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TELEGRAPH WEEKEND     Saturday, April 5, 2008
                     Catch up with Michael Wright online
Divining Inspiration
Adrian Tierney-Jones
meets the new breed keeping alive the ancient art of dowsing.

High up on Dartmoor Aaron Bray is demonstrating rhabdomancy. That's dowsing or divining to the rest of us - the art (some would say the science) of finding things that are hidden.

Along an uneven stretch of moorland, the tall 29-year-old Cornishman walks slowly, with a pair of L-shaped metal rods held out in front of him, his face masked with concentration.

The two rods suddenly swing towards each other. He stops. "There's a watercourse down here," he says with conviction.


He swaps the metal rods for what he calls a Y-rod. This is traditionally made of hazel; Bray's consists of two kite poles taped together. He walks over the site where he pinpointed the water: the rod swings up in the air. Y marks the spot.

In the past dowsers were known as "water witches" and regarded with a mixture of grudging respect and suspicion. Times have changed. What Bray calls "the old boys in tweed with their hazel rods" are passing on.

Modern dowsers such as Bray are often called on to locate not just water but gas supplies, mineral lodes, unmapped water pipes and sewers. In Austria and Germany, dowsing for "geopathic stress" (unhealthy water lines or energy lines) is big business and dowsers work alongside architects and builders.

It's true that an element of ley lines and earth mysteries still lingers in the ether. Many dowsers claim the ability to track missing pets and people (some will swing a pendulum over a map to find the spot). Some offer to find stolen goods or lost items.

Inevitably, oil is the holy grail. One Exmoor farmer rubbed her hands with glee when her dowser detected black gold. Visions of untold wealth danced before her eyes, until it was discovered that the "oil field" was merely a spill from a tank.

Still, it doesn't put off construction companies, hard-nosed farmers and even (rumour has it) the British Army, which allegedly dowsed for land-mines­ in the Falklands.

Bray is typical of the new breed: open-minded, enthusiastic, matter-of-fact and unpretentious about his dowsing abilities. "Anyone can do it," he insists. It is telling that he terms himself both dowser and water engineer, his position in his family's firm, Chenpump, which supplies domestic, industrial and marine pumps.

Unfortunately, no one can explain exactly how dowsing works. There is talk about something in the brain that triggers the hands to move. The old sixth sense is often brought into the equation. Some people claim that electromagnetic fields or quantum physics hold the answers.

Sceptics roll their eyes in disbelief. "Pie in the sky," says quantity surveyor Simon Lee, who has 20 years' experience in the construction industry. "If you walk along the surface, there is always water below you. When we work on a job, we use good engineers and equipment to find out where the water is."

His views are echoed by John Jackson, of UK Skeptics ( www.ukskeptics.com ). "There are many other reasons why dowsing may appear to work," he says.

"Prior knowledge, experience, environmental cues, probability, etc. All these other possible explanations need to be eliminated. Whenever this is done under controlled experimental conditions, dowsing does not work. The obvious conclusion is that whatever results dowsers get, it's due to reasons other than dowsing itself."

Laurence Blewett disagrees. A no-nonsense Cornish farmer, he grows vegetables plus a crucial crop of early- and late-season strawberries. So he needs a lot of water. Last year he hired Bray to dowse, drill and fit a pump system. "My grandfather could dowse and so can I," Blewett says.



You have to be in tune with your surroundings.
It seems to be something the human race has lost



Scratching the surface. Aaron Bray in full flow - 'its a shame more people don't take it seriously

"Aaron and myself walked across the fields looking for water. We found it, and it's much better quality than the mains. You have to be in tune with your surroundings; it seems to be something that the human race tends to have lost. There's an awful lot we cannot explain."

John O'Hanlon, of O'Hanlon's brewery in Devon, is also convinced. When he moved to Devon in 2000, the first thing he did was call in a dowser to hunt for water (a vital ingredient in brewing). "Our dowser was excellent. There was no fuss, he just got on with the job."

Back on Dartmoor, Bray shrugs at the sceptics. To his mind, the proof of the pudding is in the eating (or, in the case of O'Hanlon's, the drinking). "It's a shame more people don't take it seriously," he says. "Because, quite simply, it works."

Whether it's New Age gimmickery or true folk wisdom, dowsing seems likely to stay. The British Society of Dowsers has 800 members and nearly 30 flourishing local groups.

With predictions that water will become more valuable than oil in future decades, the truth about dowsing will be in the water it finds. Let's hope the sceptics are wrong.



Anyone can learn to dowse, say its practitioners. It just takes a little patience and a dose of self-belief.

  • Use coat hangers cut into L shapes.
  • Hold them gently and loosely, one in each hand, with the top wire tilted slightly downwards.
  • Focus your attention. Mentally ask your rods to indicate if you pass over water.
  • Walk slowly, taking your time. Start in an area where you know there are pipes or water.
  • Believe - it might just happen.



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