‘Ley,’ Jane snapped. ‘Alfred Watkins called them leys. Ley lines – that’s just a term that’s been adopted in almost a disparaging way by so-called experts who say they don’t exist.’Phil Rickman, The Remains of an Altar
Why do people still insist on using the tautological ‘ley line’ when they should just say ‘ley’? It has become endemic – even websites such as Wikipedia and the BBC erroneously insist that Alfred Watkins coined the term. Distinguished members of the British Society of Dowers, who should know better, have also been known to drop the ‘ley line’ bomb occasionally, despite the Earth Energies Glossary, compiled over 20 years ago by Billy Gawn, strongly counselling against such faux pas:
Ley Line: The term used (incorrectly) by many dowsers to describe an energy ley, a straight line of energy that may link ancient sites where it coincides with a visual ley. It is easily confused with the term ley, which is a purely visual alignment, and therefore its use is not recommended by dowsers. It is also commonly used indiscriminately by the public in general. Alfred Watkins never used the term ‘ley line’
For the last few years, I’ve been wondering when the term first came into general usage. I know that Colin Bloy, of Fountain International fame, used it frequently throughout the 1980s, which may partly account for its widespread adoption, but I was convinced that the true origin lay earlier, most probably in the 1960s or ‘70s. These decades witnessed an explosion of interest in ‘new-age’ ideas. Dowsers had been finding water associated with ancient sites since at least the 1930s but were now busy exploring the energetic dimensions of leys, and the idea of leys having some sort of spiritual energy attached to them was gaining popularity, thanks largely to books like John Michell’s The Flying Saucer Vision, published in 1967, and his masterwork The View Over Atlantis, published in 1969 (although Michell also avoided the term ‘ley line’). These, plus a profusion of other works such as Paul Screeton’s Quicksilver Heritage and Janet & Colin Bord’s Mysterious Britain helped generate widespread interest into what became known as ‘Earth Mysteries’.
The earliest reference I found to the term ‘ley line’ in North America is a 1974 ASD digest article by Terry Ross, then President of the American Society of Dowers, who writes about dowsing ‘ley lines’ in Vermont, stating that they are lines of energy that, ‘range from 4.5 – 6.5 feet in width’ and that they are ‘marked in ways analogous to the European lines … and were known to the early inhabitants of the continent.’ Later, Ross reinforces his belief that these energy lines are the same as Watkins’ leys:
‘In researching the ley-line, it may be helpful to start with a map. In connecting, for example, Paleo-Indian or pre-historic sites of mound-builders in North America, or the pre-Columbian temples of Mexico, one may discover that he has also plotted the path of a ley-line. The alignments must be perfectly straight.‘1
This conflation of energy lines with visual alignments introduced a level of confusion that is still prevalent on both sides of the pond today. Matters were not helped after Sig Lonegren, who had trained with Terry, immigrated to the UK and started using the term ‘leys’ to describe the dowseable straight lines of energy that he was finding. To clarify matters, John Michell advised Sig to start calling these lines ‘energy leys’ to distinguish them from Watkins-style alignments 2. However, the damage was done, and as a result today many people freely use ‘leyline’ as a generic label. But when was the term first used in the UK, and by who?
I found a mention in the diaries of R. Ogilvie Crombie, who had a close connection with the Findhorn Community, dated November 1972. He writes of a meeting with the Great God Pan in Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, where Pan tells him, ‘…at that time, you knew nothing about power points and what some people call ley lines.‘3 Yet the sentence structure here implies that the term had already been in common use for a while. There must have been an earlier source. I kept looking.
An appeal on Twitter led me to a quote from Andrew Kerr, who talks about the Pyramid stage at the June 1971 Glastonbury Festival being constructed ‘over the ley lines’.4 The Pyramid stage was built to John Michell’s specifications and is sited over a blind spring and a crossing of two leys that was determined by dowsing. This reference felt like it might be getting closer to the source, although I knew that John Michell didn’t use the term, so where had Kerr picked it up?
Then, a search in the archives The Ley Hunter magazine unearthed what, for a while, seemed a most promising source. In the editorial of the December 1969 issue, editor Paul Screeton quotes a letter from avowed earth mystery sceptic John Cleary-Baker PhD, then Chair of BUFORA – The British UFO Research Association, who writes, ‘…to my way of thinking, one could construct equally convincing ley lines by the use of public houses, telephone booths or branches of F. W. Woolworth’s.’ 5
The deprecatory tone of this comment struck a chord with me, and how ironic would it be if the widespread use of the term found its origin in a remark by a sceptic? Yet it still felt that he was using the term in a familiar, accepted sense. To widen the discussion, I posted a thread about this on the British Dowsing forum. The topic languished for some time until a new member ‘Sparktalker’ took up the baton by referencing a blog post that mentioned ex-RAF pilot Tony Wedd’s 1961 booklet Skyways and Landmarks, in which he allegedly claimed that ‘ley lines’ were flight paths for interdimensional craft. However, the blog post in question was written in recent years and uses the term in a modern idiom; Wedd doesn’t mention either leys or ley lines in his treatise.
Wedd was a hugely intelligent and eccentric character. He designed and supervised the build of the five-bedroomed family home but forgot to include any provision for heating other than a small fireplace in the living room. He suffered from bouts of narcolepsy, which made for a chequered flying career; several times he struggled to stay awake long enough to land his plane! He believed that washing and brushing his teeth destroyed the body’s natural defences and consequently could smell pretty ripe at times, but this did not stop him having a string of affairs, sometimes with rather sophisticated ladies, according to his son.
But it is his fascination with UFOs and leys that may provide the answer to our little conundrum. Wedd was a member of both the Straight Track Club and BUFORA, and enthusiastically promulgated the idea that UFOs followed ‘lines of magnetic currents’ in the landscape – in other word, leys. It seems natural that he would conflate the two words ‘leys’ and ‘lines’. He certainly uses the phrase in a talk he gave to the BUFORA conference in 1968 (which would have been chaired by Dr Cleary-Baker, most likely where he picked it up), where he says, ‘Now, this connection between the flying saucer routes and the old ley lines of Alfred Watkins…’ 6
Furthermore, Jimmy Goddard states that he first heard Tony giving that talk in 1962, shortly after the publication of Skyways and Landmarks, so he could have been using the term that far back.
So, there you have it. The most likely candidate for introducing the term ‘ley line’ appears to be Tony Wedd, definitely in 1968, possibly as early as 1962. Unless you know better…?
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- Ross, T. Edward, The Ley-Line in North America, The American Dowser vol.14 No.3 August 1974
- Lindsay, Gordon, The Occult Diaries of R. Ogilvie Crombie. Lorian Press, 2011
- The Ley Hunter magazine, December 1969 p.2, accessed at: https://isaackoiup.blogspot.com/2021/07/issues-of-ley-hunter-uk-ley-lines.html
- https://youtu.be/zBRVrrW-PJU (at around 6m 45s)