On the right lines
Tucked away, not too far from Ellesmere, lies Spout Farm. A mix of green, rolling fields and dark woodland, it is the kind of scene you can find all over Shropshire, but something of a mystery is brewing here.
The farm first came to the attention of Countryside Service officer, Shaun Burkey, last year when volunteer Rob McBride told him about the ancient oaks growing in the woodland. Shaun is leading a project looking for the county's ancient trees as part of a nationwide scheme to preserve our natural heritage.
The "veteran trees" at Spout Farm are thought to be about 500 years old, which dates them back to the beginning of the 16th century when the paint was still wet on the Mona Lisa and Henry VIII was a young man. But the trees were just the beginning...
When Shaun decided to investigate the site with his dowsing rods he stumbled on two ley lines crossing each other, leading him to think that the site may have had some special significance. Dowsing is a controversial subject with passionate arguments for and against. The popular image of a person with hazel twigs looking for water can be true, but there are many different ways to dowse for any number of things. Some people favour pendulums and others can even pick up things from maps, despite being miles away from the place they are focusing on.
Dowsing for ley lines is something that has risen in profile over the past few years. Ley lines are believed to be channels of energy that criss-cross the earth and are often associated with spiritual places. Shaun first became interested in these channels when he discovered that a line is said to run through his village in North Wales. The line goes straight through several sites of religious significance, including Llanelwy (St Asaphs), one of the most important early Christian settlements in Wales.
The idea of ley lines was first suggested by Alfred Watkins in the 1920s. Watkins lived in Herefordshire, and it was during his travels in the county that he realised many of the hilltops were connected together in straight lines. His theory was that these were ancient routes using natural landmarks and religious sites to navigate around the country.
A few years later Watkins’ theory was taken up by the occultist movement and the idea of ley lines as channels of spiritual energy became popular. Dowsers linked these ley lines to underground water, and in more recent times research has been carried out suggesting they are magnetic forces from the earth, but there has been no conclusive evidence to support this.
Ley lines are usually associated with ancient religious sites often featuring springs or upright stones. It is believed that the site at Spout Farm, not far from the lakes at Ellesmere, had a well or spring that is now filled in. The name of the farm is also one that is found in other places around the country where there is water. In Shropshire there is a long-standing tradition of mystical wells and springs and some are associated with destroyed religious sites.
The site is also bordered by the old track from Ellesmere to Penley, which appears to run along side one of the ley lines found by Shaun. It is possible that the ancient trees on the site were used as way-markers to help people navigate along the track. Some have suggested that the site was once used as a hill fort, thanks to its steep banks and great views out over the surrounding countryside. In more recent times, a map at Spout Farm from the 19th century shows a building on the site that may have been used as a monastery.
For Shaun the interesting thing about dowsing is how it can be used as a tool to identify potentially significant sites. Whether you believe that ley lines are spiritual energy or that it’s all just a coincidence, or perhaps something in the middle, it seems clear that the argument will continue for years to come. In the meantime, there are some tantalising questions raised about places like Spout Farm and how to uncover Shropshire’s hidden heritage.
last updated: 30/04/2008 at 12:27