DESIRE PATHS – A New Line on the Ley?
John Billingsley suggests a more mundane origin for some alignments
The defining characteristic of a ley is – I hope we would all agree – straightness. That was the key point that Alfred Watkins drew attention to, and even advocates of the alleged energy lines that have come to be mis-labelled ‘ley lines’ generally feel honour-bound to stress straightness.
It was this deliberate straightness that nettled many when Watkins first proposed the ley hypothesis; in the 1920s, it was hard for many to believe that primitive prehistoric peoples (as they were thought to be, despite the architectural evidence otherwise at places such as Stonehenge) could or would have laid things out in straight lines. Well, times move on, minds open under the weight of evidence, and the principle of deliberate prehistoric alignment – albeit not leys per se – is now accepted.
From a Watkins perspective of aligned trackways, straightness makes sense – it’s the shortest way between two points. It’s been shown that the most plausible leys are short, or comparatively so, and local – in other words, the shortest route between two destinations, even if not actually intervisible, is likely to have been relatively easy to survey and lay out. Then other markpoints tend to spring up along that line, and fragments of track, and presto we have a system of alignments.
It’s reasonable to point out, however, that the best trackways tend not to climb straight up hills (although some routes do seem to do that). Nonetheless, as long as the line is there, people can find easier routes and come back to it, thereby keeping on track. Hills, indeed, may not have been the hardest terrain to cross at some periods of history – forests or marsh, for instance, would have posed significant travel problems, too, both for passage and visibility. So there is a functional reason for straight lines marching straight up hills, and we do not have to assume that every alignment was used as a trackway for every bit of the way .
So this Watkinsian view of the ley rests on direct routes between places. Very soon after it was suggested, the concept took on a mystical ambience, and by the 1930s ley-like lines were being described by occultists such as Dion Fortune as mysterious lines of subtle energy criss-crossing the countryside. And so we get to the current state of affairs, where the spectrum of thought goes from Watkinsian trackways through various hypotheses of which the current favourite is paths for spirit travel, to lines of a mysterious energy unknown to science (or this planet’s science, at any rate). Whichever interpretation you favour, the implication is that they are a bit special, and something whose origins are, as the cliche goes, lost in the mists of time.
But are they so special, are they so unusual? And might we not still be making them?
There is a minor feature known to those involved in geography, planning, architecture and people’s use of space. It’s minor because it’s so mundane, though the name given to it is rather appealing. It’s called the Desire Path. We are all aware of desire paths, even if we don’t know it, and we probably have them in each of our neighbourhoods.
Think of this. Planners lay out an estate, with a nice little patch of grassy open ground in the midst of it. The pavement makes a rectangle around it, but the quickest route to town is straight across the open space from one corner to the other. Do people stick to the pavement or do they cut the corners? Enough do the latter for a path to be trodden into the grass. That’s a desire path. In time, another set of planners comes along, and make the people’s choice official and permanent with paving slabs or tarmac. A straight track has been created by popular desire.
This kind of thing – drawn from what happened to a patch of land directly outside my house – is happening all the time, wherever there is an open space directly between a person and where they want to go. If it happens today, with so much built-up environment, how much more so would it have happened in the past, at a time when there were fewer buildings and fewer walls? Or perhaps, more distantly, no fields, no walls – a landscape where all the tracks are a nomadic people’s choice.
Think also, in more recent history, of a church – the religious and social hub of a community, and the most visited building in the mediaeval village. Why, then, are so many paths – trackways and corpseways – aligned on churches? Probably because they’re the quickest way there. And perhaps because the church tower is the most visible thing in the landscape, and much easier to walk straight towards.
When we set out somewhere, we aim to take the most direct route. If the destination is not visible, then, as the Romans demonstrated with their roads, we choose a point to aim for and when we get there make the necessary modifications to direction. In time, when the route becomes better known, the intermediary kinks in the line straighten out. Thus develops a system of desire paths. If both the starting point and destination are places that a significant number of people are, or want to be (the concept of spiritual pilgrimage is also implicated here), then from the original proto-desire path we get a trackway – perhaps even, with enough intermediary points on the line, a ley .
With all the hypotheses and beguiling scenarios scattered along the path of the ley concept, one that seems to be missing is this one – that leys may be no more than ancient or mediaeval desire paths. Perhaps this idea is too simple and just not as attractive or sexy as the more mystical alternatives. But this isn’t to say that people do not somehow imbue an old straight track with ‘energy’ (or atmosphere) simply by using it (try dowsing the entrance to a superstore – I have!), or that supernatural occurrences and similar consciousness effects do not naturally tend to cluster around such well-established and well-used trackways (think of the hypnotic effect of walking and tiredness).
But aren’t these more to do with human energies, and the impact we have on our environment, than with some undemonstrable earth energy? Maybe we have in ley-hunting our own desire paths, in the sense that we see in alignments what we want to see. I’m not saying that the desire path is behind all leys – but it might play a bigger part than we have yet taken on board .
 Thanks to Adrian Hyde for pointing this out. See his ‘The Dire Necessity of Not Getting Lost’, NE81.
 Perhaps the desire path interpretation might be useful in assessing Gordon Harris’ work on multiple tracks radiating from nodal points (see NE55, 57, 58, 63, 67, 68, 91, 93)
 My thanks to Adrian Hyde and Philip Heselton for reading through this article and suggesting improvements.
Adrian Hyde, Romford:
Re John Billingsley’s ‘Desire Paths’ (NE99), there are some other subtle reasons for straightness of paths or roads, which would still fall within the class of ‘practical’. One is a matter of territory. Let’s suppose a long-distance ‘flint’ ley existing prehistorically from SE Herefordshire to N Wiltshire, some 45 mls long. A band of tribespeople coming from the NW on the way to gather their flints might have to pass through territories of three or four other tribes; they would also have to break their journey to search or hunt for food, though we may presume a ley sighting point to be the rallying point. If they travelled on a long-established, well-recognised ley, they might be seen as posing no threat to those whose lands they were crossing – but if they strayed far off the recognised route, intentions might be called into question.
Another observation has been made on straightness by Roman road experts: with undergrowth chopped down on both sides and a road built as straight as possible, Roman soldiers could have seen well ahead and sideways, lessening the possibility of ambush unseen around the next bend. [See A Hyde, ‘The Dire Necessity of Not Getting Lost’, NE81; copies still available at £1.20 inc p&p from NE. Eds]
Regarding the earth mysteries debate, I’d say an advantage of ‘earth mysteries’ as a name is that it makes it quite clear to a newcomer to the field what the ‘scene’ is about. For yourselves, I’d imagine the term holds a different ring than for most NE readers, because you’re having to use it so often in correspondence and conversation, and you must often wish for a range of alternatives! As for the field itself, I imagine that e.m. could broaden its remit and include some subjects normally excluded, judged on their merits, such as environmental concerns and campaigning.
Published in NE99 (Autumn 2004), pp.8-9