Monday 18 August 2014

The Old Straight Track


When I read Alan Garner's Moon of Gomrath fantasy novel

it was about 1974 - and therefore the wonderful description of The Old Straight Track was something arcane.

The end of the book referenced this idea to Alfred Watkins book of the same name; and my history teacher told me that the OST idea was unproven, but not disproved either.


The OST idea was that English people of ancient prehistory, probably neolithic, had made long distance, straight roads across the landscape, using a simple surveying method requiring just sticks - and navigating from one sacred point of high ground to another.

These points could be identified by the presence of ancient landscape features such as burial mounds, stone circles, and - it was said - the site of old Christian churches (which were assumed to have been built on these same sites).

The tracks could therefore be located using 1 inch to 1 mile maps (supplemented by two and a half inches to the mile detailed maps) - by trying to find straight lines that joined ancient landscape features, especially on hill tops.

A minimum of three 'points' was needed - but the more the better. Then you were supposed to walk the track, preferably with a camera, to look for other features and assess plausibility.


So I started hunting for Old Straight Tracks, using an Ordnance Survey maps of the Mendip Hills in Somerset - I just found this actual map a few days ago, and it is covered in neat pencil circles drawn with a compass around ancient sites and churches, and with a cross-cross of straight pencil lines trying to join them. The Mendip Hills are extraordinarily rich in these sites, so I managed to find a few possibilities.

What is interesting about this episode are the negatives.

I was looking for prehistoric Old Straight Tracks - and not 'Ley Lines'.

I don't think I had ever heard of Ley Lines. But Ley Lines are not exactly the same as The Old Straight Tracks, as originally described by Watkins; because he was talking about roads, while Ley Lines were/are conceptualized as primarily energy/ spiritual phenomena.


The second negative is related to this. My Mendip map included Glastonbury, and it would now seem blatantly obvious that Glastonbury - especially the Tor - ought to be a major focus for Old Straight Tracks or Ley Lines - yet I did not circle it!

This is because in the middle 1970s, Glastonbury had not become the nationally/ internationally known focus of New Age people and ideas it has since become. Or more exactly, the status of Glastonbury as a spiritual/ religious centre was only just coming out of a rather low ebb of a few decades - because it had been well known in the 1920s and 30s as evidenced by the early Glastonbury Festivals of Rutland Boughton and associated mysticism, and the great mega-novel A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys - but both of these were pretty much unknown (The reviving Picador paperback reprint of GR came only in 1975).


So my annotated map of Old Straight Tracks is something of an historical artefact. If it had been done just a few years later, I would have had to accept a spiritual dimension (or baggage) along with the Old Straight Tracks, and I would probably have assumed that any valid STRs in Somerset would be converging-on or radiating-out-from Glastonbury.

By the way - I personally no longer think it plausible that the ancient English did use straight roads, and in official circles the idea is nowadays generally regarded as untrue and having no significant support.

Which is a bit of a shame. However, among the New Age spiritual folk, in the form of Ley Lines, OSTs are sometimes a major focus of belief; and are referenced in dozens of books as the major theme, and hundreds or thousands of books as a significant phenomenon - being applied internationally and not just to Brtain.

'Ley Lines' is now almost a household word - albeit in a rather low status and 'flaky' kind of way.

So Alfred Watkins speculations have been a spectacular success - but in an extremely different domain of knowledge from that he envisaged when he wrote The Old Straight Track in 1925.

1 comment:

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I once met a Strangite (that is, a member of a Mormon splinter group that believes J. J. Strang, not Brigham Young, to have been the legitimate successor of Joseph Smith) who made much of the fact (if it is a fact; I never checked) that you can draw a "straight" line on a globe from Jerusalem through Kirtland to Nauvoo -- but, significantly, not to Salt Lake. (It's not really straight of course, because of the curvature of the earth, so you can't use a map and a ruler to check it. You need a globe and a length of thread.)

(Kirtland and Nauvoo are cities where the Mormon church was based during JS's life. Brigham Young then led the Mormons to Utah.)