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LOCAL HISTORY: A line of research from an early photographer; A Hereford man who discovered ancient mystical lines crossing the English countryside.


We had our heroes back in the 1970s, figures who stood just a little out of alignment with the rest. There were Che Guevara and Carlos Castaneda, Timothy Leary and Arthur Koestler, Ger-maine Greer and J.R.R. Tolkien.

And there was another, for whom the word "alternative" just doesn't seem appropriate. A comfortable family man he was, the owner of a flour mill, a magistrate and a county councillor, no less.

Had he known that his ideas would get tied up in mysticism, hippies and the Glastonbury Festival, he would surely have turned in his grave.

Alfred Watkins came into this world at the Imperial Hotel in Widemarsh Street, Hereford, on January 27 1855. His father, Charles Watkins, was a local farmer, businessman and hotel owner. Mr Watkins senior had no royal connections, but he deployed the word "imperial" as regularly and expansively as the Queen herself.

The Imperial Hotel was his, as was the Watkins Imperial Brewery and the Imperial Flour Mills.

Alfred entered the family firm and, after his father's death in 1886, was running it. The duties could not have been especially onerous, since Alfred found plenty of time to devote to his own hobbies, and to serving his native city in a variety of roles, charitable and political.

One of his earliest publications, indeed, was a pamphlet challenging Joseph Chamberlain's campaign for protective tariffs.

However, there's no doubt that Watkins' first love (other than his family) was photography, at a time when it was still possible for amateurs in the field to make important technical contributions.

In fact, the work of Alfred Watkins could be said to have brought photography within the reach of many, not just because he made cameras himself, but because he invented one of the first widely available light meters, allowing any enthusiastic amateur to calculate exposure.

A room at the flour mill was set aside to manufacture the meters. It was an unusual sideline for a bakery, to say the least.

Watkins' important innovations were recognised by his peers; he was elected a fellow and president of the Royal Photographic Society (his father would have called it Imperial) and his handbook on photography ran to three editions.

No doubt Alfred Watkins took his photographic equipment with him when he went out exploring the Herefordshire countryside, as he did regularly.

As a leading light in the Wool-hope Naturalists' Field Club Watkins investigated, catalogued and classified for all he was worth, publishing surveys of all the county's dovecotes as well as its market and church crosses.

Here was another area in which the committed amateur could make a contribution.

But it's pretty obvious that making light meters and surveying pigeon houses would not turn anyone into a cult classic.

It was another theory entirely, also developed during Watkins' Herefordshire wanderings, which did that.

Watkins described to friends (though not in print) that the theory came to him in a flash as he was riding in the hills above Bredwardine. He was 65-years-old, he said, which would put the barrows and church towers, standing stones and ancient moats.

One of Watkins' examples is at Arthur's Stone, a dolmen near Dorston. This megalithic monument, he argued, stands at the intersection of three tracks. One leads through Dorston church to The Knapp, a hill and sight-line above Bredwardine.

Another heads through a number of old homesteads, revelation in 1920.

From this high vantage-point Watkins suddenly became aware of a series of invisible lines crisscrossing the Herefordshire countryside. The lines themselves were, as I say, invisible, but their presence was revealed by residual features on the landscape which marked them, such as

Eardisley Castle moat and Sno-dhill Castle, and a third through a barrow at Newton Tump.

Watkins christened the lines "ley lines". They were, he argued, ancient trackways established by people long before the Romans introduced their own version of a road system. Watkins unveiled his theory in The Old Straight

Track, first published in 1925.

The book caused immediate controversy. Then, as now, it was not cricket for amateurs to go revealing things that professionals might have overlooked. And ideas about how prehistoric settlers might have prepared and used their environment were, without question, revelatory.

Much of Watkins' research was done by observing and pho-graphing the countryside, and by drawing lines on Ordnance Survey maps. It was, as he argued, research that anyone with a ruler and a basic knowledge of topography could achieve. This too was not good news for the professional.

Unfortunately for the coherence and credibility of his ideas, Watkins rather over-egged his pudding.Not only did he deploy a rather rudimentary grasp of placename theory in order to uncover the actual names of the early track-makers, he also attempted to link early Britain to Biblical and Babylonian societies in his grand theory of geometrical alignment.

The mathematics of the ley line also wobbled under closer scrutiny. If every feature of the landscape - from farmstead to hill to standing stone to castle - could be involved, then it was hard not to draw straight lines between them on the map.

The British landscape was packed with them. And so, under the weight of scepticism, Alfred Watkins' theory faded from view.

But the ley line was more dormant than dead, waiting only for a time when logic, science and scepticism were less influential. The 1970s were such a time.

In the golden age of parapsychology, mysticism and magic pyramids another writer took up Alfred Watkins and gave him new legs. The man was John Michell, and he gave the ley line a new twist.

It was not simply an old trackway, but a magnetic line of power, sensed by the ancients, but lost in the modern world. The churches and standing stones were the way primitive peoples tapped into that power.

With a ruler and a dowsing rod those lines could once more be uncovered and used. Sacred geometry they called it.

Unfortunately for the Herefordshire tourist industry, that county was no longer the centre of operations. John Michell moved the playing field to Char-tres, to Stonehenge and most influentially to Glastonbury.

Under Michell's ruler and protractor, the old abbey site in Somerset became a vast powerhouse of ancient magic, and the essential place of pilgrimage for all New Age mystics. It still is.

Alfred Watkins would no doubt have coughed nervously to see where his ley lines had been heading, but (as we all know) it is almost impossible to un-invent a theory.

A room at the flour mill was set aside to manufacture the light meters. It was an unusual sideline for a bakery, to say the least


Alfred Watkins made a great study of his christened "ley lines", believing them to be ancient trackways established by people long before the Romans. One of Alfred Watkins' ley alignments (right) passes through the ruins of Llanthony Abbey in the Black Mountains, Wales. Watkins unveiled his theory in The Old Straight Track (below), first published in 1925
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 21, 2007
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