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A walk in the wood; Historian Anthony Poulton-Smith tells Jo Ind about the origin of ley lines.

Byline: Anthony Poulton- Smith

Holloway Circus in Birmingham city centre will never be the same for me again.

I used to walk through that ugliest of underpasses to get to work each day. Each time I would sniff the urine, clutch on to my bag and curse the planners who had designed the city for the car rather than bods on foot, like me.

But now I think of it differently.

The historian Anthony Poulton- Smith, from Tamworth, Staffordshire, tells me that Holloway, literally means "hollow way." It refers to the ancient road which we now call the A38, or Bristol Road, which would have connected whatever Birmingham was at the time to its nearest port - Bristol.

The track would have been so heavily used by carts that it would have hollowed out the field, making a hollow way, hence the name.

This is quite a nice thought really. It's certas inly a more romantic association than the highly urbanised and motorised memories I have of the underpass.

It's funny what a name and a bit of historical knowledge can do.

It was because of just such an understanding of the significance of place names that Anthony, aged 53, became interested in ley lines. He has now written a book called Ley Lines Across the Midlands.

The Saxon word "leah" means "a woodland clearing" and is the basis of innumerable place names, including Hanley, Hinckley, Dudley and Rugeley.

It has been noticed for a long time that historic ancient places tended to be found on straight lines but it was in 1921 that Alfred Watkins published a theory in which he named those lines "ley lines" after the woodland clearings.

Today the accepted pronunciation is "lay" rather than "lee" but the route of the word is the same.

Anthony thinks of ley lines, not as sources of particular mystical energy, as some do, but simply as ancient tracks.

"They are pre Roman," he says. "They were laid down for the first time that we stopped being hunter-gatherers and ended up in hill forts. They date back to anywhere up to 4,000 BC and maybe even before that. Some of them are ancient beyond belief." What has interested many about these ancient tracks, is that they are straight.

"There is some disagreement as to exactly what ley lines are, yet all agree they are lines," says Anthony, "and what is more they are straight lines." These lines often connect places of worship with each other, which has caused many to think they mark paths of an earth force and the intersection of two ley lines releases a psychic energy.

However, there are other explanations as to why our ancestors would create tracks in straight lines, namely that it is the easiest way of getting from one place to another.

"Before England was a green and pleasant land, it was heavily wooded," says Anthony.

"It was a bit like an Amazonian rain forest. You couldn't see where you were going.

"Someone had to find a way of marking the shortest route and also making sure there was no error, otherwise all that was being created was a road to nowhere.

"The method used to ensure a straight road was simplicity itself and the same basic system is still used by surveyors today." Basically, whilst both a traveller's point of origin and his target were in sight, he would put a stake in the ground at a point where it stood on a direct line between the two.

The second stake would be placed further along the same line, thus creating two certain points of reference. His third stake would be aligned at a point as far away from the first two as it was possible to see and maintain accuracy.

Then the first stake could be removed become a new third stake, and so the process could be continued all the way in a straight line to the destination.

The only thing left was to create markers along the route, each within the sight of the previous one as there was no path to follow.

Typical markers would be a pile of stones, or a burned tree, or a purposely created ford. Some of these markers became places of worship and eventually, on occasion, new settlements.

"It's unfortunate that they have been christened ley lines because they've come to be associated with new age stuff and it isn't new age at all," says Anthony. "It's very old age.

''But you've got to call them something and 'ancient track ways' doesn't sound very interesting. It's widely known that the Romans built straight roads, it's more likely that they built them on the existing tracks." Many place names are derived from the markers along the routes of ley lines. Burnt Tree Island in Tipton, near Dudley Zoo, would have been the site of a burnt tree along an ancient track. So would Burnt Oak, a station on the London Underground.

There are numerous roads called things like Salter's Road or Salter's Way or the Salt Way, which would have been the roads along which our ancestors carried salt.

When people were living in hill forts, they were largely self sufficient if they had good pasture and plenty of cattle.

"But the one thing there weren't self sufficient with was salt," says Anthony.

"That was one commodity they could not do without as they needed it to dry and keep meat throughout the winter.

"Unless they lived somewhere near coast where they could evaporate seawater, they were dependent on one of about four sources, such as the brine lake underneath Droitwich." That is why to this day the road that connects Feckenham with Droitwich is known as the Saltway.

Anthony's book Ley Lines Across the Midlands is an account of 22 walks along ley lines in the region.

"It's something that hasn't been done before," says Anthony. "Books on ley lines tend to be about how to track them.

''I decided to walk them. Most books on walking tend to follow circular routes but these walks are in straight lines.

''I often had to walk everything twice - there and back to get back to the car.

It was a different way of looking at history.

Some of the routes are rarely seen.

Others have developed into towns, bridges, A roads and motorways.

"Most of the challenges were in finding alternative routes when a way was blocked by something. I hope that people will walk a route and find a different way of looking at things.

''It's slower. It's more interesting. It's more healthy.If all someone is able to do is visit Droitwich Salt Museum and Heritage Centre and take a walk along salt route towards Alcester - if they can't walk it then they can drive it, it leads in a straight line - then I hope they will look at things in a different way and maybe even notice things that I didn't." n Ley Lines Across the Midlands by Anthony Poulton-Smith is published by The History Press (pounds 12.99).

BLOG: Read Jo Ind at blogs. jo_ind/


A mound that would have been the site of the castle with the church beyond in Seckington, Warwickshire Anthony Poulton-Smith, author of Ley Lines Across the Midlands, has a more Olde World rather than New Age take on the phenomenon The moat at Ratcliffe Culey, near Atherstone in Warwickshire, with All Saints' Church
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 15, 2009
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