'Magic' Medieval Water Divining Techniques Still Used by U.K. Water Companies

Americans are always being told that their view of Britain is wrong. The U.K. is, we hear, not a quaint little island of medieval towns and minor royals but a thriving modern economy and a world leader in science.

The exception, it seems, is its major utility companies, specifically water suppliers. One Brit has discovered that some of the country's providers are still using a faux-magic divination technique dating at least as far back as the 16th century to find pipes underground.

Water dowsing is a traditional method of finding water. The dowser will hold a forked twig, or two specially made L-shaped rods, and walk across a patch of ground until they feel a tug on the twig or the rods cross over, at which point if someone digs down they will supposedly find water.

According to a blog posted Monday by the Oxford University biologist Sally Le Page, her parents were shocked to discover a modern-day company using the practice when they called out their water company, Severn Trent, to help install a new water pipe out of their mains water connection.

The technician who arrived proceeded to locate the mains water pipe with the help of dowsing, walking around using two “bent tent pegs” as rods.

Le Page took it upon herself to investigate, and asked Severn Trent, along with the U.K.’s other top water companies, if they used the method. Ten out of 12 of them said they sometimes did, among a range of other techniques.

11_22_Water_Diviner A group of environmental protesters dressed as pink flamingos and a water diviner in Brussels, June 2, 2003. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Severn Trent later sent further tweets to Le Page, saying that the company "certainly don't promote the use" of dowsing rods, but that it also "wouldn't condemn the use of them." One company that replied to Le Page on Twitter, Welsh Water, later deleted its acknowledgement that it used the medieval practice.

In her blog, Le Page wrote, “I can’t state this enough: there is no scientifically rigorous, doubly blind evidence that divining rods work. That’s how my scientist side would describe it.”

“My non-scientist side would describe it thus: divining rods do not and will not work,” she added. According to a Sciencealert article, dowsing has not produced results better than chance under controlled conditions.  

“You could just laugh this off,” she continued, “Isn’t it a bit silly that big companies are still using magic to do their jobs! Except if they get it wrong, that could mean the difference between an entire town having safe drinking water or not.”

One possible explanation for the movement that happens during dowsing, says Le Page, is “the ideomotor effect.” That’s “when just the act of thinking of something causes your muscles to move seemingly ‘on their own’ or ‘reflexively’, without you consciously deciding to move.”

“However,” added Le Page, “just because the rods move doesn’t mean they are moving in response to water underground. The rods move when the person subconsciously moves their hands.”

So there you have it. Feel free to make “merrie olde England” jokes to your British friends as much as you like. They’re all basically wizards.