History of Ley Hunting

The story of how, in the early 20th century, a Hereford miller suddenly realised that all around the countryside ancient sites, monuments, earthworks and other features could be shown to be arranged or placed in alignments, is a fascinating one. It resulted in the development of a view of prehistoric society markedly different to that held previously.

The man was a native of Hereford, one Alfred Watkins. Having lived his whole life in the Herefordshire countryside, he knew it and its people intimately, and was interested in the history and folklore of the county, much of it being learnt from the village folk and farmers that he met. He was a leading figure in the local natural history society, the Woolhope Club, and a well-known County Councillor and magistrate. One interest that was put to good use when he came to write up his discovery was photography; Watkins was a pioneer in this field, inventing an exposure meter that was for forty-five years or more universally recognised as the beginner's sure guide to correct exposure.

On 30th June 1921, Alfred Watkins was at Blackwardine, and was looking at a map with no particular object in mind when he noticed an alignment that passed over some hilltops and various ancient sites. All of a sudden, there occurred what can only be called a flash of insight or a revelation, and the features that he was so familiar with in the landscape became linked in a whole system. Allen Watkins in a biography of his father describes how his father's mind was "...flooded with a rush of images forming one coherent plan. The scales fell from his eyes and he saw that over many long years of prehistory, all trackways were in straight lines marked out by experts on a sighting system. The whole plan of the Old Straight Track stood suddenly revealed".

Alfred Watkins later described this plan:

Imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and paid out till 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 with water to be seen from a distance. Then great standing stones brought to mark the way at intervals, and on a bank leading up to a mountain ridge or down to a ford the track cuts so deep so as to form a guiding notch in the skyline as you come up. In a bwlch or mountain pass the road cut deeply to show as a notch afar off. Here and there, and at two ends of the way, a beaconfire used to lay out the track. With ponds dug on the line, or streams banked up into "flashes" to form reflecting points on the beacon track so it might be checked when at least once a year a beacon was fired on the traditional day. All these works exactly on the sighting line...

John Michell describes Watkins' experience as one of "transcendent perception", when "the barrier of time melted and, spread across the country, he saw a web of lines linking the holy places and sites of antiquity. Mounds, old stones, crosses and old crossroads, churches placed on pre-christian sites, legendary trees, moats and holy wells stood in exact alignments that ran over beacon hills to cairns and mountain peaks".

Within a few months, Alfred Watkins had discovered enough substantiating evidence from maps and from fieldwork, that he was able to lecture on his discovery to the Woolhope Club, illustrating his talk with his own lantern slides. The idea aroused much local interest, and shortly afterwards, Watkins' first book on the subject was published - Early British Trackways - illustrated with photographs of sites, features and alignments. Watkins called his alignments "leys", the name that has remained to this day, although in his later books he abandoned the term himself and referred to them simply as "alignments".

The idea of the alignment of prehistoric monuments was not completely new, but noone had imagined the system that Watkins described, which could be found on any Ordnance Survey map. In 1925, The Old Straight Track, his best known book, was published, and a club, named after the book, was formed by enthusiasts so that research on leys from all over the country could be shared by means of a circulating portfolio of contributions supplemented by field excursions. Two years later, The Ley Hunter's Manual was published, containing more examples of leys to be found all over the country, and details of how readers could find and research leys for themselves. Watkins spent much time in the countryside, checking alignments, often finding significant mark points on the line that were not marked on the map, and on several occasions verifying the existence of the track by excavation. During this time, the only features of the system that were not present in the original revelation were the beacons he later deduced had been used to check out and mark the alignments, and the cardinal point alignments which he described in his last book on leys, Archaic Tracks Round Cambridge (1932). Watkins died in 1935, aged 80, and after the Second World War the Straight Track Club was dissolved, many of its members being inactive or having died, and it was not until some years later that public interest in leys was re-awakened.

Modern ley hunters generally see in the ancient alignments that Watkins pointed out more than just the remains of a prehistoric straight track system, although many of the alignments were undoubtedly used for that purpose. Contemporary speculation and research centres on the possible connection between leys and "earth energy", channelled down and marked out by the leys; an energy not understood by twentieth century man, but utilised in prehistory for purposes long forgotten or only vaguely hinted at in the surviving folklore of the sites involved. This energy can be felt in different ways, sometimes as a tone in the head, sometimes as a tingling received when touching a stone. The most frequently used detection method is dowsing, though I did experiments on others some years ago.

One particular ley centre (the term usually used for a crossing-point of leys) in this area is at the campus of the University of Surrey at Stag Hill, Guildford. There is no known prehistoric site on the hill, despite its suggestive name, and the site of the crossing-point is unmarked today, though one of its leys goes through the nearby Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, the only cathedral to be built on a new site (as far as we know!) in modern times. At least four leys cross here, one of which has been investigated by our local earth mytsteries group.

This particular alignment comes from St. Mary's Church, Byfleet, a thirteenth-century building with later additions, and which a number of people have said feels very powerful. As it was near my place of work, I used it for earth energy experiments some years ago. But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is something visible on a drawing of the church made over a hundred years ago, which is no longer there. It is what appears to be a large mound against the side of the church, carrying a staircase to a private gallery. Many churches have external staircases but normally a mound is not necessary - unless perhaps it was an ancient mound there before the church was built?

Going approximately southward it then goes through Wisley Church, whose dedication is not known. This beautiful church is entirely Norman, and has a mysterious stone in its porch, said by some to be a meteorite but more likely a sarsen stone. The path leading to the church is on the ley, and can clearly be seen to be pointing towards the stone. In the other direction the tower and small spire of Byfleet Church is just visible on the horizon.

The ley next passes through Newark Priory ruins - an Augustinian house of the twelfth century. It then goes through a cross-roads and a striking hilltop clump of Scots pines before reaching the Stag Hill centre, then going on to Shackleford and Peper Harow Churches. Churches are, of course, not prehistoric, but Watkins noticed that many fell on leys, and he quoted a letter from Pope Gregory in the seventh century saying that the sites of pagan temples should be used for church buiilding. But this cannot be the whole story, for we have found even modern churches and places of worship of other religions (synagogues, mosques, Sikh temples etc.) very often fall on the alignments. We feel there must be an element of subconscious siting here.

One of the other leys to the centre goes through the strikingly beautiful and peaceful Odiham Firs clump in Hampshire, which passes through Beacon Hill and Caesar's Camp near Fleet among other places. This is memorable to me as I drew the ley and then found when I had drawn it that it goes through the Stag Hill Centre! Things like this are very reassuring when they happen - and they do happen quite frequently. The study ofleys is a very exciting and interesting one and we are continually finding new things about the system - such as the fact that the width of leys as detected with a dowsing rod doubles in size at sunrise and sunset.

Return to Surrey Earth Mysteries Group