A landscape uncomplicated by ownership: Sugar Loaves and the Utopics of Ley Hunting

March 10, 2014

Walking in a very straight line through the intricately privatised contemporary countryside is, I discovered, a difficult thing to do. I had to carry out multiple acts of minor trespass. While I felt authorised by the cultural precedent of Watkins, it was not clear to me – as I hopped walls and sidled along hedges – how I would explain this authority to an irate landowner.

From this attempt to walk one of Alfred Watkins’ leys – an alignment of ancient and numinous sites first brought to the world’s attention in 1921 – Robert Macfarlane admits here that he likes Watkins’ ‘vision of a landscape uncomplicated by ownership’.


The Sugar Loaf, Monmouthshire (from here)

This conclusion has set forth a train of thought concerning the utopian associations of a particular place name. Integral to Watkins’ initial imagining of a ‘fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak’ was the mountain known as The Sugar Loaf, in Monmouthshire:

One end of this line rested on the Sugar Loaf Mountain (1,955 feet) and the other end rested on the apex of Garway Hill (1,203 feet). The ley passed through two corroborative points – Great Campstone Farm and the chief road junction not far above it.

(Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, 1974 (1925), p.55)

The Sugar Loaf is a recurrent name, most well-known as the peak looming over Rio de Janeiro, but there are many others around the world. An immediate association for me is with the American folk song, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, about a ‘hobo Heaven’, a sanitised version of which was popularised by Burl Ives. This is the ‘original’ version by Harry ‘Haywire’ McClintock.

This song is actually a reworking of traditional themes traceable to the Middle Ages and antiquity, tales of a paradisial land of plenty – the Land of Cockaygne – free from the bonds of feudal servitude. A discussion of this motif can be found here.

The appropriation of the Sugar Loaf as a symbol of utopia and sensual delight – like the Big Rock Candy Mountain – is complicated by the historical context of the slave labour upon which most sugar production relied. However, aligning the Mountain to the lyric in the last verse – the songline, so to speak – it’s the place Where they hung the jerk who invented work.


Midnight sun on Sugar Loaf (Sukkertoppen), east of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (from here).

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