Driving through England you may suddenly imagine that your eyes are playing tricks on you. What is that on the hill in front of you? Is it a horse? What is it doing there? How was it carved out of the hillside? Who did it? When? And why?
Known as hill figures, these large visual representations of men or animals are formed by cutting into the grass to reveal the chalk soil beneath. There are more than 30 examples across England, usually showing human figures or horses. They are often placed on a steep hillside and are designed to be seen from a distance.
Most of them, like the horse and the lion above, are comparatively recent and date from the 18th, 19th or even 20th century. But some at least are ancient and two of the most interesting prehistoric examples are described below – the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire and the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset.
How these figures were created is easier to explain than the other questions of who, when and why. Much of the soil, particularly in Southern England, consists of a thin layer of grass or turf on top of chalk or limestone (think of the White Cliffs of Dover). The simplest way to create a figure would be to scrape away the turf to expose the white chalk beneath. However, an outline made in this way would require regular maintenance to prevent it becoming overgrown with grass again. In any case the surface layer is too thick in many places and the underlying chalk too deep below the surface. So a better method is to dig a trench and fill it with chalk from somewhere else. This also becomes overgrown in time but traces of the outline tend to remain visible in the landscape even after many years.
The Uffington White Horse
This striking figure, 110 metres in length, can be found above the B4507 minor road between Wantage and Swindon. The horse has been scientifically dated to the Late Bronze Age (1380 – 550 BC) from excavations and from early coins bearing the symbol. It is a highly stylised version of a horse and the design is similar to other known examples of Celtic art. Carved on the upper slopes of a ridge or escarpment, and formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk, the figure would have been visible from a great distance, as it still is today. White Horse Hill, as it is now known, dominates the valley below and the landscape to the north. The site is owned by the National Trust, which organises ‘chalking days’ from time to time when volunteers clean the outline of the figure.
The figure of the White Horse was probably of tribal or political significance, since on the hill immediately above it is Uffington Castle, a hill fort dating from the 7th or 8th century BC. Excavations show that the fort was probably continuously inhabited throughout the Iron Age. Covering about 32,000 square metres, it is surrounded by two earthen banks separated by a ditch and has an entrance in its western end.
Further along the ridge, two kilometres to the west of the fort, stands Wayland’s Smithy. This is a Neolithic long barrow and chamber tomb. A long barrow was built in the same way as a hunebed with lintels resting on uprights and the end closed by a keystone, as can clearly be seen in the photo below. Today the site is managed by English Heritage and their website explains that “The first monument here, built between 3590 and 3555 BC, was a mortuary structure of stone and wood. After a short period of disuse, this was encased within a second, larger barrow double its height which remained in use for about 100 years … Human remains found on the site indicate that 14 people were interred in the earlier burial structure …. The ruins of the later structure can be explored by visitors to the site today”
The barrow acquired its popular name much later and refers to the Saxon god of metal working. The website tells of an old belief that “if you were to leave your horse tethered at the long barrow, together with a small coin, then Wayland the invisible smith would magically re-shoe your horse while you were away”.
Running along the top of the hill, passing the hill fort and Wayland’s Smithy, is an ancient track known as The Ridgeway. This leads eventually to the prehistoric stone circle at Avebury and then south across Salisbury Plain. Northwards, the track joins the ancient road known as the Icknield Way which runs for over 170 kilometres to Thetford in Norfolk and links several other ancient tracks. Some of today’s busy main roads through England still follow the same line as those prehistoric routes. However, many stretches of the ancient tracks are now well-signposted long-distance walking paths, which provide a wonderful – and peaceful – way to see the varied English landscape.
Cerne Abbas Giant
If the Uffington White Horse is a stylised version of the real animal, the Cerne Abbas giant is immediately recognisable as a man! Carved into the hillside outside the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, the figure is 55 metres high and holds a 37 metre club in his right hand. The giant is best viewed from the village across the valley.
The origins of the figure are uncertain. It may be prehistoric or it may be Romano-British, Early Medieval or even later, and its history cannot be safely traced back further than the late 17th century. Is it an ancient fertility symbol, a representation of Hercules or, as has even been suggested, a much later political mockery of Oliver Cromwell? Above the giant’s head is a rectangular earthwork enclosure, known as the “Trendle” or “Frying Pan”, and this at least is believed to date back to the Iron Age.
Today the Trendle is still the site of annual May Day celebrations, complete with Morris Dancing. Traditionally, local couples about to get married would guarantee fertility by spending a night on a certain part of the giant’s anatomy.
Unfortunately the giant has also been subjected to a number of indignities. In the summer of 2007 a chalk figure of Homer Simpson was carved next to the giant to promote The Simpsons Movie. This was later removed.
In 2017 the giant had to endure another insult, this time involving an illegal publicity stunt by a betting company to promote the Wimbledon tennis competition. This showed the giant with a tennis racket and ball.
Needless to say the National Trust, which manages the site, were not amused.
Text Alun Harvey