We visited Glastonbury last week with visitors, which is always a special place. History, magic, hippies, quirkiness. One of the most charming aspects of that unique town is the range of bookshops, mostly devoted to esoterica of all kinds.
Over the years I have become, like many others, intrigued with the idea of connection between humanity and the earth. As a teenager, I read with fascination some of the early books on environmental awareness, as well as archaeological volumes. I also was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese art, especially landscape.
When we travelled and then later lived in Asia, Ingrid and I became interested in Feng Shui, the Chinese art of geomancy. At its least controversial, this is about placing things in the landscape to achieve visual and aesthetic harmony.
Mick Yates. 1979. Guangzhou Province.
The Chinese landscape is often unusual in the way that for example trees have been positioned. More controversially, Feng Shui also claims to use inherent energy forces in the land to promote human well being. Having a Feng Shui mater check the positioning of items in a new office was essential, including the necessary mirrors and water to be sure only good spirit was present. The tradition continues with modern buildings modified in design to properly accommodate earth energies.
Lung-Mei, which means dragon lines, are invisible magnetic currents of energy that flow through the landscape and which were used to guide the placement of (sacred) architecture. To quote Wikipedia:
‘Feng Shui as practiced today is to situate the human-built environment on spots with good qi, an imagined form of “energy”. The “perfect spot” is a location and an axis in time. Feng Shui is not a science, and is classified as a pseudoscience since it exhibits a number of classic pseudoscientific aspects such as making claims about the functioning of the world which are not amenable to testing with the scientific method’
The British equivalent is Ley Lines, defined as such in the 1920s by amateur archaeologist and photographer Alfred Watkins (1855-1935). Watkins was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and below are links to some of his lectures. Watkins discovered what he considered the straight line ‘sighting tracks’ (or leys) used in Britain before Roman times. The primary lines went from peak to peak, with secondary marking points at ‘ground level’. They delineated ancient walking pathways and also often connected (sacred) monuments.
Whilst the walking paths might curve around contours and hills in the landscape, the mark points were in a straight line when viewed ‘edgewise’. Watkins noted that earth sighting points often have names such as tumulus, cairn, castle, barrow, mound and so forth. Water sighting points (moats, ponds) evolved from these – reflections could be useful in sighting – and wells often marked end points.
Watkins thought that the earliest examples of sighting lines were 50-60 miles in length, and they became useful for commerce and assemblies of people (1921: 10). Even today we talk of the ‘lie of the land’.
He noted that many historic and named trees stand on Leys. And he suggested that these lines and points were utilised on the introduction of Christianity (1921:11).
Whilst Watkins considered the skills and possibly priestly class assigned to identifying and working with Leys, he did not get into ‘esoteric energy lines’ in his papers. He avoided the occult and positioned his work as practical and observable photographic and cartographic research around past processes.
Stephen Daniel’s Tate Research Paper Lines of Sight: Alfred Watkins, Photography and Topography in Early Twentieth-Century Britain does a good job of linking Watkins ideas (and photography) with modern day earth-artists such as Richard Long.
Alfred Watkins. Arthur’s Stone, Dorston, Green Way Sighted to and Beyond the Mound.
Black and white photograph, published as fig.14 of Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, Methuen, 1925. Hereford Library no.264 © Hereford Library
Watkins was not some kind of crazy. As David Newnham noted in a Guardian book review, Watkins was:
‘ .. a pillar of county town society, businessman, local councillor and inventor of the photographic light meter. Watkins was born in 1855 into a well-to-do Herefordshire farming family. His father had brewing, hotel and milling interests, and Alfred developed a popular brown loaf, which he called the Vagos, the Roman name for the River Wye. His daytime job of visiting the brewery’s clients meant that he had a detailed knowledge of the Welsh border country. And when not working for the brewery, he took photographs – especially landscape photographs – with a simple camera that he’d made out of a cigar box.
Watkins was a pioneering photographer, and wrote a number of popular manuals on the subject. He was also a businessman, a beekeeper, an archaeologist, a naturalist and an antiquarian. Somehow, this solid, practical, family man even found time to serve on the local council and to campaign for the Liberal cause (he organised a series of impressive lantern-slide lectures). And then came the Ley Lines’.
Inventor of the photographic light meter … Watkins called it the Bee Meter, in 1890.
To be clear, as Tom Lubbock notes on Richard Long …
‘Most of Long’s artistic devices are means of evacuating content. For example, what’s the point of those arbitrary schemes, by which a walk is given its shape or length? Their very arbitrariness. His rules remove any historical associations from his paths. Long isn’t walking along pilgrim ways. He isn’t walking Ley Lines. He’s walking geometry’.
Following Watkins, John Michell, a self-styled counter-culturalist (and esotericist) of the 1960s onwards wrote many books expounding his views on ancient lore and civilisations. His work, and that of contemporary Guy Underwood put occult- style interpretations into the public domain. Perhaps the most famous was Mitchell’s book A View Over Atlantis, from 1969, where he considered Ley Lines a global phenomena and a part of sacred geometry. He linked them with ancient sites and even flying saucers. I remember reading this book as a teenager.
Before you scoff, Carl Jung also addressed UFOs as a psychological reality if not a physical one, in his booklet Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. Anyway, I digress – but only to try to balance the debate.
So, Ley Lines remain a controversial subject. At the worst level of pseudoscience, Ley Lines are used to connect everything from temples to pizza joints, UFOs to miracles. The www is littered with arguments for and against.
However, in my opinion and at its most simple, the sense of harmony that we feel when something is ‘placed right’ in a landscape, either naturally of by humans, is an everyday occurrence – as is our sense of disharmony when things are not right.
Whilst at Glastonbury, I picked up a classic book by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller on the most famous Ley Line – St Michael’s. This stretches from St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall to Norfolk, via Glastonbury Tor, Avebury and many other ancient sites. Broadhurst and Miller drew the line by county.
Broadhurst & Miller. 1989. From The Sun and the Serpent.
I used Google Earth to create my own version, in the header. Here is the section which places our home roughly midway between Avebury and Glastonbury.
As you can see not every location is totally on the line, and it is argued that because of the density of historical sites in the UK, random straight lines will connect all kinds of places.
Michael Johnson noted:
‘The density of archaeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere will ‘clip’ a number of sites’. (2009: 5)
So, is St Michael’s line random or real? At this stage, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
The main point of posting this is that I am considering a landscape photography project built around these sites and ideas. Happily, the south west is our ‘home area’, and there are lots of things to explore.
Mick Yates. 2020. Glastonbury Tor.
Mick Yates. 2016. Avebury Henge.
As yet, this is in an exploratory phase – I am not at all sure what kind of narrative I want to construct. But there are many useful resources out there, including detailed site maps from Heritage England.
Heritage England. 2018. Glastonbury Tor.
Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1019390 (accessed 26/01/2020).
BEHREND, Michael. Undated. An Alfred Watkins Miscellany. Available at: https://www.cantab.net/users/michael.behrend/repubs/watkins_misc/pages/index.html (accessed 26/01/2020).
BROADHURST, Paul & MILLER, Hamish. 1989. The Sun and The Serpent. 2017 reprint. Launceston: Mythos.
FEAGANS, Carl, 2018. The Pseudoscience of Ley Lines. Available at: https://ahotcupofjoe.net/2018/07/the-pseudoscience-of-ley-lines/ (accessed 24/01/2020).
FITZPATRICK-MATHEWS, Keith. 2014. Who Discovered Ley Lines? Available at: https://badarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/who-discovered-ley-lines/ (accessed 26/01/2020).
DANIELS, Stephen. 2006. Lines of Sight: Alfred Watkins, Photography and Topography in Early Twentieth-Century Britain. Tate Papers. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/06/lines-of-sight-alfred-watkins-photography-and-topography-in-early-twentieth-century-britain (accessed 24/01/2020).
JOHNSON, Matthew. 2009. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
JUNG, Carl. 1958. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. 1979 Edition in Vols. 10 and 18, Collected Works, Jung Extracts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
LUBBOCK, Tom. 2009. Richard Long: Walks on the Wild Side. Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/richard-long-walks-on-the-wild-side-1694454.html (accessed 26/01/2020).
MARSHALL, Colin. 2013. Carl Jung’s Fascinating 1957 Letter on UFOs. Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2013/05/carl_jungs_1957_letter_on_the_fascinating_modern_myth_of_ufos.html (accessed 26/01/2020).
MICHELL, John. 1969. The View over Atlantis. 1973 Edition. London: Abacus.
NEWNHAM, David. 2000. The Ley of the Land. Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/may/13/weekend7.weekend1 (accessed 26/01/2020).
SULLIVAN, Danny. 1999. Ley Lines: A comprehensive Guide. London: Piatkus.
WATKINS, ALFRED. 1921. Report on Autumn Meeting, Paper on ‘Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps, and Sites’ by Alfred Watkins FRPS. Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, 1921, pp.32–4. Available at: https://www.woolhopeclub.org.uk/system/files/documents/transaction/woolhope-club-1921-2-3.pdf (accessed 24/01/2020).
WATKINS, Alfred. 1921. Early British Trackways. University of Toronto PDF. Available here: https://ia802308.us.archive.org/30/items/earlybritishtrac00watkuoft/earlybritishtrac00watkuoft.pdf (accessed 25/01/2020).
WATKINS, Alfred. 1923. Lecture to RPS on early British trackways, 27 April 1923: Summary. Available at: https://www.cantab.net/users/michael.behrend/repubs/watkins_misc/pages/rps_lecture.html (accessed 26/01/2020).
Ancient Wisdom Website. Undated. St Michael’s Ley. Available at: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/stmichael.htm#stmichaelsley (accessed 24/01/2020).