Alfred Watkins, Lecture to RPS on early British trackways, 27 April 1923: summary

Photographic Journal, 63 (= new series 47), 391–394 (September 1923)

Watkins gave this lecture to the Royal Photographic Society, of which he was well known as a Fellow and Progress Medallist. However, it is not on photography but on leys. The material is the same as in his book Early British Trackways, but the summary is in the reporter’s own words, and Watkins’s remarks at the end may be of interest.

The typesetter seems to have had some difficulty with this article. In the Worsel caption “Hauter” should be “Hanter”, and in the Tre-Fedw caption “With Tre-Fedw Skerrat” should perhaps be “Tre-Fedw, with Skirrid”.



By Alfred Watkins, F.R.P.S.

meeting held on friday, april 27th, 1923, mr. j. dudley johnston (president) in the chair.

Causeway through River Monnow, Longtown
R. Monnow
MR. WATKINS said that this subject was so enormous that necessarily he could only give a sketch of it in one lecture. It was a subject which might fill many books; he had himself written one such.* Most of his illustrations were from the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Radnorshire. He first of all drew attention to the startling manner in which prehistoric works of various descriptions tended to follow one another in straight lines across the country. He indicated this by means of points connected by lines on large ordnance maps. This held good in the neighbourhood of the Malvern Hills and elsewhere. The churches also, the sites of which, of course, had a significance previous to the Christian era, tended to line up in straight lines. Such straight lines must necessarily be artificial; the straight line did not occur in natural geography. The various sighting points were in the nature of earth-mounds of various descriptions, barrows, burys, tumuli, knaps, or cairns; also cuttings on ridges, moats or moat-like ponds, and mark stones. The line, he believed, was called the “ley” (pronounced “lay”), and people still spoke of the “lay of the land,” not the lie of the land. He dealt in detail with these various sighting-points, but his main purpose was to show how they were connected, and he called special attention to the sighting notches—clean-cut little notches in the sky-line, often quite obscured if the observer did not stand in a given position, that is to say, on the line of the sunk track on the breast of the hill of which they were part. These notches were exceedingly well worth investigating, and indicated the possession of more brains than had often been attributed to early man.

* Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps, and Sites. Simpkin, Marshall and Company, London, 1922.

Sighting mound, Tre-Fedw
Causeway through a pond
{392} Into the question of names he dived interestingly, but far too briefly. He pointed out that two English words, “halo” and “burr” (ring of light round the moon) had the same significance, while “moat” or “mote” got into the language as meaning a speck of light in the eye. The origin of these words was the moated mound, called “hlaew” and “beorh” in BeourilfBeowulf. The primary purpose of the moat was for sighting from a distance. The words “beacon” and beckon,” again, came from the same Anglo-Saxon word “beacen,” meaning a sign or {393} signal-standard. The poet of the beacon was not Macaulay, but Newman, in “Lead, kindly light,” and he got his inspiration from the Old Testament, in the prophecy of Nehemiah: “Moreover, thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar, and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go.” He reminded the audience how the word “beacon” had helped to form place-names, instancing Beaconsfield, and also the new village of Becontree in Essex. The words indicated, not a hill, but something on the track to the beacon. “White,” again, as a place-name, generally indicated something on those salt ways which were indispensable to the early Briton, salt being one commodity which he had to fetch from a distance. Similarly the prefix “red” applied to pottery.

Steep track up Worsel, sighted on Hanter
His logical deductions were that the alignments he had shown were sighted, and as fragments of tracks remained on alignments, the sighting was evidently done in order to make trackways. As many such alignments included prehistoric tumuli, all such alignments must be pre-Roman. The position of these immovable tumuli must have been fixed by sight. He mentioned that in the villages to this day every native would tell the wayfarer to “go straight on.” Speaking also of mark stones, he showed some illustrations of those remaining, and remarked that these stones often became objects of superstitious mystery and religious observance. Finally, he mentioned how frequently old churches were oriented to the line of the earthworks. Often the lanes leading up to churches to be found in old cities showed what must have been originally a sighting arrangement if one looked carefully. He instanced this from one lane in Hereford, with the cathedral tavern appearing to fill the opening at one end of it, and at the other end the tower of another church. He finished his lecture on a note of interrogation. These indications of early life in this country were very wonderful, and yet we knew very little as to what they signified. Why go to Egypt to excavate when we had not explored the daily life and goings of the people who once lived in our own land? This kind of beacon still led him on, and he felt in the course of his own study of the subject how true it was that there were more things in heaven and {394} earth than were dreamt of in our philosophy.

Sighting notch on mountain trackway, Llanthony
In reply to some questions, Mr. Watkins said that the difficulty was that investigators had begun with the roads which they could see at present, and on this basis, by reading into the matter their own civilized ideals, had tried to interpret the primitive situation. But early man did not think as we thought, he did not act upon our ideals, he went up the steep side of mountains if that was in his straight way, and he forded water at places where we should not ford it. The theories which he had propounded with regard to these sighting marks had been corroborated by other observers in different parts of the country, notably in Norfolk and Suffolk, and again in Dorset. In reply to further questions, he agreed that it was not absolute proof of design unless there were four sighting points in a direct line; two, of course, meant nothing, and three might be accidental. Churches were often built on pagan sites. At the beginning of the seventh century a letter was written by Pope Gregory, giving instructions that churches should be planted on the sites of heathen temples.

The President, in putting a vote of thanks, which was very heartily carried, remarked upon the immense enthusiasm which Mr. Watkins had brought to his subject. Photographers knew Mr. Watkins well in other directions, but his appearance as a deep student of these absorbing problems would be a new revelation of him to many present.

Mr. Watkins, in acknowledging the vote of thanks, said that the best reward of the lecturer was in the understanding of his audience. The subject was an enormous one, and there was yet much work to be done upon it before the history of roads in England, including the Roman roads, could be understood. Whether the Romans did sight straight lines across England or not, he could not say, but they did lay down their roads in many instances on the old trackways.