#11

Summer2017

Litlington White Horse, East Sussex

What’s that coming over the hill?!

southern England’s chalk hill figures

Growing up in the south of England, I distinctly remember as a child being delighted at the existence of a very unique part of our landscape, the giant chalk hill drawings that I believed, until recently, had been there for centuries.

In the countryside, a short drive away from us, there are two of the most distinct examples of this, the very ones I remember from my childhood and on a trip out to see them recently I happened to read a little bit of the history of one of them, only to discover that, rather than being the ancient figures I believed them to be, this particular one was created in 1924! Not only that but the story behind its creation was particularly amusing.

Whilst Geoglyphs (for this is the ‘proper’ name for large drawings formed from “durable elements of the landscape”) are seen all over the world (famously in Peru), the grass-covered chalk cliffs of the south east of England make this particular landscape perfect for creating the unique relief of our ‘hill figures’, they also, with only a couple of exceptions are always either male figures or horses.

The origins of these curious drawings seem to point to the Celts as the culprits, as pagan worship tends to go hand in hand with nature. Not only that but the Celts believed their gods to be giants and would have portrayed them this way, in fact one of their gods, the horse-goddess Rhiannon is described in Welsh mythology as “a beautiful woman dressed in gold and riding a white horse”.

 

Although this may not be quite as clean-cut as previously thought, due to the recent dating of one of the earliest examples of these chalk figures, the Uffington White Horse, previously believed to have been cut in 50BC (the Celts arrived in 500BC) using Optical Stimulated Luminescence, which placed its origin much earlier in 1000BC.

Whilst the Uffington White Horse is definitely the earliest example of a chalk hill figure, the majority of these figures where actually carved between the 15th and 20th centuries, some as recent as 1937 (not counting modern recreations, or those cut then lost to time).

Whatever the origins or reasons behind these drawings, they continue to fascinate and enchant visitors to our fair shores, so I thought I’d put together a list of my favourites and tell you the tales behind some of the more amusing creations.

Uffington White Horse

As mentioned previously, the White Horse at Uffington in Oxfordshire is the earliest surviving example of an English chalk hill drawing. It’s also, due to its abstract nature, arguably not a horse at all! Considering horses had been around since 500,000 BC you’d imagine someone might know how to draw one, rather to my mind, the figure looks more feline due to it’s large teeth, and could feasible be a Lion or Lynx, both of which were still found in England at the time.

The figure has been ‘defaced’ on a number of occasions, first by pro-hunting campaigners who added a rider and three dogs in white paint in 2002 and then as part of an advertising campaign by Paddy Power in 2012 with the addition of a jockey made from 200m of white canvas.

Location: White Horse Hill, Uffington, Oxfordshire. OS Grid reference SU3015086650

Long Man of Wilmington

The Long Man, a 235ft tall figure, looms large in my childhood as one of two chalk figures in close proximity on the South Downs in East Sussex (see page 58). The Long Man is one of only two surviving human figures in England (also see below) and is the second oldest chalk figure still being maintained. Its origins have been lost to time but it was originally believed to be a Neolithic or early Iron Age cutting, then a 2003 Archaeological survey or the area suggested that it was more likely created during the Reformation.

The Long Man has also been the subject of some modern ‘additions’.

The first happened during World War Two when the chalk was painted green to avoid it being used as a landmark by German planes.

In 2007 Trinny and Susannah gathered 100 women together on the site to re-mark the outline using their bodies to add hips, breasts and pig tails, making his form into that of a woman, for their TV show Undress the Nation.

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Then, overnight during the summer solstice in June 2010, an unknown group of people, using a football pitch marker, drew the Long Man a giant penis!

Location: Windover Hill, Wilmington, East Sussex. OS Grid reference TQ5413403505

And talking of penises…

Cerne Abbas Giant

One of England’s most famous, or should that be infamous, hill figures is the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, a 180ft tall chalk cutting of a naked, club wielding man, sporting an impressive 36ft long penis. Like the Long Man his origins are unknown and highly contested. Some believe him to be a depiction of Hercules and therefore Roman in origin (indeed the discovery of a covered over representation of an animal skin over his arm could confirm this), some believe him to be Cenric, the son of Cuthred, King of Wessex, others a parody of Oliver Cromwell. Certainly, based on early drawings of the giant his manhood has increased in size through redrawing (sorry fella).

Whatever his origins, the giant has become a controversial figure due to his rather prominent characteristic. Folklore recorded in the Victorian era report locals dancing round a maypole on the site to promote fertility, and there was a belief that “a woman who sleeps on the figure will be blessed with fecundity, and infertility may be cured through sexual intercourse on top of the figure, especially the phallus”.

In 1921 a man called Walter Long objected so much to the giant’s appearance the he set about raising protest to the Home Office to remove the giants manhood or at least cover it with a leaf, naturally he failed.

As with the Long Man, during World War Two, the giant was covered over by the Home Guard to avoid it being used as a landmark, and it too was subject to many illegal publicity stunts.

In 1998 American jeans company Big Smith placed a pair of plastic mesh blue jeans on the giant, in 2002 balaclava wearing assailants rolled an enormous latex sheet over the giants’ penis for the Family Planning Associations condom-wearing promotion. Even the American movie industry got involved, painting a giant half-naked Homer Simpson next to the giant trying to play hoopla with a huge doughnut to promote the Simpsons movie in 2007.

Location: Trendle Hill, Cerne Abbas, Dorset. OS Grid reference ST6655801732

Cherhill White Horse

In 1780, porportedly inspired by the Uffington horse and another chalk horse on Salisbury Plain, a certain ‘Mad’ Dr Christopher Alsop, Steward of the manor of Calne in Wiltshire, decided to create his own white horse on the slops of Cherhill down. Alsop assembled a group of men to strip away the turf, exposing the chalk below, to create the 220ft wide figure, whilst he stood in the valley below and shouted directions through a large ‘speaking trumpet’.

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Osmington White Horse, Weymouth

Whether it was a feature of the original figure or not, during the 1800s, a nearby farmer, Mr Angell and his wife, created a glass eye for the horse out of bottles pushed into the chalk neck-first, but over time these disappeared. During the 1970s a local youth group tried to recreate this glass eye, but again this soon vanished and the eye is now made out of stone and concrete.

During the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, the horse was lit up with the letters G.E. picked out in red lights above.

Location: Cherhill Down, Calne, Wiltshire. OS Grid reference SU0487369639

Bulford Kiwi

Alongside all the giants and horses on our fair hills, there are a couple of reported anomalies; dragons, pandas, lions and even swans have been sighted over the years but faded and been lost to nature. One of the most interesting creatures still to survive however was created just after the First World War had ended, a giant 420ft kiwi on Beacon Hill in Salisbury.

So the story goes, troops of the New Zealand Canterbury Battalion Engineers, holed up at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain after being shipped back to England from the Western Front, got bored of the constant drilling whilst waiting for their troop ship home and started causing trouble. To quieten the restless soldiers it was decided that they be put to work building a monument to their time on our shores.

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Their educational instructor Sergeant Major Percy Blenkarne was dispatched to the Natural History Museum to sketch a scale drawing of the kiwi, the outline was plotted out using a theodolite and throughout February 1919 parties of troops were put to work removing 12” of topsoil.

You’d imagine that the kiwi would have them faded to obscurity after the New Zealander’s return home, but the enterprising Kiwi boot-polish company realised how good an advert it would make for them and paid for it to be maintained until the DOD took over.

Location: Beacon Hill, Bulford, Wiltshire. OS Grid reference SU1990843974

Litlington White Horse

The last on my list of favourites is also the one closest to home, the White Horse at Litlington. At 93ft long, the horse isn’t the most impressive, but to me it has one of the best stories behind its creation.

The horse was carved in February 1924 on Hindover Hill and is actually the second white horse to appear on the same hill. The first white horse was created one night in 1838 by a tenant farmer called James Pagden of Frog Firle Farm along with his two brothers, and cousin, William Ade, and was intended to mark the coronation of Queen Victoria. Over time the horse faded from view and by the early 1900s was completed grassed over.

Then one full moonlit February night, in 1924, John T Ade (the son of William Ade) and his cohorts Messrs. Bovis and Hobbis, perhaps a little worse for the whiskey, decided to try and gain a little notoriety in the town by re-cutting the horse overnight in order to “startle the locals with the sudden appearance of the horse in the morning”. Considering their horse is still to be seen almost 100 years later I’d say they achieved their goal.

Location: Hindover Hill, Litlington, East Sussex. OS Grid reference TQ5095101008

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Mathew Keller is a graphic designer, photographer, writer, husband, father, modernist, history enthusiast, lover of pre & post-war design, collector of inter-war furniture & clothing and advocate of the retrospective way of life. You can follow his #retrospectivelife on Instagram: www.instagram.com/southernretro