Several years ago we were on another long-distance trek, when we heard a traveler’s ghost story on a two-day train ride from the Canadian west coast to Jasper, Alberta.
After the first 10 hours or so, not even the spectacle of the Rockies’ snowcapped peaks could keep us entertained. We struck up a conversation with a slender lad across the aisle, who had been hunched over the little tray-table, catching up his delinquent journal.
We knew he was a Brit the moment he opened his mouth. He was traveling alone; it was his first trip away from his Yorkshire home by himself, in this his last summer before university.
We swapped tales of our experiences in England for his in Canada and Alaska, and somehow arrived at the subject of the Roman occupation of the British Isles. That’s when he told me his ghost story, a story he declares is true.
A road near his village had once been a Roman road, he said, easily identified by its perfectly straight alignment. The Romans were remarkable engineers who allowed nothing to stand in the way of building the shortest routes to deploy troops quickly anywhere in their great empire.
The youth said his mother worked in an office on that road, today a major highway, and had heard people tell of the appearance of a Roman company, mounted horsemen and charioteers in full regalia, clattering and clanking along the road.
The apparition has been observed many times over the centuries, and most reports had in common one curious detail: While the soldiers could be seen clearly from head to knees, their feet, and their horses’ hooves, were for some reason invisible.
Researchers recently discovered the reason. The road has been built up over the years, and its surface is now about 18 inches higher than it was when the Romans first paved it – just about the length of a man’s leg from foot to knee.
When we got home, I Googled the Internet to see if I could find any report of that story. So far, I have not. But in researching English mysteries, I came across sites relating to the phenomenon known as ley (pronounced “lay”) lines, and was reminded of an experience we had on the wild Cornish coast in 1996.
Ley lines seem to be mysterious stripes of energy that crisscross England and presumably the rest of the earth, although they are best recognized in Great Britain. Apparently known to the ancients, they were forgotten until 1921 when a British businessman named Alfred Watkins had a flash of insight.
He noticed first on an Ordinance Survey map that prominent hilltops, groves of trees, Celtic stone circles, circular earthworks – even great cathedrals – were perfectly placed in a pattern of dead straight lines. (No Christian motive is assigned to the location of churches on ley lines, but churches were often built on the sites of pagan temples.)
The precision of the landmarks is far beyond coincidence, researchers marvel, and may have been important for reasons ranging from the mundane ancient trade routes to the occult passageways in the spirit world.
Moreover, some of the longest ley lines can actually be extended to run through Mount Everest, Ayers Rock in Australia, and the astonishing Lines of Nazca in Peru, where bullet-straight streaks stretch for miles across the pampas, accompanied by shapes of birds and spiders, visible only from high in the air. No one has ever been able to explain how an ancient tribe could have made these permanent marks on the earth, never mind why.
But there is more to the ley line phenomenon than just landmarks all in a row. They seem to exude some cosmic force, perhaps a part of Earth’s energy system, although scientists have been unable to quantify or classify it.
There is one very low-tech instrument that reacts to the energy of a ley line: a dowsing, or divining, rod.
When we were on the Cornish coast of England in the spring of 1996, we took a minivan tour one pouring-down rainy day, and the woman who conducted it said she would take us to a known ley line and let us try our hand at dowsing.
You can imagine how skeptical my retired-chemist husband was about such obvious hocus-pocus, but curious enough to stand in the rain watching others walk back and forth across a field on which rests the toppled remains of one of Britain’s many stone circles.
Power of suggestion, he was thinking, is making those brass rods swing, not some mystic magnetic force from the earth.
So, of course, he took his turn. The rods were about 15 inches long, with a right angle perhaps three inches from one end. He made loose fists, and that short end dropped into the hole his fingers formed, the long end resting across his knuckles. He held absolutely no pressure against the rods.
The rods pointing straight before him, he began to walk from the van toward the nearest boulder. And at a point about 15 feet from where he began, the rods swung across each other, forming an X. A few more steps, and they swung back to their initial position.
Dave was dumfounded. He had done nothing whatever to cause that to happen, not even subconsciously, because the rods were merely lying on his hands.
Now here’s what’s really weird. As I was scanning through the ley line articles on the Web, some of them admittedly lunatic fringe, I came across the dimensions of ley lines. The average length, one article said, is 20 to 30 miles, although they may vary from a few feet to thousands of miles.
The width of the line also varies widely, but averages 5 1/2 feet.
And that’s precisely the width of a Roman road.