A beautiful new edition of a classic work of landscape history, in which Alfred Watkins introduced the idea of ancient 'ley lines' criss-crossing the English countryside.
First published in 1925, THE OLD STRAIGHT TRACK described the author's theory of 'ley lines', pre-Roman pathways consisting of aligned stone circles and prehistoric mounds, used by our Neolithic ancestors.
Watkins's ideas have intrigued and inspired generations of readers – from historians to hill walkers, and from amateur archaeologists to new-age occultists.
This edition of THE OLD STRAIGHT TRACK, with a substantial introduction by Robert Macfarlane, will appeal to all who treasure the history, contours and mystery of Britain's ancient landscapes.
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About the Author
Alfred Watkins was an amateur archaeologist and author of THE OLD STRAIGHT TRACK (1925). He died in 1935. Robert Macfarlane is the prize-winning author of THE WILD PLACES (2007) and THE OLD ROADS (2011).
ALFRED WATKINS was an amateur archaeologist and author of THE OLD STRAIGHT TRACK (1925). He died in 1935.
ROBERT MACFARLANE is the prize-winning author of THE WILD PLACES (2007) and THE OLD ROADS (2011).
Read an Excerpt
The Old Straight Track
Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones
By Alfred Watkins
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2014 Robert Macfarlane
All rights reserved.
Which mounds seem to have been originally intended as places of sepulture, but in many instances were afterwards used as strongholds, bonhills or beacon-heights, or as places on which adoration was paid to the host of heaven. George Borrow: 'Wild Wales'
UNLIKE tracks, mounds remain unaltered in site down the ages; in many cases practically unchanged in form. Their antiquity is undoubted, as for the past half-century a concentration of archæological energy devoted to exploring their burial contents has proved most of them to be pre-Roman. The word 'mound' in this investigation does not mean a continuous ridge or embankment, but infers a separate heap of earth – or earth and stones, usually circular in form, but sometimes of a longer shape. The word is also used to infer an artificial structure, not a natural knowl, although such a natural high point was often emphasized by slight artificial addition, and then becomes included in the designation.
Lasting through scores of centuries of unwritten and written language, it is natural that many different names have become attached to such structures, and they are accordingly known by the names – Barrow, Burf, Butt, Cairn, Cruc, Garn, How, Knapp, Low, Mary, Moat, Moot, Mound, Mount, Toot, Tump, Tumulus, Twt. Also less distinctively as Burgh, Bury, Castle, Knowl; these last names being also used in other senses.
As regards size, Mr. Mortimer points out that Yorkshire examples 'range at the present time from 15 to 125 feet in diameter, and from a few inches to 22 feet in height.' But he mentions one 'flat-topped mound (mainly artificial) at the bottom of Garrowby Hill, 250 feet in diameter, and 50 feet high.' Those in the district explored round Herefordshire have much the same range of size, and Silbury Hill, a famous Wiltshire mound, is said to be 130 feet high and to cover five acres.
Mounds cannot be erected without a supply of earth and stones, and a certain amount of this, quite sufficient in fact for a small mound, is provided by cutting a circular trench and throwing the contents inwards. A ditch is therefore usually round a mound, and in the case of a larger one it is often of considerable depth, and often fills with water. In some cases no such trench can be seen, but excavation shows that it existed once. In some, earth was brought from a distance, perhaps in hods, skippets, barrows, or other form of appliance, which may survive in some place-names. Near a river, gravel from its bed was often used. The Castle Hill at Hereford – a lofty mound on Wye bank – has completely vanished, and the reason is disclosed in a Quarter Sessions order late in the eighteenth century that 'the gravel from the Castle Hill be sold.' The mount in the marsh on the Edw at Hundred House, Radnor, is built of gravel.
As regards shape, the 'long barrow' (few in number) is one type; the remainder are circular or slightly oval. In Herefordshire and surrounding counties the circular ones seem to be of two types – round-top and flat-top, the last by far the most numerous. A small ring earthwork, 15 yards diameter, at Chilston, Madley, is an exceptional form. The type mentioned by Wiltshire and Hampshire observers as disc-barrows are unknown here, with two exceptions on the Longmynd Hills.
In flat-topped mounds there seems to be every degree of transition, from the lofty structure in which the height of the mound seemed to be a primary object and the surrounding moat or ditch an incident, to the comparatively large area scarcely higher than the surrounding land, encircled by a moat. In this final stage (as it seems to me) the defensive ditch is the motive, and the slightly raised platform within a mere consequent result.
To make a homely present-day comparison between the varieties, they might be called the inverted flower-pot, the inverted baking-dish, the sponge round, and the pancake types. It is not easy to state a dividing line between mounds and moats, the last having evolved from the first.
The topographical position of many of these mounds has been touched upon in the Introduction, and is a fact which lies at the basis of my investigations and conclusions. Writer after writer notes how the mounds crown the heights, and are placed in such positions that they command views for long distances. Two grave-mounds between Deal and Dover, for example, one mile from the sea, are described ('Arch. Camb.,' 1872) as 'on the ridge of a high down and form conspicuous objects from great distances.'
Our earliest epic, Beowulf, relates how a barrow was built 'upon the cliff that was high and broad, by wave-farers widely seen.' Observation shows that in such positions the mounds seen from lower places show as points against the skyline.
As a result of this skyline position mounds often cluster along the watershed or ridge of a mountain group. Ancient ridgeways also often run along and near the watershed, and, as many observers have noted, have mounds in close proximity to them. But these old ridge tracks are not there because they can be seen from below, but for the totally different reason that they provide easy travelling, and are often carefully arranged (as is noted by Messrs. Hubbard in regard to tracks on the Malvern ridge), so that travellers on them are hidden by the ridge from observers below. It will be noted in another chapter that most of the alignments through mounds are across the ridges, and not (as might at first be anticipated) along them.
Mr. E. S. Cobbold, in Vol. III of a valuable survey book on 'Church Stretton' (1904), makes about a dozen references to the special position of the various Longmynd mounds as he describes them, thus: 'Nearly on the summit of the hill'; 'to be seen against the skyline from the side of the Boiling Well'; 'situation a commanding one on the watershed'; 'visible against the skyline when viewed from the north'; 'position very striking, for the summit of the mound dominates a very wide stretch of country, and stands higher than the tops of any forest trees that would be likely to occupy any ground in the vicinity.' This last observation is important as indicating a reason for the widely varying height of mounds, and the next writer I quote notices it a century earlier.
Thomas Stackhouse, in his book published in 1806 termed 'Illustration of the Tumuli' (chiefly of Dorset), calling attention to their 'systematic arrangement,' notes that they are in positions of visual communication from one to another, 'between the castles and the beacons, or between the temples and the nearest castle.' He also remarks that 'the magnitude and position of each barrow is determined by the point to which its visual line is directed, and not according to the dignity of the person interred in it. A barrow is never found larger than its station (that is, the point to which its visual line is assigned) requires.'
There has been very little excavation of mounds in the Herefordshire district, and most of those done (Llanigon and St. Weonards excepted) appear to have been under unskilled supervision and not recorded. In these cases it is doubtful whether the explorers went below the natural ground surface and really tested if a primary burial existed. But in other parts of Britain the exploration of mounds has been extensive and skilled. There seems no doubt of a general conclusion that the very great majority of such mounds – even on the hill crests – were built, in the first place, over a human burial, and that other interments were added afterwards, often in succeeding ages.
Mr. J. R. Mortimer, who spent a long life in these investigations, does not appear to refer to any mound excavated which did not contain evidence of burial. But, on the other hand, Mr. R. Hippisley Cox says, 'There are round barrows in which there are no signs of primary burials, and these are often the single barrows placed on conspicuous points along the trackways, where it is astonishing how well they are seen from many parts of the landscape.' Mr. Hadrian Allcroft ('Arch. Journal,' 1920, p. 248) also states that many ancient mounds have been built for some purpose other than burial.
In Herefordshire (the centre of the personal investigation recorded here) it is only as yet possible to name one mound which is on an alignment and has had its contents exhaustively explored. This is at St. Weonards, in a commanding position on a bank, and Mr. Thomas Wright in 1855 made such a careful examination and report that, although there is no intention to here treat fully on mound burial contents, this illustrates more fully than usual the probable procedure in the erection of a mound:
'The summit of the present mound is a circular platform about 76 feet in diameter' (a recent measurement made it a rough oval, as are most flat-topped mounds, about 60 by 75 feet, the axis north and south). A cutting was made through it. Two interments were found, both alike in character, one a central one. 'It appeared evident that the whole of the ashes of the funeral pile had been placed on the ground at this spot, and that a small mound of fine earth had been raised over them, upon which had been built a wide roof or vault of large rough stones.' (Then followed a careful description and illustration of different layers of earth.) 'It is evident therefore that when the small mounds roofed with stones had been raised over the deposits of ashes, a circular embankment was next formed round the whole; and from this embankment the workmen filled up the interior mounds towards the centre.' This description should only be taken as applying to flat-top mounds of large diameter; the sections of round mounds given by other investigators do not show the same structure.
Three mounds I have found with their flat top enclosed by a low bank or rim of earth, or earth and stones. At Orcop mound, about 18 feet high (its top 20 by 17 yards), the broken rim or parapet is now only about 1 foot high. The taller mound at Llancillo – quite near the church – is about 25 feet high, the top 16 by 13 yards, with remains of the parapet up to 5 feet high; in places there are gaps in it; the top is rather hollow, with a full-grown oak in its centre. Both these are valley mounds close to a stream from which a leat has fed the deep moat (at Orcop still water filled) round the mounds. But at the most perfect of the rimmed mounds – Caple Tump (Fig. 1) adjoining King's Caple Church – the situation is on a bank, and no trench or moat remains. This one has an almost complete ring bank enclosing its flat top (Fig. 2), 2 feet high, with five elms growing in the bank encircling the flat circular dancing floor of 24 yards across from parapet to parapet; and here, as explained elsewhere, the village fete round the mound, with dancing on its top, is still kept up in Whitsun week. It is about 10 feet high and the parapet has three gaps.
There is a good deal of evidence (see Chapters VI and XVII) that many large mounds are often enlargements of a small primary mound, and that this enlargement did not always take the primary mound as a centre, but enlarged to one side, so that the whole of the first moat need not be filled up. I found indications of actual tracks to one side of the two barrows (Figs. 58 and 60) at Eardisland, and Lingen Castle Mound suggests enlargement on one side. In Homer's 'Iliad' (Book XXIII), Achilles gives detailed instructions for the burning of the body of Patroclus and the collection of the bones:
Let these, between a double layer of fat
Enclosed, and in a golden urn remain
Till I myself shall in the tomb be laid;
And o'er them build a mound, not over-large
But of proportions meet; in days to come,
Ye Greeks, who after me shall here remain,
Complete the work, and build it broad and high.
Note that here a subsequent burial and an after-enlargement of the mound is part of the plan.
The approximate date of a mound is important. Unfortunately, of our Herefordshire mounds only one (St. Weonards) has been efficiently explored and reported upon. The round-top type are usually set down by experts to belong to the Bronze Age.
Most of the Herefordshire mounds are of the flat-top variety, as at Chanston, near a stream which fed the moat by a leat still traceable, and at Buttas, Canon Pyon, on a bank with no trace of a moat.
While mounds are the first basis of this matter, my main theme is that of alignments, and these, as applied to mounds, are treated in the next chapter.CHAPTER 2
ALIGNMENT OF MOUNDS
Forth the earls proceeded through a great wood, and marked a way that over a mount lay. Layamon's 'Brut'
In the district under investigation the mounds, or 'tumps' as they are called on the Welsh border, are, as a rule, few and far between. But they do align with each other and their fellow-structures – moats – and also with other sites of antiquity.
To take a first example, stretching east and west across the border-line of South Radnorshire and West Herefordshire. It is a border-line of change; geological, between the Silurian and Old Red formations; physical, between rugged but not barren mountainous ranges, and the fertile undulations of Herefordshire; political, between the Celts and Mercians. Two alignments, chiefly of earthworks, cross on a ring mound at an acute angle, and both lines (A and B) are shown in Fig. 3. Taking A from its eastern (Welsh) end, it has an initial point in the lofty hill point Wylfre, a name meaning beacon (1,346 feet), and passing in succession through Cregrina Church and adjacent mountains Glascwm Hill and Black Hill (both over 1,700 feet), and through three of the scattered homesteads, it hits the first and the grandest of the mounds. Very appropriate seems its name, Turret Tump (Fig. 8), when first seen from the deep valley, so close beneath. The local informant, who referred to it as a 'twt' (pronounced toot), also indicated its obvious purpose as a look out station. About 25 feet high, it has no trench at its foot; its slightly hollow top – suggesting a low earthen wall – is oval (17 by 12 yards), and the trees occupying it include three Scotch firs. To the east the eye is carried to the next ridge, two miles away, and exactly at the point which the map shows the alignment to cross is a solitary Scotch fir amongst other trees.
'The Camp,' so called on the map, is the next on the line. But although high up overlooking the broad elbow of the Wye Valley, where it bends round the distant heights of Merbach, it is now little more than a circular moat (65 yards across), faintly to be seen in the pasture. Within, the ground rises a little, but with only the suggestion of a tump in the south-east corner. Yet it is the crossing point of two alignments. There comes up towards it, leaving the village of Eardisley near the Lower House, a third track, which the old people call the Corpse Road. The nearest farm is the Cross Farm – probably a crossing point of track-ways, not, as I once supposed, the site of a wayside cross.
Descending to the plain, now comes a conical flat-top mound locally called the Batch Twt (Fig. 9), and although it is in a hollow dingle – the Batch – it is seen across the level plain. Very different is the last to be shown on this alignment. Hell Moat, in Sarnesfield Coppice, is a strange irregular leaf-shaped moated enclosure, about 100 yards by 65 yards. The ground within is not higher than that without, and the earth from the moat on the western side is thrown outwards to form an embankment. Yet it aligns with the others, and might once have contained a mound.
Going back to alignment B on the same plan, the first on the east is in the heart of the Radnorshire Hills near Hundred House. There are two mounds near the hamlet, only 330 yards apart (Fig. II), and the alignment passes through both. The first is the smaller one, described (433) in the Report for Radnorshire of the Ancient Monuments Commission. It has been twice opened, and proved to be a burial mound, with cist not later than the Bronze Age, and with subsequent interments.
Excerpted from The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins. Copyright © 2014 Robert Macfarlane. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations,
Maps of Hereford and surrounds,
Introduction by Robert Macfarlane,
Preface to the original edition,
Introduction by Alfred Watkins,
The Old Straight Track,
II. Alignment of mounds,
III. Leys in Radnor Vale,
IV. Mark stones,
V. The sighted track,
VI. Water sight points,
VII. Sight notches,
VIII. Initial points,
IX. Mark trees,
XII. Sighting staff,
XIII. Traders' tracks,
XIV. Sun alignment,
XVI. Churches on mark-points,
XVIII. Castles on mark sites,
XIX. Assemblies at mark-points,
XX. Roman era,
XXIII. Hermes and hermit,
XXIV. In other lands,
XXV. Bible record,
XXVII. Obscurities and objections,
XXIX. Alpha and omega,
XXX. An outline,
Appendix A – Ley Hunting,
Appendix B – Buckinghamshire Leys,
Appendix C – Oxford City Leys,
Appendix D – Brecon Camps,
Acknowledgements and select bibliography for Robert Macfarlane's introduction,
About this Book,
About the Author,
An Invitation from the Publisher,