Barney takes a good hard look at whether the legend of ley lines might hold spectacular secrets of sumptuous singletrack.
Words & Photography Barney Marsh
The phone call, when it came, was a surprise. Usually I’m treated to emails from behind the veiled curtain of the Singletrack office; they’re normally terse and to the point – and they are usually enquiring as to the whereabouts of the copy I promised them the previous week. Or occasionally, the previous month.
So to actually have a voice on the other end of the line was a surprise, and it was pleasant to perceive it as vaguely human. “Ley lines,” it intoned. “We want you to write an article about ley lines. We reckon they’d be great things to use for mountain biking.” Yes, I paraphrase (I may have been hungover), but that was the general gist.
This, too, was unusual. Normally (without wishing to pull back the veiled curtain of glamorous mountain bike feature writing too much) it’s me pestering them with hare-brained schemes they might consider to run as a feature. I’m still convinced that mountain biking monkey tennis is a goer. And that pull-out exposé about Shreddies in a mountain biking context just needs a little more coercive persuasion before that Pulitzer will be MINE. But to have the Voice From On High actually bestow such an idea upon me? Well, I was honoured. And touched. And a little bit suspicious.
I am, you see, a bit of a sceptic. I have been rigorously trained (ha!) in the ways of science, and I have had all the inclinations of Woo beaten out of me with a large stick (with ribbons and bells on, natch). But the ley line is something that has heretofore escaped my gimlet-eyed scrutiny. So let us put scepticism to one side for a moment, and take a quick look at the history of ley lines.
Leying down the lore.
Way back in prehistory… no, wait, that’s not right. Just under 100 years ago in 1921, an amateur archaeologist called Alfred Watkins made what he thought was a curious observation. It was possible to take a couple of ancient monuments (or buildings subsequently built on the sites of ancient monuments), draw a line through them, and astonishingly, more ancient monuments fell on – or extremely close to – the line! He wondered if there might possibly be ancient paths that connected them, and was met with typical British disdain at the preposterousness of it all.
Much later – in the sixties, would you believe – some other folks, notably one John Mitchell, who had presumably eaten far too many suspicious brownies, came to the conclusion that the reason why there was no architectural evidence was that these lines were lines of magic (wooOOooOOoooOO).
Maybe these were Lines of Power which The Ancients – or aliens – in their ineffable wisdom (now lost, naturally) could discern, whereas we, with all of our spiritual, noise-inducing, technological trappings (presumably going back to, and including, bronze aged tools) couldn’t?
Subsequent ‘research’ with copper and/or hazel dowsing rods seemed to bear these theories out. The things allegedly rotated like helicopter blades when approaching – uh – lines between different old places. Never mind finding water, this was much more cool – Lines! Of! Power!
Riding the line.
Happily for mountain bikers everywhere, loads of these ancient monuments are found in places it’s cool to ride. Admittedly, loads of straight lines don’t seem like a whole pile of entertainment, but surely it’d be possible to find somewhere where a few intersect, and we could see if there’s any correlation between good riding and ley lines. For that reason alone, Singletrack’s edict from on high was gratefully received by me. I set about formulating a plan.
Upon consulting the Hallowed Screeds of Google, it appeared that a good place to start looking for all things magic and mysterious would be Shropshire. It’s not an area I know terribly well, but it’s one I wanted to get to know better. It’s full of folklore and truly ancient stuff and whatnot – burial sites, stone circles, standing stones, Robert Plant…
You know, it’s actually pretty hard to try to find an official map of ley lines in the UK. Mostly, I suspect, as there’s not all that much consensus as to where they actually are – but as luck would have it, I managed to find not just a juicy ley line in Shropshire, but one it was legal to ride, and moreover, it was intersected by another juicy one at a stone circle en route. Result!
I picked a couple of trusty fellows to assist me in my Zen-like quest. Firstly my mate Jim Burley – the Top Gun of bike mechanics. Jim is a long-time denizen of Shropshire so he could act as guide, folklorist and interpreter – happily, he speaks the language. And Dave Astley – ace bike mechanic at Oneplanet Adventure in Llandegla, Ti Stooge rider and (honestly, this was the clincher) owner of a magnificently druid-esque beard. Jim decided to spend the majority of the ride with a ley line detector in his backpack. This turned out to be a rainbow-coloured wind-wheel. It certainly lent proceedings a colourful tone…
Our (massively non-scientific) intention was this: instead of messing about with dowsing rods or wood or copper (better for assessing the lines of Spiritual Force, apparently), we’d use machinery of aluminium and titanium, comprised of a variety of intersecting tubes – all the better to focus and channel the energy in a propulsive fashion. The circular directional propulsive devices will be shod in purest rubber compounds, the better to insulate our machinery against any earth-bound forces running counter to the ley lines we’re looking for. In short, we’ll ride some bikes about and see what’s what. After all, people refer to mountain biking as a spiritual pursuit do they not? And what could be more spiritual than this?
So we’d go there. We’d ride around the ley line. Over the ley line. Through the ley line. Into the hallowed intersection of the ley lines. And then we’d ride a bunch of other stuff, criss-crossing ley lines with merry abandon all over the shop, and we’d try to see if we noticed any differences. It was all turning into (a vague excuse for) a plan!
So it was that we convened at the car park just below the stone circle at Mitchell’s Fold, a Bronze Age structure near Stapeley Hill in Shropshire. There is, of course, a totally bonkers origin tale for the stones – I’ll spare you the details, but they involve fairies, a magic cow, and evil witch and a sieve. I’m sure you can all construct the story around that one. King Arthur and Excalibur are in the mix too, of course (he certainly got about, did Arthur). In the middle of the stone circle is a small indentation – presumably caused by the soles of countless sandals shuffling about – which marks the intersection of two ‘official’ ley lines. One of these transects the circle from Rollrights King Stone in Oxfordshire and goes through Clee Hill, the Long Mynd, here at Mitchell’s Fold, and on through Snowdon and Anglesey. The other goes through the Wardstone Barrow in Dorset, Mitchell’s Fold and Moel Fammau in Clwyd.
As we approach the hallowed circle from the south, our excitement mounted. The trail changed from the rough cart track, going over a cattle grid and into more grassy territory before the stone circle itself hoved (hooved? Hoovered?) into view. Was the proximity of two intersecting lines generating hitherto unheard of levels of power and enthusiasm in my two test subjects? Well, it was getting increasingly hard to stop my two pals from wheelieing all over the place, so I can only conclude that Spiritual Force renders front wheels lighter than they otherwise would be. There were a quite a few baffled onlookers who stared in wonder at our hilarious flailings, and our falling about giggling (ley lines can definitely make you giggle), but none of them were bearded, kaftan-robed sandally types. A few families, and a man with a stick and a doggy. He did have a beard though. Does that count?
We carried on, following the trail along the ley line across the hill for a mile or two. People who are versed in such things (and who carry wands of birch or copper, natch) seem to state that they can sometimes feel a ‘fizzing’ sensation as they travel along, or cross, or commune with ley lines. We experienced great views to be sure, but I’m afraid that in the moment there were too many other things assaulting our senses to figure out whether we were fizzing because of any magical energy lines or merely the fact that riding bikes is ace. But, somewhat expectedly, energy levels and enthusiasm seemed to diminish when we rode uphill and mysteriously increased again when we rode downhill. Amazing.
Our travels across the wild and mystical hills of Shropshire took us up and over dale, until we spotted a gorgeous little bit of downhill. It deviates somewhat from the ley line we were assessing, but to be honest it looked like a lot of fun, and so we went for it. Shropshire is peppered with such places; unlikely little folds of trail awesomeness hidden in little clefts and crannies in the countryside, but it takes a grizzled, steely-eyed guide schooled in the ways of local lore to ferret out these little joy-nuggets. I’m unclear whether he originally used a dowsing rod, but I have it on good authority that Jim’s bike has been blessed by the sacred waters of Tom Ritchey and, as such, is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of cast-iron awesomeness, especially if it’s singletrack flavoured, or comes with an enormous moustache.
So down we shot, stopping only to ride repeated sections for the camera. And at the bottom we pushed back up to ride a bit more. It didn’t seem that the absence of ley lines was making it any less fun, but clearly more experimentation was needed.
Eventually, our spiritual wandering took us around the base of the Stiperstones, a series of crusty outcroppings formed some 480 million years ago, and shaped in the repeated freeze/thaw of the last ice age. They run approximately north-north-east to south-south-west, with Pontesbury to the north (ancient hill forts? Check) and Bishop’s Castle to the south (which is a stopping point on the Bronze Age Kerry Ridgeway). On this axis is also the magnificently named Snailbeach, so it’s worthy of interest for that reason alone. But while undeniably pretty it was hard to discern any special spiritual significances or happenings here, especially on bikes. It was lovely though.
After lunch, we decided it might be good to ride some trails which were not on ley lines (or at least, we think they’re not – it’s so hard to tell), so we headed over to nearby Eastridge. Flowy, twisty, rootsy, jumpy and enthralling they certainly are – and as a result they leave one champing at the bit for more. But these trails aren’t on some mystical, linear superabundance of steeze. They’re just blimmin’ good fun.
Have ley lines contributed to mountain biking in any way, shape or form? Well, I’m going with the ‘correlation, not causation’ clause. They’re often mumbled about in similar places (outdoors, remote), so there’s an excuse to go exploring, and it’s fun to imagine mystical monks levitating about all over the place, but I’m going with a big, fat ‘no’. Most trails do bow to the necessities of geographic inconvenience. In other words, if a bloody great hill is in the way of where the trails are aiming, they go around them. The prehistoric paths (there are plenty of prehistoric ones around) we still know about, also do this. It seems odd that even more antique prehistoric types would decide that geology can go hang and just run a load of straight lines all over the place.
“Aah, but they are magic straight lines!” I hear you cry. Well, even if the ancient oldsters were extra-specially good at sniffing out Zen lines, they seem to have been amazingly flaky about precise alignment (loads of stuff is off-centre – why? To avoid damming the magic and having it overflow?) or leaving any evidence about it. And besides, one of the issues with ley lines from our point of view is a rather obvious one: they’re straight. And it’s all very well if they magically enhance karma or your ability to huck massive things, but it’s all a bit moot if there’s no sinuous ribbon of twisty singletrack connecting King Ungbert’s grave mound with the ruin of St Splenda’s castle. The best we can hope for is the occasional intersection.
Which cheater line, man?
OK, OK, it’s time to come clean – ‘official’ ley line maps aren’t actually that easy to come by. If you type “ley lines” into Google, you’ll come across a ‘Ley Line Finder’ which can take whatever postcode you type into it, and find three ley lines that intersect it, including one that passes through Stonehenge. There really are that many ancient monuments in the UK. But I tried really hard not to cheat for this article. I really did find some ‘official’ ones. And they seemed to be no more or no less fun to ride around than the ones invented by internet cynics.
Even in their most objective, non-mung-bean form of postulated ancient transport routes, they seem to be more a product of the human mind’s ability to find patterns and coincidences where none exist. There are so, so many sites of ancient provenance in the UK that it’s incredibly easy to link up a few of them in a vaguely straight line (if you search online, ley line apologists will apparently happily accept that places are simply ‘near’ rather than ‘on’ lines, and claim them as a hit nevertheless). Subsequent studies have found strange – yet non-existent – patterns of ‘lines’ pretty much everywhere, including around phone boxes and old Woolworth stores. They certainly have no spiritual component, and are not responsible for bikes levitating, or people having more fun.
No, actually, that last one isn’t true. Jim, Dave and I had tons of fun. We wouldn’t have been out riding if it weren’t for ley lines. We wouldn’t have had the laughs that we did and, real or hypothetical, perhaps that’s all the evidence we need.
Sprouting up as they are all over the place, it might even be that trail centres are part of some hallowed mountain-bikery mysticism. If you squint a bit, Cwmcarn, the peak of Snowdon and Coed Y Brenin all intersect the same line. And Coed Y Brenin is also on a line with Llangollen and Lady Cannings in Sheffield.
Maybe there’s something in this ley line stuff after all…
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