Alfred Watkins, Paper on early British trackways, 29 September 1921: summary

Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, 1921, xxxii–xxxiv + 3 plates; erratum, p. 157.

This is an account of a paper on leys which Watkins read to the Woolhope Club in September 1921. The meeting, held only three months after Watkins had formed his ley theory, may be of interest as the first occasion on which he made it public, although the printed summary is almost word for word the same as in Early British Trackways, pp. 10–11. The Transactions for 1921–3 were not published until May 1925, three years after Early British Trackways and only six months before The Old Straight Track.

The plates in the Transactions are reproduced from Plates II, VI, and IX of Early British Trackways, except that in “Causeways” the photos appear in the other order and have wrong captions, which are corrected in this Web version from the erratum on p. 157.

At the end of the paper the President of course thanked the speaker politely, but there is evidence that that he and many other members were unconvinced by Watkins’s arguments (Adam Stout, Creating Prehistory, Blackwell 2008, pp. 181–2).

By the way, it’s noticeable that the list of members below is all-male. Watkins, a leading member of the Woolhope Club, urged that women should be allowed to join, but this did not happen in his lifetime (Ron Shoesmith, Alfred Watkins, Logaston Press 1990, pp. 118–120).

Mounds    Causeways    Markstones



Thursday, September 29th, 1921.


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

This Meeting was held to hear a Paper by Mr. Alfred Watkins describing a method of tracing early trackways by means of sighting lines through ancient moats, mounds, camps, churches, etc.

Among those present were:—Mr. F. R. James (the President), Canon A. T. Bannister, Mr. G. W. Bellers, Mr. E. J. Bettington, Mr. Wm. C. Bolt, Mr. W. Brown, Mr. Durrant, Lieut.-Col. J. E. R. Campbell, Mr. J. Cockcroft, Rev. E. W. Easton, Rev. Custos R. Eckett, Rev. P. H. Fernandez, Mr. C. Franklin, Mr. G. H. Grocock, Mr. E. J. Hatton, Rev. Preb. M. Hopton, Mr. F. S. Hovil, Mr. J. H. Hoyle, Mr. W. J. Humfrys, Mr. G. H. Jack, Mr. J. J. Jackson, Mr. T. A. King, Mr. A. H. Lamont, Mr. C. H. Lomax, Mr. Alban Moore, Mr. T. Neild, Mr. C. C. Nott, Mr. M. C. Oatfield, Dr. R. L. Patterson, Mr. Walter Pritchard, Mr. Wm. Pritchard, Mr. H. S. Skyrme, Mr. A. Slatter, Mr. W. B. Stedman, Dr. G. H. Symonds, Mr. J. R. Symonds, Lt.Col. Symonds-Taylor, Mr. A. P. Turner, Mr. J. C. M. Vaughan, Mr. A. H. Wadworth, Mr. W. M. Wilson, Geo. Marshall (Hon. Secretary), and Mr. W. E. H. Clarke (Assistant Secretary).

The Members met at Holmer at 2 p.m., where under the guidance of Mr. W. M.H. (William Henry) McKaig, acting as deputy for Mr. Alfred Watkins they inspected early British Trackways, sighting ponds, and paved causeways near the church, in the ponds of Holmer Park, at the Holmer Hall fish ponds, and near the foot of Holmer Hill close to the Ten Houses.

After the inspection of these sites the Members gathered in the Woolhope Club Room to hear Mr. Watkins’ Paper1, which was fully illustrated with excellent Lantern slides.

1. The Paper is not printed in the “Transactions” as Mr. Watkins has elaborated and published his thesis in a book entitled “Early British Trackways, Moats, ManorsMounds, Camps, and Sites,” 1922. Published by Simpkin Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., London. Price 4s. 6d. net, from any bookseller. Three of the plates from this, viz., Mounds, Causeways, and Transition from Mark-stone to Cross (the blocks lent by the author) are herewith reproduced.

{xxxiii} Mr. Watkins said that:—

“The basis of the lecture was the newly discovered fact (now demonstrated by photographs and maps) that in this part of England all mounds or tumuli (including those which form the keeps of all the ancient castles), all moats, and all ancient standing stones appear to line up in numerous straight lines on the maps; and that the sites of ancient churches are on these lines which also fall precisely on the earthworks of all the ancient camps, and terminate in lofty hill or mountain points; also that numerous short lengths of present roads, and indications of ancient trackways in uncultivated land still remain on these straight lines.”

From these observed facts, from the evidence of place names, and from previously known data such as is revealed in the excavations of tumuli, he made the deductions which he summarised as follows:—

“During a long period, the limits of which remain to be discovered, but apparently from the Neolithic (later flint) age on past the Roman occupation into a period of decay, all trackways were in straight lines marked out by experts on a sighting system.

Such sighting lines were (in earlier examples) from natural mountain peak to mountain peak, usually not less than 1,000 ft., in this district, probably lower heights in flat districts, such points being terminals.

Such a sighting line (or ley) would be useless unless some further marking points on the lower ground between were made. Therefore secondary sighting points were made, easily to be seen by the ordinary user standing at the preceding point, all being planned on one straight line. These secondary, and artificial, sighting points still remain in many cases, either as originally made, or modified to other uses, and a large number are marked on maps, and are the basis of my discovery.

They were constructed either of earth, water or stone, trees being also planted on the line. Sacred wells were sometimes terminals in the line, and sometimes included as secondary points.

Between the sighting points the trackway ran straight, except in cases of physical impossibility, but did not of necessity go as far as the primary hill tops.

Earth sighting points were chiefly on higher ground, and now bear the name of tump, tumulus, mound, twt, castle, bury, cairn, garn, tomen, low, barrow, knoll, knap, moat and camp. Another form of earth sighting point was in the form of a notch or cutting in a bank or mountain ridge which had to be crossed by the sighting line.

Water sighting points seem to have evolved from the excavations made for the tumps or moats. Almost all are on low ground, to form a point or ring of reflection from higher ground, and are now known as moats and ponds.

Stone sighting or marking points were natural (not dressed) blocks.

Sighting lines were (in earliest examples) up to 50 or 7060 in Early British Trackways miles in length, later on rather shorter, down to a few miles.

Sighting points were used for commerce and for assemblies of the people.

When troublesome times came and stronger defences were wanted, the groups of two or three sighting tumps which came near together (especially on the top of a hill) often had defensive earthworks added to make a fortified enclosed camp.

These trackways of successive ages grew so thick on the ground as to vie in number with present day roads and by-ways.

{xxxiv} All forms of sighting points became objects of interest, superstition, and genuine veneration, and as such were utilized on the introduction of Christianity.

Practically all ancient churches are on the site of these sighting points (tumps or stones), usually at a cross of tracks, and there is evidence that in some cases the churchyard cross is on the exact spot of the ancient sighting or marking stone.

In time, homesteads clustered round the sighting-points, especially the ponds.

The moats and tumps were often adopted in after ages as sites for the defensive houses or castles of wealthy owners.” EBT adds: Hundreds of place names give support to these propositions.

The President in thanking the lecturer at the close said that Mr. Watkins had shown them how they could use their eyes; and he hoped they would study the subject upon which in so illuminating a manner Mr. Watkins had spoken. Their debt to him was very great.

The Meeting then terminated.