Saturday, May 29, 2021

Northern Earth

Northern Earth, edited by John Billingsley, is one of the longest-running independent journals devoted to ancient mysteries (or 'earth mysteries' as they were called in the 1970s and 80s). It is interested in 'megalthic sites, alignments, sacred landscapes, psychogeography and deep topography, folklore and tradition, esoteric traditions, strange phenomena . . .' and more.

The latest issue , no 164, celebrates the moment coming up to one hundred years ago, on June 30 1921, when the Herefordshire antiquarian Alfred Watkins had his vision of a network of ancient trackways which he called 'leys':  'a fairy chain stretched from mountain to mountain peak.'

Watkins' idea was rediscovered and revitalised in the counter-culture of the 1960s as part of an upsurge of interest in ancient sacred sites and a new curiosity about landscape and its associated folklore, in a similar spirit to that which had inspired the work of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Mary Butts and others.

The Ley Hunter magazine was launched in April 1965 by Philip Heselton, then still a schoolboy: it was part of a Ley Hunters' Club he had launched with school-friend Jimmy Goddard. Both are still active in similar circles: Philip has researched and written widely on the origins of modern paganism, while Jimmy edits a newsletter, Touchstone

Three former editors of The Ley Hunter have written articles for Northern Earth 164 about their involvement – Philip Heselton and his successors, Paul Screeton and Paul Devereux. All three essays are reflective about those times but not merely nostalgic: they also discuss the development of their thinking since. 

Also included is my essay 'A Landscape Detective of the 1930s'. This is a piece of literary archaeology about Donald Maxwell, a writer and artist who compiled a series of books, illustrated with his own sketches, about his wanderings looking into ancient monuments and folklore. These are highly evocative of their time, full of his engaging enthusiasm, and sometimes even redolent of John Buchan as he and his companions dash off through the countryside in search of clues to the various mysteries he is investigating.

I discovered Maxwell's work when visiting the quayside second-hand bookshop at Gloucester. There was an album-sized book in faded blue called Adventures Among Churches, perhaps an unlikely-sounding title. But I noticed it in particular because it was published by The Faith Press, who also issued Arthur Machen's Holy Grail novel The Great Return. And indeed Maxwell's book, though non-fiction, has something of the same spirit, with enticing chapter titles such as 'The Chapel of the Green Lagoons' and 'The Black Belfry of Brookland'.  

Maxwell was one of the first writers outside Watkins' Herefordshire circle to take his ley theory seriously and in two of his books he introduces it and is at once off off in hot pursuit, developing his own ideas and refinements on the way.  His approach is open-minded and exploratory, sharing his discoveries whether they support the theory or not, and with much fascinating incidental detail.

Northern Earth 164 (or a subscription) can be obtained direct from John Billingsley: editor[at]northernearth[dot]co[dot]uk, replacing the word in brackets with symbols. 

(Mark Valentine)


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