Ley lines were probably discovered (or invented, depending on your point of view) by Alfred Watkins, a 66 year old businessman and amateur archaeologist, in 1921. Watkins believed that if you examined the landscape and OS maps it was often apparent that ancient sites, megalithic monuments, henges, old parish churches and the like, were distributed in a linear relationship. Watkins himself seems to have felt that these features were ‘sighting points’ for long forgotten, but perfectly real, ancient straight tracks or walk-ways. I don’t think he endowed his lines with any mystical significance although I believe he thought they might have had a ceremonial function. When most of Britain consisted of deciduous forest navigation markers on high points would clearly have been valuable. There is nothing intrinsically impossible with this limited concept. The Ridgeway is an impressive 87 mile long prehistoric track ending at West Kennet, and our Bronze Age ancestors were certainly capable of constructing lengthy raised causeways of wood to negotiate marshy ground. The Sweet track is a 2km long and first crossed the Somerset Levels more than 5000 years ago.
Even at an early stage Watkins started to put more weight on the evidence than it could really bear. He believed that the tracks frequently passed through places which had the element -ley in their names. There are plenty of these up the Aire valley in West Yorkshire of course: Farsley, Apperley, Cottingley, Bingley, Shipley and Keighley being examples. However the place-name element –ley is more generally taken to originate in an Old English word indicating a clearing. Watkins also felt that the surname Dodman was associated with the individuals who laid out the tracks, the surveyors as it were. But dodman is a Norfolk dialect word for a snail; a pedlar selling door to door, and bent under the load of cloth on his back, does rather resemble a snail. This is a perfectly comprehensible origin for an occupational surname. Chapman has a similar beginning as a man who, in medieval times, sold and bartered at a cheap or market.
Some time in the 1960s the concept of Ley Lines was taken up by new enthusiasts for the phenomenon who seem to have been more inclined to view leys as marking the sites of ‘energy meridians’, or something even more incredible. Seemingly a link was made with Atlantis and UFOs; ley lines developing a European, if not a world-wide, dimension. This is a difficult area since practitioners of dousing believe that they can detect these meridians. The reality of dousing is so widely believed that it may come as a shock to the general public that science based archaeologists regard it as totally spurious. Only this week I have upset a fellow coal mine enthusiast by refusing to accept his placement of pit shafts since the evidence was acquired by dowsing rather than by historical research or geophysics. Be that as it may the incorporation of ley lines into ‘earth mysteries’ has probably inhibited any further serious archaeological work on the topic, whilst ensuring substantial book sales.
I hardly need to say that two points always lie on a straight line and that on an OS map a thick pencil line might be nearly 100m wide. To establish sufficient ‘sighting points’ believers in ley lines may have to pull in nearby and unusual landscape features from very widely different ages and cultures: a Neolithic tomb, a Bronze Age stone circle, a Roman fort, a Norman castle motte, a late Medieval abbey, and a branch of Barclays Bank c.1930. I think it is true to say that many supposed leys have fallen to an assault by statisticians. Clearly if the phenomenon were real it would be essential to demonstrate that point alignments occurred in the landscape more frequently than would be expected randomly. In a country thickly strewn with old sites like Britain alignments of three, or even four, genuinely ancient features occur quite commonly by chance. Popular books on ley lines tend not to publish evidence that does not support their views, an example of confirmation bias.
One interesting counter suggestion to my gibe about Barclay’s Bank was that sacred sites may have been highly conserved from culture to culture. The argument runs that a sacred neolithic spring was taken over as a Celtic cult centre and then a Roman temple. An early Christian church was subsequently built on the Roman pagan site to ‘Christianise’ it and this would then be replaced by a medieval village church centuries later. It is true that churches were commonly built in or near old Roman centres and that Iron Age hillforts were re-fortified during the reign of Ethelred the Unready in the early 11th century. I can think of examples where several links seem to be preserved but no examples of the whole chain.
I have always found archaeology to be a continual source of amazement and wonder without having to believe that spirit hands ever fashioned the landscape. I am very much afraid that ley lines are simply entertaining archaeological moonshine. Or so I thought until, with my pencil and ruler, I drew a straight line between Haworth rectory, home of the Bronte sisters, and the Humber Bridge north bank tower. I found that the line goes through my house in Heaton. Could my existence have been foretold by the elder gods? Could I be the living embodiment of ancient energies? Fair enough say I; it couldn’t happen to a nicer brick enthusiast.