Alfred Watkins laid down meticulous rules for ley hunters in his books and gives advice to would-be ley hunters. These can be a useful tool for the modern ley hunter, if only to emphasise the pitfalls and blind alleys that await the enthusiastic novice. Modern ley hunting needs to be aware of these early methods and sometimes they may prove helpful. Remember one thing though, leave your dowsing rods at home - this is ley hunting in the true Watkinsian tradition.
Whatever the reason for being interested in leys, the practicalities of ley hunting are the same. Ley hunting proper must be treated as an activity incorporating reference research, mapwork and fieldwork.
Watkins was convinced of the existence of prehistoric alignments in the landscape and his advice to ley hunters derives from his conviction of the absolute precision of the ancient surveyors. Fieldwork is essential: "It is surprising how many mounds, ancient stones and earthworks are to be found which are not marked, even on the large scale maps", he says. This observation still holds true today, and is particularly relevant since modern updated OS maps show fewer prehistoric features now than they did in Watkins' time.
Points to look for on the map are of the following types, listed in order of importance:
1 Ancient mounds, whether called tumulus, tump, barrow, cairn or other name.
2 Ancient unworked stones - not those marked "boundary stone".
3 Moats and islands in ponds and lakelets.
4 Traditional or holy wells.
5 Beacon points
6 Crossroads with place names and ancient wayside crosses.
7 Churches of ancient foundation and hermitages.
8 Ancient castles and old "castle" place names.
Watkins suggests ringing each of these features on the map so that they are clearly visible. Next, stick a pin into the exact location of a grade 1 or 2 marker point and place a straight edge against it, swinging it around to see if three other ringed points (or two and a stretch of straight road or track) can be found to align. Draw a thin pencil line through the points and then check for further confirmation points along its course. The line can be transferred to an adjoining map, by careful alignment of the sheets on a drawing board or large flat table or by transferring the bearing of the line by use of a protractor and tee-square. Accurate map work like this requires some time and effort and many ley hunters confine their searches to single sheets. This can be limiting but necessarily keeps any found alignments to a manageable length - a factor to bear in mind when following the ley in the field. To conform to the Watkins prototype, the ley should consist of at least four marker points and terminate at both ends in a natural hill or mountain peak. Prepare yourself for some disappointment if you are ley hunting in East Anglia!
If you are successful in this first stage, the next thing is to walk the ley on the ground. Not withstanding the difficulties of crossing private land, motorways and rivers, it should be possible to visit each of the ley marker points and to walk part of the alignment. For this it is essential to carry a good compass with which to orientate yourself in the field.
Watkins says that this is detective rather than surveying work. As he says in "The Old Straight Track", "... if the evidence were plentiful and easy to find the ley system would have been discovered long ago, ...ancient tracks and roads have disappeared (and most of the barrows and mark stones) wherever the plough touches, and that bits to be found are few and far between."
He also urges the ley hunter to keep his or her eyes open when cycling or driving along a straight stretch of road and to look out for any hill point or mound, church or castle on a bank, which is not only straight in front, but keeps fixed in the same position as you travel. This occurs on a stretch of the M5 motorway between Tewkesbury and Worcester, which, although does not suggest that the M5 is on ley, it neatly demonstrates the way in which a surveyor can align a section of road upon a prominent landmark.
Another aspect of field observation that Watkins does not mention is that of intervisibility of sites. In short distance leys, such as those between standing stones, the ability to see the next marker stone from your point of observation is a good indication that the alignment was deliberate. John Michell used this method in his study of leys in West Penwith, in Cornwall. It was by this method that several marker stones, not shown on the map were discovered.
Modern ley hunters are more likely these days to start their search for ancient straight tracks in the local reference library. The local studies collection is a good starting point, though these days there are many fine studies of local village histories which often contain obscure references to old funeral paths and church paths. Infrequently, if ever, will you find references to leys - so don't look for them. Once you have tracked down a reference, a good place to start is your County Records Office, where it is usually possible to consult the old tithe maps which were drawn up at the time of the Enclosure Acts. Sometimes the names of the old tracks are preserved as well as significant features that may have since disappeared. Try also the Victoria County History of your area. You may find a reference or two there.
Armed with this information, it is time to consult the Ordnance Survey map. If you can get hold of the older versions of these so much the better. They often contain a wealth of detail missing from the modern maps and will show areas of the countryside, which are now developed and old footpaths that have disappeared. Search out your local second-hand bookstores. You can often pick up old maps very cheaply. Try to trace the old funeral path or corpse way on the map. This can often be a frustrating task as the old route will not be named and there may be several possible footpath routes between the locations you have found in the books. In the absence of any written record of the route go for the most direct route. This will invariably run from a village without a church, or with a recent church, to the village which once held the burial right. Once you've found a likely contender it's time to put your boots on and get out into the field.
Walking the old paths can be a revelation. Old references to a paved funeral path can be confirmed by finding the old cobbles underfoot. Some old routes are named, some sections may have been unused for years. Take plenty of photographs, note any features not shown on the map which may be significant and talk to any local people you might meet. Often, local people have valuable information about the old paths. But be wary of mischievous locals who can mislead you. And finally, keep a look out for other sighting points, which may have been part of an original ley before it was adopted for a funeral route.
When researching in thinly populated areas with a wealth of prehistoric features, look out for alignments to significant horizon features or towards other visible standing stones and mounds. These may indicate astronomical alignments, another class of line that Watkins recognised. Armed with a map and compass it is possible to check these alignments for any astronomical significance. There are several books available that describe how this can be done and these are given in the Bibliography.
These references are used to give spot locations on maps. They are invaluable when communicating a location by speech or writing, and essential if trying to locate a point front such a reference given in a text, or if a ley is to be calculated.
The vertical grid lines are called Eastings because they 'match' eastwards, or, less picturesquely, the numbers on each line in the top and bottom margins increase towards the right of the map. The horizontal grid lines are known as Northings because they advance front bottom to top of the sheet.
To give the reference of a point lying in a grid square, the two-figure reference number of the Easting forming the west or left edge of the square is given first, then the number of tenths which the point lies eastwards of that line; these three figures are followed by the two-figure reference number of the Northing forming the South or bottom line of the square, and then the number of tenths northwards. This six-figure reference number gives the co-ordinates of the point lying in the square. On large-scale maps, where the grid squares are larger, eight- or ten-figure references can be given for greater accuracy. It is most important that the reference for the Easting is given first, then the Northing. Remember it is alphabetical - EN.
To ensure the reference given is unique, precede the numerical reference by the grid letters which relate to the map's position in the national grid. These letters will be given in the margin of the maps.
It is a good idea to make a photographic record of each ley that is travelled. Watkins, a leading photographer in his day, recommended winter as the best season for ley photography, because the foliage is much reduced, allowing better visibility at certain sites, and because the winter sun casts long shadows revealing the form of earthworks more clearly. When indicating an alignment in a photograph, it is desirable to show more than one point, but this is not always possible. It is exceedingly difficult nowadays to find a viewpoint providing a shot of three ley points in alignment.
Another consideration in the field is country manners. People have wildly diverging opinions on land ownership. Some contend that it is virtually immoral for an individual or a family to possess great tracts of land, country estates and the like, while others argue that this is one way to preserve areas of the countryside and to prevent the chaotic encroachments of housing and industrial developments. There are certainly two sides to the argument, and we keep well out of it. We do urge, however, that respect be accorded to landowners, whatever personal opinions may be held. It is our experience that nearly all landowners or their agents are sympathetic, interested and helpful. Always ask permission to enter an estate if a ley marker falls on such land. Such permission will nearly always be granted, but the owners quite naturally want to know who is moving about on their property.
Whenever it is practicable, ask permission before going on a farmer's land Always keep to the edges of fields. Never walk through, or otherwise damage, crops. Always leave gates as you find them. Let farmers realise that the best people they can have on their land are ley hunters.