A recent conversation asking about my book on ancient trackways prompted me to reproduce one of the walks from the book.
Not all leys forge a straight line through what remains of England's wildernesses. Once these trackways linked the major population centres, so we should not be too surprised to find a ley forging its way straight through a major city. Indeed the only surprising thing about it is that it can still be traced under the concrete of modern society.
In order to trace this ancient track we must start outside the city of Leicester to the northwest. Bradgate Park is not only three hundred and fifty hectares of ancient deer park and the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey, but is the setting for the folly known as Old John's Tower. It is a fairly modest construction as follies go, just two storeys but at over one hundred and seventy metres above sea level affords magnificent views around the Leicestershire countryside.
It was not built as a ley line marker of course. Indeed the construction only dates from the 18th century when, according to some reports, it allowed ladies a view of the race course which circled the top of this hill. A rough circle of stones surrounds this hill - could they have marked out the course? The arch which makes this one of the county's most easily recognised sights, making the silhouette on the skyline look not unlike a very large beer mug, was added in 1786.
Originally this was the sight of an old windmill belonging to Old John, in turn becoming the name of the present building. Legend has it that this employee of the 5th Earl of Stamford was killed in quite unusual circumstances. It seems that a party was being held to mark the 21st birthday of the earl's son. A rather boisterous male assemblage seemed to think it would be a good idea to build a bonfire around the flagpole there. Sadly when the fire started it brought the pole crashing down upon the unfortunate Old John killing him instantly. A highly fanciful tale probably created to explain the name and having no basis in truth.
However this is not the start of the ley. From here it is quite easy to see the beginning to the northwest. Indeed it is difficult to miss the two hundred and forty-five metre high Beacon Hill, the site of a Bronze Age hill fort and the second highest point in the county. No obvious signs of the ancient settlement remain, however there is a small toposcope. Here a brass plate sits on top of a stone plinth, the radiating lines showing points of interest visible in that direction (including Old John's Folly). It is claimed that Lincoln Cathedral is visible from this point, yet even though it was the clearest of days I could not make out the building with its two great towers standing high above the surrounding city.
Beacon hill is not just an ancient sighting point, it also has what has become known as a 'trig pillar' - short for triangulation pillar. Standing around one metre high these concrete markers are found dotted throughout the country and were erected to support a theodolite. Every single pillar was designed to be visible from two others, hence the triangle, and are placed on the highest point in the area. Today it is often only possible to see one other point, however it is perhaps no surprise to find how often they stand on, or very close to, an ancient ley. By using these detailed and remarkably accurate maps of Britain were produced. While the modern GPS systems are undoubtedly more accurate, they are only marginally so and are simply easier to read than basic maps.
Each of these pillars carries a unique number and there are a number slightly different designs despite the basic shape, making collection of their designation and a photograph (with the collector, of course) an unusual hobby. At one time there were over six thousand of these dotted around the country, around seventy per cent of which still survive.
Extending the line southeast between the two we find we eventually close in on Bradgate Road just as it is entering Anstey. To the north of this road, the final three fields prior to the houses exhibit signs of earlier habitation. The unmistakable signs of an earlier settlement can be seen from aerial photographs. It is thought that this represents elements from a number of historical periods, although without recent field archaeology it is impossible to say when the earliest settlers arrived.
The very name of Anstey may well be a clue to the existence of a ley, for it has been defined as '(place at) the narrow path'. If further evidence is required there is also a path which is still sometimes referred to locally as The Leys.
A little further along the sixteen kilometre course the ley hits two makers in the village of Anstey, frequently referred to as 'the Gateway to the Forest' (ie Charnwood). Firstly comes the church of St Mary, the oldest parts of which are known to date from 1220. That Christian places of worship replaced former pagan sites is certain. Indeed it is likely the mandate from the Vatican was not 'convert the people', when envoys were sent to England, but 'convert their places of worship'.
Just a little further on near Gynsall Lane and alongside the A46 is Anstey Stone. For as long as anyone could remember the stone was horizontal until a local farmer stood it on its end, returning it to its former position rising two metres above the surrounding land.
One of the major road junctions in the area is next, the roundabout where the A50 meets the A453. Once a crossroads and lying directly on the ley, the meeting of Glenfrith Way and New Parks Way with the Groby Road has appeared on maps for centuries - although not until recently were they so named!
Following the the line we rejoin the A50 trunk road at Frog Island. The name suggests one thing but is clearly not an island as we would know it. However in times past it may well have been an effective island as it was (at least for the majority of the time) an isolated patch of dry land bordered by the River Soar to the north and surrounded by marshland. The exact site of this dry land coincides with the ley line and its (now) well hidden marker stone.
The ley also crosses the site of the Britella plastics factory on Frog Island. As mentioned in the first chapter there are those who consider ley lines a magnet for ghosts, doubtless the workers at that factory during the 1970s would agree. Unexplained damage to machinery and feelings of cold so unnerved the workers they demanded an exorcism be performed or industrial action would be taken.
Just further along we come to All Saint's Church, a fourteenth century building which, along with the adjoining roads, was declared a conservation area in 1999. However it may be argued that it is not the church that is the marker but High Cross Street which runs alongside, the name adding weight to this argument. It should be noted that while the church is probably the stronger marker, it may not have been built on the exact site of the original pagan temple and thus the road name is the more likely marker.
Quite a jump to the final marker, six kilometres to the fourteenth century Oadby church of St Peter's. Such a distance may seem to make the suggestion of this being on the ley a little hard to believe. Yet we should remember that this part of Leicester is heavily populated, has been for many years, so any markers laid down centuries ago will have been decimated.
Today the steeple is still visible from quite a distance and there is no doubt it is still the local landmark. Indeed nothing is likely to have stood out more since the monks built the first known chapel on this site in 1075. This seems an unusual point for the terminus of the ley, however there are no modern signs of a continuation. It is possible it joins another here which followed the general line of the modern A6. Either way this sixteen kilometre track packs a lot of history into its short course.
Admittedly I was not expecting this walk to be among the most enjoyable as it passes right through the centre of the city of Leicester. Not that I have anything against this city, simply that it is less punishing to walk across farmland than a concrete jungle. However I was pleasantly surprised and time passed remarkably quickly. It was indeed a most pleasant day.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.