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A poor quality edition compared to some
on 27 May 2013
This is the first edition of the Old Straight Track which I ever had, and it isn't an especially pleasant book to handle. Far better, if you can get it, is the 1970 facsimile edition produced by Garnstone Press.
Quality of the edition aside, this is a difficult book to pin down. First of all, Watkins was not a crank. He didn't beleive in supernatural forces, and his 'ley lines' are simply ways of navigating about the contryside with no magical powers or starnge energies in sight. He brought together his theory as a result of many years travelling round the countryside, often on horseback. His thesis is that our ancestors, who didn't use wheeled transport all that much, laid out direct routes from place to place for those on foot or with pack horses to find their way along ancient trading routes. Salt is the main commodity he sees as being taken round the countryside by pedlars, but other products, such as flint and pottery are also cited.
So far, so plausible. When we get to the detail, however, it all starts to fall apart rather. We must forgive Watkins for not knowing things about archaeology that weren't discovered till after his time, but even so, claiming that ley lines must go back to 25,000 years ago (ie well before the last Ice Age) is pushing things well beyond where they'll go. The problems go deeper than that. Instead of suggesting a network of main tracks, off which the little-used paths to small hamlets branched, Watkins decides everyone must go straight across country, over hill and dale. As a result, the number of criss-crossing tracks becomes unfeasibly complex and entangled; no pedlar could remember which path to take when dozens crossed every valley or hill, heading off in different directions to link tiny settlements.
We can believe that salt and indeed flint (remember Grimes Graves) may have been traded across long distances. But Watkins argues that every use of the word "white" in a placename indicates a link with the salt trade, which is far from convincing. It gets worse; next he is claiming that every reference to "red" in a placename is proof of long-distance trade in pottery - while as any fule kno pottery, being both heavy and breakable, was generally traded the minimum possible distance from home until the coming of the canals.
One aspect of Watkins' theories I have no trouble acceptin is that laying out roads was the job of an elite class who claimed magical powers. That is just the way our ancestors would have done things, in the days when knowledge was kept secret and magic, rather than science, invoked to explain things. His construction of a whole theology and priestly class is, however, again taking things a bit too far.
Watkins was self-taught and his lack of academic rigour isn't too surprising. There are interesting ideas in here, but the later confusion with those who claim a different knid of ley line- one which focuses supernatural energies and may, or may not, have a connection with crop circles and aliens, has muddied the waters. As a result, little serious consideration has been given to the core of Watkins' theories, which is a shame.