Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Alfred Watkins and his Ley Hunting System 1920's

Alfred Watkins (27 January 1855 – 15 April 1935) was a self-taught amateur archaeologist and antiquarian who noticed in the British landscape the apparent arrangement of ancient features along straight lines, known as ley lines.  Watkins was born in Hereford to an affluent family which had moved to the town in 1820 to establish several businesses including a flour-mill, a hotel and brewery. Watkins travelled across Herefordshire as an 'out-rider' representing the family businesses and so got to know the area intimately. Watkins Exposure Meter with timing chain, manufactured by R Fields & Co, Birmingham. Note: this is not the later, pocket-watch shaped, Watkins Bee Meter. Photo: Tony French  Watkins was also a respected photographer. He made some cameras himself and manufactured an exposure meter called the 'Watkins Bee Meter' due to its small size and efficiency.

An example is in the Museum Resource & Learning Centre, Hereford, and one accompanied Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. He was an active member of the Photographic Convention of the United Kingdom and served as its President when the Convention was held in Hereford in 1907.  On 30 June 1921, Watkins visited Blackwardine in Herefordshire when he had the idea that there was a system of straight lines crossing the landscape dating from Neolithic times. He presented his ideas at a meeting of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club of Hereford in September 1921, and published his first books Early British Trackways in 1922 and The Old Straight Track in 1925. Thereafter he spent a major part of his life developing his theory. He published a further book on ley lines and participated in the Old Straight Track Club from 1927 to 1935 (the papers from this organisation are also in the Hereford City Museum).

 Watkins Exposure Meter with timing chain, manufactured by R Fields & Co, Birmingham. Note: this is not the later, pocket-watch shaped, Watkins Bee Meter. Photo: Tony French

Watkins' ideas are not generally accepted by archaeologists. At first it was thought was that the ancient Britons were too primitive to have devised such an arrangement, but this is no longer the argument used against the existence of ley lines. More crucially there are so many ancient features that finding some in approximate alignment is highly likely. Watkins was sensitive to such arguments and argued for caution. He also drew up a list according to which landscape features could be given values between 1/4 and 1 point, five points or more being required as evidence of a ley line.  Watkins was a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, an authority on beekeeping and a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He was also involved in the preservation of Pembridge, Herefordshire Market Hall.  Watkins' work was revived and popularised from the 1960s following John Michell's publication of The View over Atlantis 1969. In 2002 Watkins had a beer named after him, "Alfred Watkins' Triumph", brewed by Wye Valley Brewery Ltd, for a special occasion.

Alfred Watkins ROUGH GUIDE to LEY HUNTING Part One

Ley Markers / Indicators

Mounds, Earth Cuttings, Water Sighting Points, Mark Stones, Sighting Stones, Tree's, Camps, Churches, Castles, Traders Roads, Traditional Wells, Roman Roads, Place Names

Bury, Cairn, Garn, Tomen, Low, Barrow, Knoll, Knap, Tump, Tumulus, Twt

Place called One Tree - Denotes a Ley / Crosses Denote Ley Cross Sections / Poles / Avenue of Tree's - Denotes a Ley

Alfred Watkins Original Ley Marker Discovery System 1920's

'An alignment was probably a valid key if, when the point values of each site on it were added up, the total value came to five points or more'

Mounds 1 Point
Stones 2  Point
Circular Moats 1 Point
Castles 1 Point
Becon's 1  Point
Traditional Wells 1 Point
Churches 3/4 Point (some later ley hunters have given churches a full point)
Crossroads (if named ancient) 3/4 Point
Road Alignments (higher value if 1-1/2 miles or over) 1 Point  or 1/4 Point
Fords (higher value if notched) 3/4 Point or 1/2 Point
Tree Groups (higher value if on hilltop with ancient name) 3/4 Point  1/4 Point
Single Trees (only if ancient and named) 1/2 Point
Notches 1/2 Point
Track Junctions 1/2 Point
Camps 1/2 Point
Ponds 1/4 Point
Square Moats 1/4 Point

Excerpts Below from Early British Trackways by Alfred Watkins 1922


The mounds whose many names I have mentioned are artificial. I do not question the fact that they were often used as burial mounds, and perhaps even built with that end in view; but the straight leys on which I find practically all in this district line up (in connection with other sighting points) prove their primary purpose to be sighting tumps. Arthur's Stone, a dolmen, which was probably the core of a burial tump, is on two sighting lines. I find various stages of evolution of the tump. The small tump at a road junction for the local road construction, examples at Cross in Hand, Belmont, Hungerstone, Shelwick old Turnpike, near Bowley Town (called the Stocks). With most of these the pond from which the earth was dug adjoins. When much larger tumps were wanted the trench of earth to make them was dug in the form of a ring, and a moated tump resulted, as at Eardisland (with water), Pont Hendre, Longtown (dry). The water in these excavations proved to be splendid sighting points by reflection from higher ground, and the moats with no tump but a flat plateau within a ring of water evolved.

Many tumps on banks, as at Tre-Fedw, near Pandy, show no excavations. Many tumps were at the junction of leys, showing the technical skill of the early surveyors, who must have moved a temporary sighting point on one ley until it fell in the line of a second ley. A sighting tump always commanded a fine, clear view in at least two directions, and in after ages was coveted as a dwelling spot. At Didley is an instance of the simple homestead against it. Thus sighting produced the sites, this being only one of many instances where the record of the ley is embedded in the English tongue. The generic name of Merry Hill applied (as near Hereford) to many tumps gives a clue to their use as assembly points for recreation, confirmed by folk lore and surviving customs of dancing in a circle with hands linked. The folk-mote was held at a tump with a dry moat, so admirably adapted for seating.


I find that every camp seems to have several leys over it, and that these usually come over the earthworks, not the camp centre, as with moats. Also that camps almost always show signs of part of their earthworks being tumps. At Sutton Walls are four unmistakable tumps, in one of which an interment was found, and in another (Plate XIV.) the Club at its visit saw the bases of two masonry columns of Roman construction, the use of which seemed a mystery. I feel certain they were columns built by Roman surveyors for exact sighting. Standing on the highest part of Dinedor Camp earthworks, the towers of Hereford Cathedral and All Saints' Church can be seen exactly in a line to the stand point. The camp plans in past Transactions show signs of tumps in most camps. It is impossible to assume that leys (sighted between two mountains) should in the scores of instances exactly fall upon the earthworks of camps previously built on sites selected solely for defence. The leys came first, and the present camp was then merely the site of two or more tumps.

There came a period of organised raids and war, and where a group of tumps gave the first elements of defensive works, they were joined by earthworks into a complete enclosure for defence. Here again sighting settled the sites of camps. Hereford-Castle Green with Hogg's Mount the only remaining sighting tump, others (as at the 18 Early British Trackways Russian gun) being now levelled, is an example. Many groups of tumps, never developed into camps but sufficiently near to be so, are to be found on the map. I found Caplar Camp to have so many leys over it as to seem the Clapham Junction of ancient trackways in that district. It may be that in a few cases of lofty camps (as Croft Ambury and Hereford shire Beacon) they form terminals of sighting lines, but in almost all cases the leys pass over them.


These—if ancient—seem to be invariably on (not merely alongside) a ley, and in many cases are at the crossing of two leys, thus appropriating the sighting point to a new use. A ley often passes through a tump adjacent to the church, and a cross ley through both church and tump. In other cases a mark stone site became the churchyard cross, and a cross ley comes through both church and cross. In many cases one of the leys went through the tower only, and it is possible that tower and steeple were built to be used as sighting points, although on the other hand a large church did in fact block the road. I will make no surmises on these interesting points. The sighting system may have been in decay or the tracks abandoned when the churches were first built on the sighting points. I do not think it probable that leys were made to provide sites for churches.


In almost every old town or village will be found examples of a church built on and blocking an ancient road although new roads (as at Weobley) are often made on one or both sides. I show examples of a number. Broad Street blocked by All Saints, Offa Street (a striking example) with St. Peter's Tower dead on one end, and the Cathedral Tower dead on the other end. Other examples: Ledbury, Wigmore, Shrewsbury (Fish Street), Kington, and Madley, where tower, churchyard cross and village cross are on one ley, and tower, nave, chancel, and a mark stone in the village on a lengthwise ley. At Warwick a chapel is over a town gateway, and in Exeter an ancient lane is also allowed to continue as a tunnel under the altar of a small church, two curious instances of the right of way being continued and the desire of the clergy to use the site also attained. Kenderchurch is a striking instance of a church perched on the apex of a sighting mound, and in other districts I can think of Bren Tor (Dartmoor), Harrow, Churchdown (Gloucester), and the two St. Michael's Mounts, these last obviously terminals of legs, as is St. Tecla's Chapel out in the channel below Chepstow, the termination of the beach ley which gives its name to Beachley Village. In London St. Paul's blocks the Watling Street and Ludgate Hill leys, and St. Clement Danes, St. Mary le Strand, and St. Martin's in the Fields are all on another ley with subsidiary roads evolved on each side of the churches.


Every castle in this district has a ley passing over it, and originated in a sighting tump, upon which the keep was afterwards built when some lord selected this as a desirable site for a defensive home. If a large tump, there were usually some excavations which were developed and extended into real defensive works. 

The word castle is applied to many tumps (as in Moccas Park), where no building has ever existed, and to farms (as Castle Farm, Madley), where there are signs of a tump, but merely a homestead round it. Where the word castle is part of a genuine place name, there was a sighting mound.


"Keep to the discovery of lines through undoubted sighting points, as artificial mounds (including castle keeps), moats and islands in ponds or lakes. In practice churches can be treated as sighting points, but in some cases a ley passes through a tump or well close to the church. Avoid for a time the temptation of taking every bit of narrow straight road and extending it into a ley. Scrap every ley you think you have discovered if it does not pass through at least four undoubted sighting points exclusive of roads. You must use Government ordnance maps. One mile to the inch is the working scale. Other maps of two or four miles to the inch are quite useless, save for checking long leys. The (B) " Popular edition, mounted and folded in covers for the pocket," is the most convenient for field work and is the cheapest, as it contains over double the area of the older (C) is x 12 edition; but I have found the latter (uncoloured, in flat sheets) necessary for transferring leys from one map to the next on drawing boards in the office.

Maps cut in sections are useless for this exact work. About four drawing boards, a light 24-inch straight edge, a T square for pinning down the maps accurately to line with the boards, a moveable head T square to adjust to the angle of the ley, so as to transfer to the next map, and a box of the glass headed pins used by photographers (in addition to the usual drawing pins) are the minimum essentials for real work. A sighting compass for field work used in conjunction with a special divided quadrant on the moveable head of square are aids I have found valuable. Remember that the entire course of a ley can be found from two undoubted sighting points on it if marked on the map. Therefore stick a glass headed pin in these two points, apply the straight edge, and rule the line, pencil it at first, ink afterwards. When you get a " good ley " on the map, go over it in the field, and fragments and traces of the trackways will be found, always in straight lines, once seen recognised with greater ease in future. Where close detail is required, as in villages and towns, the 1" scale is far too small, and the 6" scale is necessary. The angle of the ley is transferred to it from the 1" map with the aid of the moveable head square. Maps must be pinned square on the board by the T square passing through identical degree marks on the edges, latitude for leys running E. and W., but longitude for legs N. and S. The edges of the maps are not truly in line with the degree lines, and must not be the guide. Alfred Watkins 29 Ley hunting gives a new zest to field rambles, and the knowledge of the straight ley provides new eyes to an eager observer. I have a mental vision of a Scout Master of the future, ley hunting gives a new zest to field rambles, and the knowledge of the straight ley provides new eyes to an eager observer.

I have a mental vision of a Scout Master of the future, out ley hunting with the elder boys of his troup, instructing them as they look out from a high sighting point. "Now, Harold! if you only take that pole out of your eye, you will see better to pick out that distant moat that Cyril has in his eye. He's got it, right enough, just a speck of light from the ring of water round the island. When I told you to use your pole as a sighting staff, I didn't tell you to see nothing else. Now we have found the ley, I think we shall see " a bit of the old track in that far grassy field this side the moat; it's " narrow and straight, and there are many who never find it because " they look for a broad way like our present wheel tracks."

SOURCE: Early British Trackways by Alfred Watkins

NOTE: Believe it or not you will find all these markers in cities as well as the countryside


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