Edward Elgar and Alfred Watkins

13 Dec

Most people have heard of Edward Elgar, the famous English composer who became a national institution because of orchestral works such as the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Perhaps less well known is Alfred Watkins, a businessman, self-taught amateur archaeologist and antiquarian who is most famous for coining the term ley lines to describe the apparent arrangement of straight lines positioned along ancient features on the British landscape. What hardly anyone is aware of is the strange link that the two men share, which was fictionalised in Phil Rickman’s novel The Remains of an Altar.

Elgar and Watkins lived and died at almost exactly the same time. Elgar was born in 1857, Watkins in 1855; Elgar died in 1934, Watkins in 1935. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. It was only later in life that Elgar was drawn back to the English landscape and people for musical inspiration and this is what led him to cross paths with Watkins. It was while standing on a hillside in Herefordshire, England, in 1921 that Watkins experienced a revelation and noticed on the landscape the apparent arrangement of straight lines positioned along ancient features dating from Neolithic times. He presented his idea that this was the work of the ancient Britons in his book The Old Straight Track, which was widely disparaged by learned archaeologists, who considered that these people were too primitive to be responsible for such an arrangement. Watkins first presented his ideas at a meeting of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club of Hereford in September 1921, a club that a certain Edward Elgar had joined recently.

The 1920s were a tough time for Elgar. He was losing interest in music, his compositions were no longer in fashion and, most devastatingly, his wife had died in 1920. He moved to rural Worcestershire during this period, where he rediscovered his love of the English landscape and took up photography, a subject which was also close to Watkins’ heart. The pair first became acquainted through a mutual interest in landscape photography and it was Watkins who convinced Elgar to join the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, which incidentally seemed to be extraordinarily attractive to the famous people of the day, especially considering its out of the way location (the ghost story writer Algernon Blackwood and the playwright George Bernard Shaw were also members). What were they all drawn together by?

In his published writings Watkins did not attribute anything particularly out of the ordinary, let alone supernatural, to ley lines. His theory was that these alignments were created simply for ease of overland trekking by line of sight navigation during Neolithic times and had persisted in the British landscape over several millennia. In more recent times, however, the term ley lines has come to be associated with dowsing and New Age beliefs, including the idea that ley lines have spiritual power or that ley lines and their intersection points resonate a special psychic or mystical energy. Watkins was known to have speculated verbally that ley lines were not limited to Britain and in fact existed in networks all over the world – a theory with quite far-reaching implications, suggesting connections between cultures and peoples previously thought to have had nothing in common with each other. Perhaps the discussion of such an intriguing theory, and its ramifications, is what brought together such a disparate group of people at a tiny little gentleman’s club in Hereford all those years ago.


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