The lockdown weather has been so glorious (up until now), that I thought we should really get outside for a long, virtual hike, away from this madness. Somewhere rolling and green, where we can appreciate our wonderful countryside. Somewhere like beautiful Wiltshire. And we can do a bit of historical delving at the same time.
What an interesting county it is. I have explored a fraction of it, thanks to a family tree offshoot rooted in the Wiltshire countryside. And also thanks to good, long-suffering Wiltshire friends. They have indulged my delvings in dusty churches and old graveyards, looking for dead people.
But those good friends (thank you, ‘M’ and ‘S’) also introduced me to an intriguing West Country phenomenon – those strange and mysterious figures carved into the chalk of the hillsides.
Why the big ‘orse? Big ‘orse it’s there!
Apologies, I just had to air one of my favourite puns…..
There are a lot of hill figures around the UK. Around 50 in total, and a large portion of these are of horses. Most are carved in chalk, and most are found in the south – the West Country in particular. You need a chalk substrate to dig into, so that the figures stand out, and you only find chalk in southern parts. The figures are generally formed by either digging the turf away to expose the chalk, or by digging a trench and in-filling it with chalk rubble. You can find “red figures” going further north, where images are carved into clay, but these are rare.
That first chalk horse I saw up close was the White Horse of Uffington – actually now technically over the Wiltshire border in Oxfordshire, and in…. the Valley of the White Horse, of course. But we all know how boundaries change. It was probably carved around 3,000 years ago, that’s the late Bronze age, and it’s the size of a football field. You have to be in exactly the right spot on the opposite hill to see it in all its glory.
It’s a very abstract figure of a horse. There are similarities with Celtic coins of the same era. Some archaeologists think that it’s a celtic tribal emblem: Uffington Castle, a large celtic hillfort is nearby. Others point out its alignment with the sun – in midwinter the sun seems to race against the horse. According to some sources, the celts believed that the sun was carried across the sky on a horse.
Like all chalk figures, it needs refurbishing every seven years or so, to prevent it being grown over and disappearing. This maintenance seems to have continued since time immemorial. Other than in the second world war that is, when the figure was filled in. This was to prevent it being used as a landmark by the Luftwaffe, to find their way to nearby Swindon. The job of keeping the figure pristine white now falls to the National Trust.
‘M’, a true Wiltshire native, pointed out to me that further down the valley from the horse is Weyland’s Smithy. It’s actually an ancient Neolithic barrow, or burial chamber, and it’s far older than the horse. But according to legend, it was the forge where the Norse god Weyland would shoe the horses of the gods. If any human left their horse at the smithy at night, along with a small amount of money, when they returned the next day they would find the money gone, but the horse shod. That’s the wonderful thing about folk legends – they take something that’s unexplainable at the time – like a neolithic burial chamber – and weave a story to explain it. Folk history, as well as nature, abhors a vacuum.
And just down from our Uffington White Horse, is Dragon Hill, where legend says Saint George slew the dragon. It’s been flattened artificially, perhaps by the neighbouring celts, and there’s an area on the chalk where no grass grows. Legend has it, that’s because the dragon’s blood fell on that very spot. Again, folklore fills the gap left by the unexplained.
A Jutish Horse
Besides the Uffington white horse, there are around another 20 or so horse figures in the south-west, three human figures and a scattering of other images. But you’d be mistaken if you think that all are of the same antiquity as the Uffington steed. Most of the other chalk horses in the stable have been carved out in the last 300 years or so. In fact, this beauty, representing the white horse of Kent, was carved in 2003. It’s in Folkestone and overlooks the entry to the Channel Tunnel. It’s interesting how the lines of the horse echo the abstract lines of the Uffington horse.
And of course, the white horse is the Jutish symbol of Kent, as displayed on the county shield, along with the county motto – “Invicta” (as you may recall from a recent post). As a pleasant Kentish diversion, here are a few thoughts about the Jutes:
After the Romans retreated, the germanic tribes invaded, and carved up what is now England between themselves. The Angles bagged what is now called East Anglia. The Saxons took the majority of the rest of current England – creating the uber kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria – alongside smaller kingdoms such as Essex and Sussex.
And the Jutes settled in Kent and – the Isle of Wight, of all places. The Jutes had a thing about horses, seeing them as semi-divine creatures. Indeed, according to legend, the Jutish leaders who first invaded Kent, were Hengist and Horsa. Their names can be translated as horse and stallion.So no wonder that the white horse was adopted as the Kentish symbol. It’s pretty much accepted that the Jutes came from what is now called Jutland, that bit of Denmark that is attached to north Germany and sticks up into the North Sea.
The Schleswig-Holstein question
Its ownership has been hotly contested over the centuries. Just to the south of Jutland is the German territory of Schleswig Holstein, and there was a bitter dispute over its sovereignty during Victorian times, between Denmark and Germany. The British inevitably got involved, as they did on most European matters at the time. But the arguments were so complex, it took an impossibly long time to resolve. Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister at the time famously said ( as quoted very often by my “O level” history teacher):
“The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”
And one last thought on the Jutes – unlike other Scandinavian and Germanic tribes, they uniquely practiced a form of partial inheritance called – gavelkind. Heard of that before?
People in the chalk
Back to our hill figures. There are only three in England that depict human figures. There is the Long Man of Wilmington, in Sussex. What I love about this – and the Cerne Abbas figure described later – is the ambiguity over their age. There’s no definitive answer, only some sparse archaeological evidence, and contemporary accounts that at least let us know the earliest written account. But, once again, the folk imagination fills the vacuum.
So, the Long Man has variously been suggested to be a neolithic monument, positioned to mark the progress of the constellation of Orion; a Romano-British monument; an Anglo Saxon warrior holding weapons; a sort of Tudor satirical political cartoon; or a memorial to the Reformation. Latest geological evidence suggests it was constructed around the 16th or 17th centuries. But it almost doesn’t matter – you look at it, wonder, and make up your own stories.
The Cerne giant
It’s a similar story with the Cerne Abbas Giant from Dorset, where there is no agreement about its age. But again, human imagination makes up its own stories. There’s a folktale that, if a couple spend a night on the, ahem, strategic part of the figure, they will conceive a child within a year. There’s evidence that the giant’s appendage has been extended in length from its original size, sometime in the past. What wags people are; the current owners – The National Trust – have to keep their eyes open for pranksters.
Our last human figure is fittingly, an amalgam of human and horse, and can actually be dated very accurately to 1808. It’s at Osmington, again in Dorset, and depicts George III astride his mount, heading away from the town of Weymouth. George was partial to a bit of sea swimming, and visited the town quite often. Apparently, some jokers added a unicorn horn to the horse, a few years ago. It had been removed when I saw the figure, a couple of years ago, which is rather a shame, I think. It is the only chalk figure in England of a horse with a rider.
The Fovant Badges
Finally, let’s go back to Wiltshire and look at some figures carved comparatively recently. They are neither horse nor human. These are the Fovant Badges, and they are a poignant reminder of the First World War. Fovant is very near to Salisbury Plain, and many regiments were stationed there, before they embarked to fight in France. To while away the time, soldiers carved their regimental emblems into the white chalk of the hills. There are badges representing The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, The Devonshire Regiment, the Australian Commonwealth military, and others. Also, in a nearby village, there is a map of Australia, carved out by ANZAC soldiers, before embarkation to France. Sadly, some of the badges have been lost to nature over the last hundred years. But what fitting gifts to history, in the rolling Wiltshire hills.
Hiding in plain sight
The thing about these diverse figures, carved in the chalk, is that they are a message. It almost doesn’t matter what the message is, or how old it is. It’s a wave from fellow humans saying, “we were here”. It’s a time capsule. I can’t think of a better greeting across time.