Ley lines

It started on a wet Sunday afternoon with a hyperactive friend whose favourite activity is finding walks that no one else would ever attempt. He sat at our kitchen table with a 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map which covers what is known in the local tourist brochures as the Vale of Avalon, an area that extends from Stourhead across to Glastonbury and the start of the Somerset Levels. In the centre of the map is Wincanton, to the north Frome and in the south-west, Yeovil.

The Arthurian connections are well established and from just about anywhere on that map you are in sight of something connected with Pre-Norman England: Alfred’s tower on the ridge overlooking the Blackmore Vale (a 19th Century folly), Cadbury Camp, one of the (many) contenders for Camelot and the Isle of Avalon itself, Glastonbury Tor with its lone nipple of a church-tower visible for miles. History runs deep here in the heart of Wessex.

Our friend has a forensic curiosity. In his search for walks he started to see lines connecting churches. Soon, with others joining in, he was busy with a long ruler and a pencil connecting sometimes up to six churches in a row over a fifteen-mile distance. This was an exact science. No close calls were allowed – children saw to that: a line had to go through the church or it was disqualified. Hours were spent looking for all possible permutations – some churches had multiple lines going through them – but what became apparent, even if we had not spotted every possible linear connection, was that every church in the locality, without exception, was on one of these lines. Furthermore, there were two obvious places where many of these lines converged - Bruton and Ditcheat.

There are many explanations for Ley Lines, varying from the mystical to the practical. The first person to coin the term was the amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins who, in 1921, noticed what he called a ‘chain of fairy lights’ linking various ancient features in Blackwardine in Herefordshire. They seemed to go from one hilltop to another. The term ‘ley’ came from Watkins’s observation that they joined many places ending in ‘ley’ and that this signified an ancient name for trackways. He believed – and this does seem to be a sensible deduction – that ancient England was much more forested than it is now and that people would walk in the most direct line possible, their navigation helped by a pile of stones or some other signpost.

It would also make sense that these markers became pagan sites where sacrifices were made and gifts left behind to propitiate the spirits of the place. Villages probably grew around these numinous locations. When Christianity reappeared in the Saxon and Danish England it wasn’t shy about appropriating the local pagan traditions and it again would make perfect sense that the first churches were built on these sites.

The ‘New Age’ interpretation of ley lines was popularized by John Michell in 1969 in his book The View over Atlantis. In this he linked Watkins’s ley line theory with the Chinese concept of feng shui. Mitchell had previously written about UFOs and spawned a whole new interpretation of ley lines as lines of mystical energy with spiritual meaning – and spawned an industry of which Glastonbury is the undisputed capital.

Why I go with Watkins’s theory is the confluence of lines on my 1;50,000 map that meet through Bruton’s church. It is there that the River Brue has a gravel bottom and would have been fordable in all but the severest of floods. Further downstream the river meanders amongst the flat dairy country towards Glastonbury and it does so with steep and crumbling banks and a treacherous muddy bottom. I can testify to this after a freezing winter swim when my horse lost his footing while crossing the river out hunting. This would have been marshland in Arthurian times as it was later when Alfred burnt his cakes some miles downstream at Athelney. The other confluence of lines is at Ditcheat - which was on the pilgrim route to Glastonbury. An ancient ‘Roman’ bridge lies in the fields between Ditcheat Priory and Hornblotton – so called because when the river flooded the inhabitants would blow horns to warn the pilgrims to stay put -Horn Blow Town. Again, these lines make navigational sense - but not much if you are sold on energy fields and the power of crystals.

If these line patterns exist locally – and it’s hard to deny their self-evident existence as there is not one church in a twenty-mile radius of Bruton that isn’t on one – then might these exist on a larger scale, across England even? Here we have a cartographical challenge as (nearly) all paper maps exist on the Mercator projection that allows the spherical earth to be shown on a flat surface. This involves making parallel the lines of longitude that would on a globe taper together towards the poles. On a Mercator projection Russia appears much bigger than it actually is and Africa, straddling the equator, rather smaller. At a local level the curve of the earth’s surface makes little difference but when the distances become hundreds of miles the effect is that the shortest line between two points is in fact curved on a flat map – the ‘Great Circle’ distance.

So if we wanted to see if there was a ‘chain of fairy lights’ linking say Salisbury with Oxford and Peterborough you would need to be able to do this on a computer that drew a Great Circle. I haven’t found a program to do this. Anyone out there who can help? It could be the archaeological find of the 21st century so far.


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