Invisible, mystical ‘energy lines’ are believed by some to criss-cross England. Bel Jacobs explores the history and meaning of ley lines, and talks to the artist they have inspired.
arlier this year, artist and performer bones Tan Jones walked from Silvertown, in the London Borough of Newham, to the sacred circle of Stonehenge. The route was deliberate: both sites are locations of proposed underground road tunnels.
I’ve always been interested in the opposition between the natural and the artificial, the sacred and the un-sacred,” explains Tan Jones. So I decided to walk from the entrance of the Silvertown tunnel… to the monumental stone circle at Stonehenge, and see how I could connect them.
The record of that journey now forms an exhibition called Tunnel Visions, currently on display at Queercircle, near Silvertown. Tan Jones’s blend of spirituality, music, ritual, craft, sculpture and moving image has won them commissions at the ICA, the Serpentine and the Shanghai Biennale (2021), among others.
For six days, Tan Jones moved through urban and rural landscapes, on the way encountering several holloways – roads or tracks that are significantly lower than the land on either side, and not formed by recent engineering – and The Harrow Way, said to be the oldest road in Britain.
Along the journey, the artist responded to what they saw with poetry, storytelling but most of all, song. I found out about the Circle of Perpetual Choirs, druids who would always be singing, at a stone circle or old yew tree or a place of strong earth energy, to maintain the peace of the land. I wanted to, single-handedly, be that choir.
The artist’s pilgrimage began with research into ancient Ley Lines – a theory, according to author Simon Ingrams in the National Geographic, of an implied network of impressionistic significance said to run across the land in straight, intersecting lengths not unlike a cobweb… said by believers to link or align ancient monuments, notable landscape features and settlements across the world on a series of invisible energy pathways. It is a theory that has long held interest for Tan Jones: “I’ve been interested in ley lines for years,” they say. I grew up in the countryside, connected to Earth energy, so it makes complete sense to me that there are energy lines moving through the Earth.
Ley lines? Energy lines? Surely the preserve of myth makers and fairy followers? Not to start with. The term was originally posited, just three years after the end of World War One, by Alfred Watkins, a councilor in rural Herefordshire in the UK.
Born in 1855 into a well-to-do farming family, Watkins was also an amateur archaeologist; it was while out riding in 1921 that he looked out over the landscape and noticed what he later described as a grid of straight lines that stood out like glowing wires all over the surface of the county, in which churches and standing stones, crossroads and burial mounds, moats and beacon hills, holy wells and old stone crosses, appeared to fall into perfect alignment.
Their existence, Watkins theorized, was the legacy of pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain who worked out, quite sensibly – during a time when the English landscape was dense with forest – that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line and, being tougher than modern Britons, would tramp bravely through rivers and up hills to get to their destinations. Tracks were set out visually – by lighting beacons on high points, for example – and then lining up markers and key points across the intervening land, including mounds and moats, stone circles and more. Intersections acquired local significance, becoming meeting places and markets, then later burial mounds and temples.
In 1925, Watkins published his theories in the now-classic Old Straight Track. Still in print, the book speaks from a more innocent age: blending a love of rural and historic Herefordshire with quotes from WB Yeats and George Borrow, and a charming openness about his own assumptions. ‘What imaginative stuff,’ I can hear some reader exclaim, writes Watkins, at one point, in a chapter on beacons. Yet, in the 1920’s and 30’s, The Old Straight Track had thousands roaming the English countryside, touting maps and poles, in search of prehistoric trackways and waystones. It wasn’t until after the World War Two that the potential of the ley line as a repository for all things mystical really started to take hold.
Blame ex-RAF pilot Tony Wedd who, in his leaflet Skyways and Landmarks (1961), suggested that ley lines were laid down by prehistoric societies to connect with alien spacecraft. Writer John Michell took it a step further. In The View Over Atlantis (1969), described as one of the most influential books of the hippy underground movement, Michell posited spiritual dimensions to ley lines, created the idea of Earth energies, and made Glastonbury the undisputed capital of the New Age. Suddenly, ley lines became known not just for country walks and genteel treasure hunts but as routes into extraordinary, interplanetary worlds-between-worlds.
The bubble was burst, a little, in the late 1980’s when scholars Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy worked out that the density of archaeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere would “clip” any number of significant places. In 2010, another scholar, Matt Parker, from the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, discovered the precise geometric placement of… several old Woolworth stores.
We know so little about the ancient Woolworths stores, he explained mischievously to the Guardian. But we do still know their locations. I thought if we analyzed the sites we could learn more about what life was like in 2008, and how these people went about buying cheap kitchen accessories and discount CD’s.
Now a new generation, including bones Tan Jones, are harking back to myth to explain the world around them; this time, in the context of a planet on the brink of collapse and a natural world, mourned as it disappears. And they are creating their own myths in return. Tan Jones eschewed the laboriously intricate mappings of earlier ley line-hunters, and instead followed their instinct. All I knew was I had a start and a finish, and maybe a few stop-offs, they say.
I took it serendipitous and found my next location by talking to people. They visited the site of the now-abandoned Heathrow action camp, Grow Heathrow, a former hub for activists, creatives, and local residents; encountered the 2,500 year old Anckerwyke Yew, and the grounds opposite, where it is said the Magna Carta was signed in 1215; explored Chobham Common nature reserve, originally created by prehistoric farmers, in Surrey. Still, the Harrow Way, running East-West across southern England, remains a highlight.
Tan Jones’s pilgrimage ended at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. But in many ways, for the artist, the journey is ongoing, still sending out its tendrils between myth and history, past and present, the human and the more-han-human.
One day, I had to climb a barbed-wire fence. It was really rainy and, just two hours from the stones, I was ready to give up, they remember. But suddenly, I locked eyes with this single doe. She just bounced away; the way she moved was so beautiful. Then, straight after that, I saw a family of hares, which are very pagan.
The animals inspired me to keep going. Remembering [ley lines] exist is a way for us to find stillness and quiet, and to see the earth as animated. We are a part of nature. And remembering that connection and seeing the earth as alive is a way that we can protect it.”
BBC / Crickey Conservation Society 2023.
We are not alone, we have never been alone …………………..
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