Alfred Watkins: The Richest Legacy

Neo-antiquarianism owes a huge debt to the man behind leys, Alfred Watkins. But what was his main legacy to earth mysteries? Rose Heaword suggests it is not just leys that we should thank him for.

“I don’t believe in leys…” – a sharp intake of breath from the audience – “because Watkins never meant us to!”. They were not reassured. Had none of them grasped Watkins’ words, “What really matters … is whether [the ley] is a humanly designed fact, an accidental coincidence or a ‘mare’s nest’, that mounds, moats, beacons, and markstones fall into straight lines throughout Britain, with fragmentary evidence of trackways on the alignment”? [1]

This shows how far the original hypothesis offered in 1925 has lost its meaning. The word ‘ley line’ (which Watkins never used with the suffix ‘line’) is now used indiscriminately for any linear feature found on the landscape, be it physical or abstract. So now, when anyone talks about leys or ‘leylines’, we need to establish where they are actually coming from. Topographer, land surveyor, dowser, energy-liner or mystic? This is not a pedantic quibble, but a fair question in line with John Billingsley’s timely and cogent article in NE98 [2]. Are ley hunters, like ‘earth mysterians’, paying the price for being all things to all persons?

The Earth Mysteries scene has, according to Paul Devereux [3], resolved itself into four identifiable factions: “One involves field and documentary research akin to the recently created sub-discipline of ‘cognitive archaeology’… in which a site’s placement is closely studied or conceptual geographies are remapped. The other divisions of Earth Mysteries include various forms of neopaganism for those needing a religious framework; New Age notions concerning ‘energies’; and a stubborn rump of traditional leyhunting”.

The last comment may be good for a laugh, but will not stand up to examination. Disenchanted ley hunters accuse their fellows of being trapped in a 1970s time warp. Of some this may be true, but others have moved on, regarding the original ley hypothesis as a stage in the development of an idea. The 70s were indeed dynamic, formative and something of a social experiment, but in a dynamic experience nothing remains fixed unless it is in the consciousness of the individual.

Not so much a departure from, but a development of, the ley hypothesis was the discovery of linearities which did not conform to the original criteria for a ley. Aerial photography revealed the enigmatic cursus; then emerged lines of stones for which there was no apparent purpose and spectacular long-distance lines in South America; and, via feng-shui and anthropology, hypotheses regarding spirit lines [4].

For various reasons, Watkins and leys have attracted controversy. This is as much a matter of history as intellectual content [5]. When Watkins published TOST in 1925, he had no idea of the snake-pit awaiting him. Since 1908, Sir Norman Lockyer, the distinguished astronomer, supported by his archaeologist friend, Penrose, had linked his discipline to archaeology. Watkins was influenced by their work on astronomical alignments at Stonehenge. These developments were not to the liking of the archaeological establishment and Watkins was caught in the cross-fire [6].

It comes as no surprise that Watkins’ interdisciplinary mind was attracted to Lockyer’s work; as he stated in TOST, “A student following up the actual topographical evidence regarding the ley inevitably finds himself getting in touch with-other important factors in the early history of mankind, however ill-eqipped he may be to treat of these branches, such as Anthropology, Astronomy, Magic and Religion… ” [7].

Truly astounding in my view are those today who claim knowledge of leys without any knowledge of Watkins! They are nearly always energy-liners and are the result of an historical accident during the 1960s, when the idea of dowsable energy lines began to spread around the world.

Dowsing has a long and respectable history, and united itself to the study of prehistory in the early 20th century; the first link was made through water. In France and Britain officers serving in the navy and army detected water lines at certain prehistoric sites. It is important to remind ourselves that the idea of lines has provided an intellectual matrix; at once hospitable and flexible; it was just a matter of time before the transfer from water to ‘energy’ was effected.

While the media continue to show themselves uninterested in accurate up-to-date information, and are perhaps those most stuck in a 1970s timewarp, the Earth Mysteries community experiences a communication problem. We need to be more mindful of the meaning of words and how we use them. ‘Energy’, for example, has unfortunately become as challenged in expressive meaning as ‘ley’. When amateurs attempt to use well-defined terminologies developed by an established discipline and misapply them, annoyance is understandable. On the other hand, orthodoxy can show disinclination to set up a dialogue – though admitting the potential usefulness of interdisciplinary input, Prof Stuart Piggott is often remembered for his now notorious ordinance given on BBC TV in 1971: “Only professional archaeologists have a right to put forward new ideas in archaeology”!

However, not all amateurs are self-indulgent hobbyists. Understanding the demands of discipline and training, they may have opportunities to explore areas which do not attract funding, and to ask pertinent questions, which are surely part of the process of enquiry.

This was demonstrated at a session of the London Earth Mysteries Circle earlier this year. The history of ley-hunting was thoroughly reviewed, and a positive demand demonstrated for constructive approaches and burying old hatchets; moreover, two keywords emerged, methodology and consciousness.

Regarding method, evidence has to be tested, of course, but we were unhappy with the adversarial model based on the legalistic ‘proof beyond all reasonable doubt’. Cross-examination is an important intellectual exercise, but in the hands of an adversarial practitioner the aim is to humiliate and discredit. This mind-set cannot tolerate speculation, only thinking in terms of absolutes and opposites, right or wrong, innocent or guilty, when in some cases we should be thinking in terms of the balance of probability. The aggressive defensiveness of the earlier archaeologists is understandable, seeing as they were driven by the need to set up, defend and develop a new branch of science. A new generation is more open to interdisciplinary approaches like cognitive archaeology.

So what of Watkins and his work? Shall he be consigned to some lumber-room of the past, or disposed of at the nearest charity shop for the feeble-minded? An intelligent reading of TOST will reveal that his work is to be assessed both in method and consciousness. What links all these figures in the ley landscape, friend and foe alike? It can only be in the play of consciousness. This encompasses all dimensions of thought and experience, each expressing its own form of cognition – memory; pattern recognition; sequence; narrative; analysis; imagination (not in this context fantastical fluff, but, as a scientist remarked, the ability to make unexpected and possibly useful connections). In referring to ‘consciousness’ instead of ‘spirituality’ we can avoid misunderstandings and other unhelpful baggage.

Creativity embraces rationality and emotion, discipline and play. Who remembers the wonderful explorations of Prof Jacob Bronowski, who brought to a wider public the function of imagination in consciousness [8]. Accepting the model of a multi-dimensional consciousness, can we at last handle disagreements in a workable way?

The ancient landscape has a reality of its own, whatever human beings choose to project on to it. These projections, whether they be enigmatic debris of a lost age or abstract pronouncements of the here and now, present problems of interpretation. Let us by all means explore the nature of phenomena, but bear in mind the nature of the phenomenon under investigation. The ancient landscape could teach us something about itself, and also about ourselves, if we were ready to approach it without imposing preconceived agendas of what we think it ought to mean.

Just how useful the historical method can be was demonstrated by the archaeologist, Julian Richards. In four radio talks he examined the respective contributions to archaeology made by Stukeley, Colt Hoare, Pitt-Rivers and O G S Crawford, each in the context of his own time, and how each advanced the process of enquiry [9].

So at this remove we are surely in a position to review Alfred Watkins’ contribution. Even if the ley hypothesis has limitations, just to focus on its linearity to the exclusion of other considerations, is to miss the real import of his legacy. He deserves recognition as a pioneer of an interdisciplinary method based on topography. He also writes so well; TOST, still in print, has a curious charm of its own. Watkins, scientist and inventor elsewhere, here encounters genius loci, spirit of place. He invites us to share an adventure in consciousness, drawing on a wide range of material. Happy am I to take the road again, with this old and valued companion.


[1] Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track; its all-important message in the Preface. Garnstone Press 1970.

[2] John Billingsley, ‘Earth Mysteries is Dead, Long Live Earth Mysteries’. Northern Earth 98, 2004

[3] ’30 years of earth mysteries, Fortean Times 177, 2003, p.25

[4] How this research was expanded from Europe to the rest of the world is set out in Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux’s Lines on the Landscape (Hale, 1989), still the definitive work on the subject.

[5] Adam Stout’s review of disputes between fringe and mainstream provides useful insights into their cultural context. What’s Real and What is Not, Lampeter University BA dissertation, 2000.

[6] The best account of this interdisciplinary research and the bitter hostility it still endures can be found in John Michell’s A Little History of Astro-Archaeology, T & H 1977 & revised 1989.

[7] Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, Chapter 14.

[8] Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, BBC Pub, 1973; The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Yale U.P., 1978.

[9] ‘Digging For Britain’, BBC Radio 4, 2004: Sept. 1, 8, 15, 22.

Published in NE100 (Winter 2004), pp.11-14