
Crossroads, like many standing stones, were also considered places where cures could be effected, and sites for divination.
The midsummer fires were, on occasion, lit at crossroads, and this is a most direct suggestion of a possible link with beacons, sight points and leys.
The position of certain crossroads was probably determined initially by a marker of some sort, such as a stone. Thus although the tracks may have changed course over the ages, the original point was preserved by their crossing.
Crossroads are legion, however, and many of them are modern and of no significance from a ley hunter's point of view, so Watkins advised that only ancient track-crossings in open country, and crossroads or road junctions with ancient names, should be considered as sighting points.
When half a mile or more of roadway fell on the line of a ley, Watkins considered it might be an evolved remnant of the original alignment, providing the road was of ancient origin. Roman roads are the first type of road one thinks of when straight tracks are being considered, and it is valid to ask from where the Romans obtained their idea and knowledge of laying down straight routes.
In some ley hunting circles it is thought likely that the Romans may have resurfaced and developed existing but decaying tracks they found in the lands they invaded. The origin of leys would be further removed in time from the Romans than the Romans are from us. In fact, the Roman roads often consist of subtle sections of straight alignments which, on a superficial glance, appear to be one long straight stretch. Ley hunters consider this an indication that different sections of leys were used as required by the Romans for their purposes.
Capt. F.L.M. Boothby wrote that 'sometimes the Romans made their roads by laying foundations over prehistoric tracks and roads, and many of the long straight roads in the neighbour hood of Winchester are so formed.' Leys apart, it is known that Iron Age Britons used chariots, and so there simply had to be tracks suitable for wheeled vehicles before the arrival of the Romans. Earlier paving has been found under the Roman surfaces of the Foss Way, Ermine Street, and Watling Street, and straight roads of the sort marked 'Roman' in England are to be found in Ireland, a country the Romans did not occupy. But this is not to say, of course, that prehistoric roads were always straight.
In our fieldwork we have invariably found leys to run down one side of a road, or even immediately parallel to it. Watkins noted this in towns where old building lines often preserved an alignment on to a church. The road was 'often widened on one side' of the ley, he stated.
In 1923 extensive sewer work in Hereford gave Watkins the opportunity to confirm, in three instances, buried tracks where his ley research had already indicated they should be.
In spite of this sort of evidence many ley hunters, including the present authors, have felt that trackways simply could not have been the original purpose of leys. It is the concept of 'The Old Straight Track', particularly, that some archaeologists enjoy jeering at. But leys and straight tracks need not be considered as synonymous. Leys can be viewed simply as alignments for other purposes, and this answers problems involved in trying to visualize straight tracks going through convoluted mountain landscapes, across marshes and over precipices. In 1929 Major Tyler came to the conclusion that leys could not just be prehistoric tracks by noting the parallelism of alignments of crosses on Dartmoor. 'It seems to be growing clearer', Tyler wrote, 'that all alignments are not connected with roads or tracks.' He felt the 'only explanation' of so many alignments was that they were to do with a system of rectangular land division.
Even if leys were not originally surveyed for use as tracks, it is still quite probable that some sections of the 'invisible' alignments became marked on the ground as processional and ritual ways – particularly near major sacred sites – and, later, other sections may have evolved into secular routes for travel and trading. So sections of ancient track on a ley can be thought of as evidence of its validity even if one cannot accept in full Watkins's concept of an original system of straight tracks.
But caution must be exercised against wholesale dismissal of the track theory: ley hunting is still a young study, held back by prejudice on the part of orthodox archaeologists. The finding in Bolivia of a system of track-like features shows that ancient peoples did lay dead straight lines that went over hill and gully for miles, as if the physical obstacles were not there.
'These are a very weak point with the ley hunters,' Watkins wrote, but he discovered, as every ley hunter does, that clumps of trees are found time and again atop prehistoric mounds and other sight points, often enhancing the visibility of the site. Barrows are sometimes known as 'The Clump' or some similar name. It may have been that trees were used in this way in prehistory, but that has to be pure speculation. Only the descendants of such trees, of course, would be the ones visible today. It is by no means impossible, just unprovable. However, if a clump is on a hilltop, has an ancient name and the 'suspicion of an earthwork', Watkins felt it was fair to consider it as a reasonable confirmation point along a ley.
Single, aged trees bearing an individual name also probably marked ley points. They appear out of the mists of time as boundary marks and moot sites, often giving their names to ancient locations.
One tree, the Scots pine, Watkins dubbed 'the tree of the ancient track'. He found that it indicated an ancient sighting point or a track.
These are often good evidence, according to Watkins, providing of course they are ancient and not formed by a modern road or track going over a ridge. Watkins sometimes found hollow roads on leys aligning on notches on mountain ridges, particularly roads leading up from fords.
Theses are sometimes designated as 'hill-forts', and are usually considered to be Iron Age or late Bronze Age structures. Archaeologists consider them to be military sites, and there can be little doubt that many could have served a defensive purpose, and some did. It is not clear that such a purpose was the original intention of all these sites. Most camps have not been excavated, and those which have provide considerable evidence to suggest that they were not all used for long-term habitation. Watkins's way of describing them simply as 'a space enclosed, usually on the top of a hill or high ground, by ancient earthen embankment' is refreshingly objective when compared to the romantic notions of archaeologists, which often involve highly organized military scenarios of late prehistory.
Watkins was certain that earlier mounds had been incorporated into camp embankments by the Iron Age people, so here we are considering ley markers that underwent site evolution as far back as the late prehistoric period. There are certain examples of camps that do have earlier mounds incorporated into their embankments, as well as those that have mounds within their earthen walls.
Watkins discovered that camps frequently occurred where two or more leys crossed, and that leys usually went along the embankment or the highest point of a camp. Since he regarded the mounds as contemporary with the surveying of leys, it followed that the earthen walls of camps, whatever their purpose, had to be considered as later features covering or replacing earlier markers.
A special feature of camp alignment which puzzled Watkins was that he found numerous examples of camps aligning in groups of three or more, in such a way that lines drawn through their edges converged slightly, and frequently met at a mound or church some distance away. Watkins must have sensed that this discovery rang the death knell for any theory regarding leys simply as tracks. He wrote of these specialized camp alignments:
'I cannot say why they were made, nor exactly how they were made. It is evident that with two leys so close together, both cannot well be trackways...'
With camps, we come to the end of the eleven main categories of ley marker sites as defined by Watkins. There are other possible prehistoric features – chalk hill figures for example – that have to be considered on their merits when they are encountered on a ley hunt.
Many ley hunters probably do not know that Watkins devised his own points system for ley markers. He suggested that an alignment was probably a valid ley if, when the point values of each site on it were added up, the total value came to five points or more. We present this points system below, in the order chosen by Watkins himself:
|Circular moats||1 point|
|Traditional wells||1 point|
|Crossroads (if named, ancient)||¾ point|
|Road alignments (higher value if ½ mile or over)||1 or ¼ point|
|Fords (higher value if notch)||¾ or ½ point|
|Tree groups (higher value if on hilltop with ancient name)||¾ or ¼ point|
|Single trees (only if ancient or named)||½ point|
|Track junctions||½ point|
|Square moats||¼ point|
Most modern ley hunters would probably consider that ancient churches and camps merit a whole point if they used this sort of scale. This system's main interest, in the view of the present authors, is that it shows Alfred Watkins's 'pecking order' of ley marker priority and serves as a general guide, but should not be adhered to in a slavish fashion, if only because not all of Watkins's own leys add up to five points!
In deciding whether an alignment could be based on a deliberate prehistoric intention, in other words whether or not it is a ley, one relies, in the final analysis, on common sense (how many points in how many miles, and so on). But the use of intuition is not to be ignored, though it might cause scientists and mathematical ley critics to throw up their hands in horror. Many people appreciate that the 'hunch' has its uses even if it cannot be analysed and quantified.