Thursday, 26 April 2007

Alfred Watkins : The Old Straight Track

‘The Spirit of the British Countryside’ (“Genio Terrae Britannicae”) found by RG Collingwood inscribed on a Roman altar in North Britain.

From the introduction 1970 edition John Michell

… “some four years ago there stood revealed the original sighting pegs used by the earliest track makers in marking out their travel ways.” The revelation took place when Watkins was 65 years old. Riding across the hills near Bredwardine in his native country, he pulled up his horse to look out over the landscape below. At that moment he became aware of a network of lines standing out like glowing wires all over the surface of the country, intersecting at the sites of churches, old stones and other spots of traditional sanctity. The vision is not recorded in The Old Straight Track, but throughout his life Watkins privately maintained that he had perceived in a single flash and, for all his subsequent study, he added nothing to his conviction, save only the realisation of the particular significance of beacon hills as terminal points in the alignments.

Some notes on how to look for leys.

Evidence to work on:
1. what the earth reveals – earth works, mounds, dykes, stones etc
2. place-names and words
3. folk-lore, legends

What to look for

1. ancient mounds, whether called tumulus, tump, barrow, cairn, or other name.
2. ancient unworked stones – not those marked “boundary stone.”
3. moats, and islands in ponds or lakelets.
4. traditional or holy wells
5. beacon points
6. cross roads with place-names, ancient wayside crosses, zig-zags in roads possibly indicate a crossing of leys
7. churches of ancient foundation, and hermitages
8. ancient castles and old “castle” place-names

The alignment across miles of country of a great number of objects, sites of objects of prehistoric antiquity. Ignoring the modern roads, tracks etc that can change from century to century …

What to do

Ideally Alfred recommends two drawing boards (with a map for each and so covering more ground). A method of securing each map to the board, an adjustable T square to enable the angle of the ley to be transferred from one map to the next, a transparent circular protractor for taking orientations, and a box of glass-headed (?) pins used by photographers. A sighting or prismatic compass for fieldwork used in conjunction with the movable head of the square are invaluable aids.

Pin down the map square on the drawing board with the T-square passing through identical degree marks on the edges, latitude for leys running east and west, but longitude for leys north and south. The edges of the maps are not truly in line with the degree lines, and must not be the guide.

With a compass mark a small circle around the “points” on the map, stick pins into the centre of each point and place a straight edge against this and move to see if three other ringed points (or two and an existing straight road or track) can be found to align. If so, rule a pencil line (provisionally) through the points. You may then find on that line fragments here and there of ancient roads and footpaths; also bits of modern roads conforming toit. Extend the line into adjoining maps, and you may find new sighting pits on it, and it will usually terminate at both ends in a natural hill or mountain peak.

When you find a good ley on the map, go over it in the field, and fragments and traces of the trackways may be found, always in straight lines, once seen recognised with greater eases in future.

Make a rule to work on sighting points and not tempting as it sometimes is, to take a straight bit of road or track as evidence. Such a straight strtch should be treated as a suggestion for a trial. If supported by three or four points, it becomes corroborative evidence. Three points alone do not prove a ley, four being the minimum. But three point evidence - or one point and straight road – might find support in an adjoining map. Where close detail is required as required as in villages and towns, the one-inch scale is far too small, and the six-inch scale is necessary. The angle of the ley is transferred to it from the one-inch map with the aid of the movable head square. If you travel along the actual sighting line you may find fragments of the road showing as a straight trench in untilled land, although these are few and far between, as the plough obliterates it all. The line usually crosses a river at a known ford or ferry. Remember that if evidence were plentiful and easy to find the ley system would have been discovered long ago, that ancient tracks and roads ( and most barrows and mark stones) have disappeared whenever the plough touches, and that bits to be found are few and far between.

In map work certain characterises constantly occur. The ley seeks out ancient camps, and often borders them or passes through a mound in the earthwork. It is impracticable to ring camps as they are not points (ring the mounds). A bit of a zig-zag in a road is almost invariably at the point where an ancient track crossed “at the zig”. Keep your eyes open when cycling or motoring on a bit of straight road for any hill pint or mound, church or castle on a bank which is not only straight in fornt, but keeps fixed in the same position as your travel; for such an observation almost certainly leads to the discovery of a ley through the point on the road.

A genuine ley hits the cross-roads or road junctions as if by magic. And it treats them as points, because mark stones once (if not now) existed at them, for it seldom lies on the present roads which cross there. Where two or three field paths converge at a pint, such a point is often on a ley for such points and cross track points remain unchanged down the ages when the tracks have perhaps all changed in psotition. It is almost laughable to find where a ley cross roads