The reality of ley lines

The first thing to know about ley lines is that they don’t exist. This is also the least interesting thing about them.

The theory of ley lines came from Alfred Watkins, based on observing alignments between historical sites. Watkins claimed that these lines would have been used to navigate trade routes. Over time, this theory has been tied in with new age ideas of earth magic, coming to represent channels of energy and force.

Ley lines are a statistical curiousity. Given the density of significant sites (wells, churches, barrows, hilltops) in the UK, it would be stranger if it were not possible to draw lines between them. Ben Goldacre posted about an experiment that found alignments between the old Woolworths stores. Using some software written by Stephen Kay, I’ve found lines between pubs in Brighton. Aside from the obvious alignment of pubs along the seafront, there was a pub-line from the Western Front to the Swan in Falmer, joining several pubs in the valleys between. Obviously, no-one had tried to align Brighton’s drinking dens, so what does this mean?

A few years back, I followed the ley line near the long man of Wilmington (a figure that Watkins thought might have been a surveyor of ley lines). I’m not sure how useful this line would be to navigate with, compared to the ridgelines and rivers in the area. I remain skeptical about most of the theories about leys.

I love the Austin Osman Spare quote about magic, that we should treat the entities we encounter “as if real”, not “as real”. These ideas were taken further by the practitioners of chaos magic, who decided that it was irrelevant if the entities and powers they interacted with were real. They found intercessions to superheroes or Mr Men could be as powerful as dealing with gods or demons.

It doesn’t matter if ley lines are real, because people find a power in these ideas. Some of them seriously believe that ley-lines channel energy in the earth. I’m generally suspicious of people using the word energy when they mean atmosphere – as someone who studied for a physics degress, if someone talks about energy then I want to see evidence of heat. I do wish, though, this sort of ‘energy’ was something I could experience and appreciate.

But I love ley-lines for telling stories about landscape. They tether churches to wells and ancient stones, asking us to make connections. I love the claims that these are lines of earth energy, used to guide alien space ships in prehistoric times. More than once at parties, people have told me that Brighton is special because two ley-lines cross here, although no-one has ever told me which ley-lines they are. Even the local council refers to ley lines in the St Anne’s Well Gardens information board – although they don’t know anything more about this line, only that it passes through the well. Ley-lines may not have the structure and authenticity of similar concepts like songlines, but given a few hundred years, they might.

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