ANN and PETER FROST discover the ancient figures cut into our chalk downs.
What made the early people of this land of ours cut huge beasts into the chalk hills three thousand years ago? And keep doing it down through the centuries?
Today our many white horses are a natural part of the English landscape, sometimes seeming as old as the hills themselves.
Were they just works of art, albeit on a scale grander than any thing Tracey Emin or Damien Hurst could conceive of today? Or were they pagan tributes to the fertility and bounty of mother earth? You decide.
What we know is that as well as adding to our landscape views they usually offer good hill walking and a mystery or two. Come with us to the hills in search of the quirky hill figures of England.
Scattered throughout England are sixty hill figures cut into our abundant chalk downs. Many seem as old as the hills themselves.
We don’t know why they are there, nor much about the people who first cut them. We only have to look at them to realise what a huge and difficult project they must have been.
They are always best viewed from far away making you puzzle just how they were so accurately cut all that time ago. Almost always the best views are from the air but most were cut long before aeroplanes were even thought of.
Up close as you stand on the hill figures themselves its often hard to see exactly what shape they are and how the original turfs were cut to give such an accurate outline.
Some are primitive and unidentified beasts, Most are horses but in later years other animals joined the horses. You can find a lion at Dunstable, a kiwi at Bulford and even a fast fading panda at Laverstock.
The Dunstable lion advertising whipsnade zoo is actually the largest hillfigure in Britain and was cut in 1932.
Most famous of the figures is the three thousand year old White horse of Uffington on the Berkshire downs. Is it really a horse? Or perhaps a dragon? Well you can make up you own mind; we’ll give you a few clues. It is certainly a wonderful work of art.
Just two of the figures have a distinct human form. The Cerne Giant from Dorset is almost too anatomically correct. He is certainly a big boy! Over 60 metres from top to toe. One glimpse of the figure will tell you why he is more usually known as the Rude Man.
A second human form is at Wilmington not far from Eastbourne. Here you find the Long Man who guards the hillside with his two long poles or staffs.
Another sixty hill-figures have disappeared or nearly so over the years. Old engravings and manuscripts describe many figures that can no longer be seen on our hillsides. These chalk hill figures are an English speciality. No other country has the variety or number we have here in England.
The majority of these hill figures are in Wiltshire, where there are some eight visible horses cut into the counties’ chalk hills. Other Wiltshire horses have long since disappeared.
Slightly more modern are the military badges at Fovant Down. They were cut by British and Colonial troops camped out beneath the hill as they waited to be shipped to the First World War trenches in 1916.
The Bulford Kiwi, was similarly cut by New Zealand troops stationed here in the Great War. Much more modern the now almost lost Laverstock Panda, was cut overnight as a student’s rag week hoax in 1969.
The best place to find these figures is Wiltshire and neighbouring counties. However we’ll take to a few other locations as well in this month’s feature.
The tradition is by no means dead. The newest hill figure is almost certainly the Folkestone Horse (below) which was only completed in 2003, a rather late Millennium commemoration.
These chalk figures are all on private land or owned by trusts. None have opening times or admission fees or indeed attendants with telephones. All are accessible to responsible visitors at almost any time and are usually best viewed from some distance away.
The Biggest Mystery.
Why are some of these figures best viewed from the air directly above? After all most were cut long before human flight had even been thought of. There are some outlandish theories – the best of which often involve alien space craft.
We usually find if you can’t get a proper view of the figure itself you will often find it perfectly portrayed on the local pub sign and the pub is usually the best place to ponder those outlandish theories.
Westbury’s wonder, Bratton Down, Wiltshire.
The Westbury white horse is the oldest of the Wiltshire horses. It is also one of the best situated, being high on a very steep slope and overlooking a panoramic view.
It’s certainly our favourite. Ann’s family – the Westburys – originally came from Westbury. They helped Isambard Kingdom Brunel build his Great Western Railway to London and finally settling near the great terminus at Paddington.
There is a car park with the best viewing point of the horse on the B3098 just east of Westbury, and a car park above the horse on Westbury Hill.
We love to walk on the narrow chalk paths down to the horse itself. In summer as you walk you disturb a cloud of tiny blue butterflies that always seem to bask on the white surface of the horse that has absorbed the heat of the sun.
There has been a white horse on the site for at least three hundred years or so. The earliest mention of it is a book published in 1742.
The author relates that he was told by local people that the Westbury Horse had first been cut in the memory of persons still living which suggests a date in the late sixteen hundreds.
In 1778, Mr. George Gee, steward to Lord Abingdon had the horse re-cut to the design we see today. He felt the original version was not an accurate horse. Who could argue about horses with somebody named G Gee!
A Rude Man, The Cerne Giant, Dorset.
High on a hill rising from the small Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, the 60-meter tall Cerne giant and the Maypole mound above his head have celebrated fertility since ancient times.
Pagan May Days have been celebrated here for more than three thousand years. Indeed modern science has discovered that a sight line taken up the giant’s giant organ on May Day points directly at the sun as it rises over the crest of the hill.
The Cerne Abbas Giant it seems has long been the site of great parties. Philip Stubbs recorded the already ancient festivities in 1583
“Hundreds of men, women, and children go off to the woods and groves and spend all the night in pastimes and in the morning return with birch boughs and branches of trees to deck their houses…
…I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity that, of a hundred maids going to the woods, there have scarcely the third part of them returned again as they went.”
Errm? I think I know what he means today they would probably get an Asbo or a spot on the Jeremy Kyle programme.
Maypole dancing still occurred at the site as recently as 1635 when Christian authorities finally suppressed the pagan festivals. During prudish Victorian times the giant’s better bits were filled with dirt and hidden beneath grass.
Rude the Giant may be but even today they tell me that local young couples trying for a baby still venture on to the Rude Man on the night of the eve of May Day to try their luck!
Horse or Dragon? Uffington, Oxfordshire
We are always amazed when we suggest that the huge chalk beast at Uffington might be a dragon. Otherwise normally intelligent people always protest that “it doesn’t look at all like a real dragon to me!”
We quietly ask when they actually last saw a “real Dragon”.
What is certain is that one of the best views of the beast, if you aren’t actually flying in a plane, is from Dragon Hill along the valley. The very hill on which legend has it that St. George killed the Dragon.
The Uffington white horse or dragon can be found 1.5 miles due south of Uffington village on the Berkshire downs although today local government re-organisation has moved it to Oxfordshire.
It is situated at the top of a very impressive steep escarpment below the Ridgeway long distance footpath. Above the beast on Whitehorse hill is the Saxon hill fort known as Uffington castle.
This location makes the figure difficult to view from close quarters. Indeed some people reckon the best view is from a hovering alien spacecraft! Sadly there’s never one about when you need it.
Whatever; the animal’s prancing outline dominates views from everywhere in the Vale of the White Horse. Now wouldn’t it be nice if that was the Vale of the White Dragon.
This is the largest and most artistic of our hill horses being some 374 feet in length and 110 feet in height. The figure is constructed of trenches which are 5 to 10 feet in width and 2 to 3 feet deep and filled with chalk.
The Uffington figure is in kept in excellent condition by the National Trust.
Horse of the North, Kilburn, Yorkshire
This is Britain’s largest white horse in surface area, covering just over an acre and almost certainly the most northerly.
You will find it on slope of Roulston Scar, just near the top just north of Kilburn village in North Yorkshire. From Kilburn the horse can be easily seen. The best view is from two benches situated just inside the village boundary. The Cleveland way long distance footpath passes close to the horse.
School master John Hodgson organised the cutting of the horse by local volunteers and this was completed in 1857.
It took 31 men to cut the horse and because the base rock was limestone not chalk the horse was then whitewashed.
The horse was badly damaged by a hail storm in 1896 and fell into disrepair after the First World War. It was renewed in 1925 following a campaign in the Yorkshire Evening Post.
The horse was kept in reasonable condition until it was covered in 1939 to stop it being a navigation mark for German bombers. It was uncovered and whitened in 1946 but a storm in 1949 almost destroyed the horse yet again.
Kilburn is perhaps best known for a much smaller animal. Local furniture maker Robert Thompson carved tiny mice on the church pews and on his Kilburn made furniture.
His work still brings many visitors to the little village. Thompson was prominent in keeping the Kilburn horse in good order until his death in 1955.
Today the local White Horse Association looks after the horse and its future seems secure a reassuring thought as during its life the Kilburn horse has nearly been lost many times like so many of the other chalk figures of our English hills.
This article appeared in various Times Warner Magazines in 2007