I WAS sceptical about dowsing right until the moment when the copper alloy rod seemed to take on a life of its own and turned a full 180 degrees.

At the time I was running it from the top to the bottom of a stone known as 103 in the southern inner circle at Avebury.

I’d been invited there by Maria Wheatley, an author of books about ancient sites, who also lectures at Swindon’s New College in subjects including reflexology and hypnotherapy.

She runs regular Saturday dowsing tours at Avebury and other sites throughout the summer months, and is a fascinating mine of archaeological and historical knowledge plus spiritual lore and legend.

“There’s something very, very special about Avebury,” she said. “It’s because of the earth energies here – they seem to interact with the stones and this seems to create something quite holy.

“I think that’s what the ancients were doing. They were building a holy space that we can only glimpse a part of today.

“There are bands of electromagnetic energy in the stone, and if you hold the rod parallel to the ground and slowly raise it up the face of the stone, there’s a reaction.”

I’m quite prepared to believe there are such bands, especially having run a dowsing rod by a few of them. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, to my mind.

However, the big question, as Maria said while we strolled among the families, hikers, tourists, meditators and Tai Chi enthusiasts at the site, is how and why ancient people selected such stones for their apparent places of worship, and how they lined up these bands from stone to stone.

Anyway, back to the dowsing. It isn’t difficult to describe.

The rod is a simple L-shaped affair whose handle is encased by and moves freely within a metal sheath. And move freely is precisely what it did every foot or so as I ran it up the side of that ancient piece of sandstone, making an anti-clockwise half circle each time.

Maria told me it was a strong reaction. I would have felt obscurely proud, had I believed the movement of the stone was anything to do with me.

Maria has been involved with such investigations since childhood. Her father, Dennis – the highly regarded archaeological and historical researcher, not the pulp author – first introduced her to such mysteries.

“I’ve been coming here since I was eight,” Maria said. “I came here with my father, who was a dowser.”

I, on the other hand, had never handled a dowsing rod in my life.

Of course, I could well have been making the device move myself by subconsciously tilting my hand as I moved it near the stone. Yes, I told myself, that’ll be the explanation.

By this time, Maria had moved on to a nearby row of molehills. “The molehills mean there’s underground water here,” she said, and invited me to cross the line while holding the alloy rod.

This time, I tried to cut the risk of subconscious fakery on my own part by looking straight at the sky as I walked. I held the instrument with a grip as rigid as a high-pressure salesman’s handshake.

Sure enough, the rod didn’t go through 180 degrees.

It did a complete 360 degrees instead. And did it again when I had another go. And again when I closed my eyes altogether. The rod felt as much under my control as a squirming animal.

It was not a spiritual experience. I did not feel that I was communing with anybody or any thing. What happened seemed to me no more supernatural than gravity or the act of hammering a nail.

To my mind, there are only three possible answers: That Maria’s dowsing rod is remotely controlled and was being operated by a concealed accomplice; that it was all done by my subconscious; or that there’s more to this dowsing lark than meets the eye.

The first possibility is silly and the second defies the evidence, so I’m going with number three until somebody convinces me otherwise.

If you fancy finding out more about the subject yourself, Maria always welcomes new people on her tours and can be reached on 01672 511427 and via email at mariawheatley@aol.com.

Maria is also co-author with crop circle expert Busty Taylor of an excellent book called Avebury – Sun, Moon and Earth, which is available for £4.99 from the equally excellent Henge Shop in Avebury.

The shop can be reached on 01672 539229.