On a country hike with Alfred Watkins
Today is Easter monday, and traditionally it is the day dedicated to field trips and picnics.
With my brother, we are planning a short hike across the hills here where we live – a matter of a few miles, following dirt paths through the vineyards.
We’ll take a few photos, taking our time and enjoying the quiet, and make it to a place where we will find ice cream.
Because that’s our goal – ice cream!
Once our ice cream raid is done, we’ll walk back.
And I’ll be carrying in my small rucksack, my copy of Alfred Watkin’s The Ley Hunter’s Manual from 1927.
That is a bogus sort of pamphlet, and scandalised my old colleagues back in the days of fieldwork for the university, but it’s a fun thing anyway, and perfect for such a hike.
I got the idea after posting about folk horror and Piedmontese Neogothic.
One thing led to another, and from folk horror I drifted back to Children of the Stones, and from there to megaliths, and then to Watkins.
I first heard about Watkins in a beautiful book called The World Atlas of Mysteries, a 1978 volume by Francis Hitchings, absolutely one of the books that made me what I am. I got it for Christmas in 1980, I think.
Now. an interest in ancient mysteries is, I think, a healthy hobby for a teenager (much healthier than, say, a fascination with boy bands and talent shows), and when I was in my teens we were positively flooded with ancient astronauts, Egyptian curses, megaliths, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle, with books and documentaries by the likes of Von Daniken (that I never liked), Charles Berlitz (that I thought was OK) and Peter Kolosimo (of whom I was and still am a fan).
That youthful fascination with mysteries is still here with me, and indeed fueled my interest in archaeology and history – and yes, sometimes served as inspiration for stories or for roleplaying game campaigns1.
I already mentioned Watkins passingly in the past, but let’s get a bit deeper into the life of the character: the scion of a wealthy Herefordshire merchant family, Alfred Watkins (1855-1935) spent his youth as a business traveler for the family’s concerns, and came to know intimately the lay of the land.
He was also a keen amateur photographer (he invented an exposition metering tool known as the Bee Meter), and this probably gave him a certain attitude when observing the landscape – frames, perspective, depth of field, symmetries…
He started perceiving what he believed were landmarks, scattered all over the landscape, of ancient pathways. His eye caught uncanny alignments of standing stones, hills, church steeples and other features both natural and artificial, and came to the conclusion that in Neolithic time, the ancient Britons had developed a system of reference points that allowed them to travel the countryside without getting lost. Watkins called these ancient highways leys.
He explained his theories in two books – Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites, from 1922, that you can find and download freely from the Internet Archive, and the classic The old straight track: its mounds, beacons, moats, sites, and mark stones, 1925, and finally condensed his theories and his methods in the thin but thorough The Ley Hunter’s Manual.
Today Watkins’ theories are discredited with the scientific community – in my opinion mostly because of the later interpretations of Watkins’ leys, as much later authors threw in dowsing, UFOs, Atlantis and Lemuria and the kitchen sink.
Watkins was a very cold thinker, and his books show us a man that was thorough in his researches and sceptical about anything not supported by data. There was very little mysticism in his interpretation of the landscape. He did see something, and gave it an interpretation based on his knowledge and the general theories of the time. And it’s undeniable that the alignments he described are there – but they probably have more to do with features of the night sky or the timing of solstices and equinoxes than with Neolithic travellers needing stable landmarks.
Today archaeoastronomy is a legit discipline – and nobody practising it believes in UFOs from Zeta Reticuli or Hollow Earth psychic guides.
Anyway, part of the fun – and part of the fun that many of my colleagues in university failed to get – is that you do not have to believe in Atlantis to use Watkins’ methods for observing the landscape.
And on a hike, through a territory that’s been heavily remade by man in the last two millennia, sighting alignments and curious features of the hills is a good exercise, and a way to keep trail boredom at bay. There are no menhirs or standing stones hereabouts, and the most mystical artefact we’ll chance upon will be an old chunk of Medieval wall, but any tool that enables us to look at the landscape through different eyes helps us to see the landscape better.
And that’s what we’ll do today.