Some believe that invisible, mystical ‘energy lines’ crisscross England. Bel Jacobs investigates the history and significance of ley lines, as well as the artists who have been inspired by them.
Bones Tan Jones, an artist and performer, walked from Silvertown in the London Borough of Newham to the sacred circle of Stonehenge earlier this year. The route was deliberate: both sites are proposed locations for underground road tunnels. “I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between the natural and the artificial, the sacred and the un-sacred,” says Tan Jones. “So I decided to walk from the Silvertown tunnel’s entrance… to Stonehenge’s monumental stone circle, and see if I could connect them.”
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Tunnel Visions, an exhibition based on that journey, is currently on display at Queercircle in Silvertown. Tan Jones’s unique blend of spirituality, music, ritual, craft, sculpture, and moving image has earned them commissions from the ICA, the Serpentine Gallery, and the Shanghai Biennale (2021), among others. Tan Jones travelled through urban and rural landscapes for six days, encountering several holloways (roads or tracks that are significantly lower than the land on either side and were not formed by recent engineering) and The Harrow Way, said to be Britain’s oldest road. Along the way, the artists responded to what they saw through poetry, storytelling, and, most importantly, song. “I discovered the Circle of Perpetual Choirs, Druids who would always be singing, at a stone circle or an old yew tree or a strong earth energy location, to keep the land at peace. I wanted to be that choir all by myself.”
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 – bones tan jones
The artist’s journey began with research into ancient ley lines, a theory 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,” according to author Simon Ingrams in National Geographic. Tan Jones has long been fascinated by this theory: “I’ve been fascinated by ley lines for years,” they explain. “I grew up in the countryside, so it makes perfect sense to me that there are energy lines running through the Earth.”
What are ley lines? What about power lines? Surely the domain of mythmakers and fairy believers? To begin with, no. Alfred Watkins, a councillor in rural Herefordshire in the United Kingdom, coined the term just three years after World War One ended. Watkins, who was born in 1855 into a prosperous farming family, was also an amateur archaeologist; it was while out riding in 1921 that he 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, according to Watkins, was the legacy of pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain who, quite sensibly – during a time when the English landscape was densely forested – worked out 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 there. Tracks were visually laid out, for example, by lighting beacons on high points and then lining up markers and key points across the intervening land, such as mounds and moats, stone circles, and more. Intersections took on local significance as meeting places and markets, and later as burial mounds and temples.
Watkins published his theories in the now-classic Old Straight Track in 1925. The book, which is still in print, speaks from a more innocent era, blending a love of rural and historic Herefordshire with quotes from WB Yeats and George Borrow, as well as a charming candour about his own assumptions. “‘What imaginative stuff,’ I can hear some reader exclaim,” Watkins writes at one point in a beacon chapter. Thousands of people roamed the English countryside in search of prehistoric trackways and waystones in the 1920s and 1930s, touting maps and poles. It wasn’t until after WWII that the ley line’s potential as a repository for all things mystical became widely recognised.
Blame ex-RAF pilot Tony Wedd, who suggested in his leaflet Skyways and Landmarks (1961) that prehistoric societies laid down ley lines to connect with alien spacecraft. John Michell, a writer, took it a step further. Michell posited spiritual dimensions to ley lines, created the concept of Earth energies, and established Glastonbury as the undisputed capital of the New Age in The View Over Atlantis (1969), which has been described as one of the most influential books of the hippy underground movement. Suddenly, ley lines were recognised not only for country walks and genteel treasure hunts, but also as gateways to extraordinary, interplanetary worlds-between-worlds.
‘Harmony and balance’
In the year 2000, David Newnham wrote: “Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, ley-line theory mutated and bifurcated, bending with every passing fad, to the point where it frequently appeared as if its sole purpose was to highlight the failings of our own times. With each twist and turn, it became more deeply entangled in a thicket of mysticism, neopaganism, and plain superstition.”
And how fascinating it was. Crossroads, in particular, were thought to be reeking of otherworldly powers. Crossroads, as unconsecrated ground, became popular places to bury suicide victims and so-called witches, as well as points from which evil or restless spirits were said to disperse and ghosts roamed. During the 1970s folk revival, more esoteric beliefs flourished. According to Michell, his book would inspire “countless theories of occult Earth mysteries and New Age psycho-naturalism; stories of telluric lines of force that ran invisibly across countries, their routes marked above ground by megaliths and tumuli; the leys… would be folded into theories of psychic energies, magnetic fields, aliens, and other forms of extra-terrestrial presence.” He wasn’t kidding.