Source: Wikipedia/USGS – World Wind Licensed under Public Domain
The Passion between horses and humans has been represented in many different forms though out time and space–from Century-old myths and legends, international events, movies, to paintings and sculpture. Today I will be showing you another form that people have been celebrating their equine partner- Chalk horses!
What Are Chalk Horses?
Chalk horses and other “hill figures” are made from cutting deep into a hillside, creating large trenches of chalk, a soft and white form of limestone that people fill the trenches with, making the designs stand out against the landscape.
A Brief History of Chalk Horses
Hill figures have been created since prehistory, including animal and human shaped cuttings, and more modern abstract symbols and a advertising brands.
The reasons for these hill carvings are not widely known. It this thought that the Uffington Horse probably held political significance, since the figure dominates the valley below. It probably dates to the British Iron Age (about 800 BC to the Roman invasion of 43 AD) since coins have been found with the symbol. Wiltshire is a county in England with the most white horses-14. Below I have written a bit about some of horses that are visible and some that are not. The rest you can see in part two, coming soon!
The Uffington White Horse
The Uffington White Horse is the oldest known white horse hill carving in England. At 374 feet long, the figure is on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the English civil parish of Uffington. The hill forms a part of the Berkshire Downs and overlooks the Vale of White Horse to the north. Best views of the figure are said to be from the air, or from directly across the Vale, particularly around the villages of Great Coxwell, Longcot and Fernham. The site is owned and managed by the National Trust and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Guardian stated in 2003 that “for more than 3,000 years, the Uffington White Horse has been jealously guarded as a masterpiece of minimalist art.” It also inspired the creation of other white horse hill figures.
It is thought that the horse dates back to the Iron Age (800 BC–AD 100) or the late Bronze Age (1000–700 BC). This view was generally held by scholars even before the 1990s, based on the similar Celtic art, and it was confirmed following a 1990 excavation led by Simon Palmer and David Miles of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, following which deposits of silt removed from the horse’s ‘beak’ were scientifically dated to the late Bronze Age. It has long been debated whether the chalk figure was intended to represent a horse or some other animal. However, it has been called a horse since the 11th century, at least.
Until the late 19th century the horse was scoured every seven years as part of a “local fair” held on the hill. After that, the horse was only scoured when needed. Scouring is a process of removing the weathered top layer of chalk, along with any dirt or grass that has grown on the chalk to keep it visible.
There have been numerous “additions” to the horse over the years. In August 2002, a rider and three dogs were added as a joke, a Christmas hat for the holiday season (the Ho Ho Ho Uffington White Horse) and in march 2012 as part of a pre-Cheltenham Festival publicity stunt, a bookmaker added a large jockey to the figure using canvas and tent pegs to appear as real chalk during the night.
Legends Surrounding the White Horse
Every great hero or horse needs an old legend to be passed down by the generations!
The Uffington white horse is said to be a mare, and to have her invisible foal on the hill beside her, and at night the horse and foal come down to eat at the slope below known as the Manger, and to drink at nearby Woolstone Wells, where hoofprint from the horse is said to be visible.
It is also said that near that near to the Uffington horse is a flat-topped hill known as Dragon Hill, and that the Uffington horse is sometimes said to represent a dragon, not a horse. There is a story that St George killed the dragon on Dragon Hill, and the patch of bare chalk on the flat summit is the spot where the dragon’s blood fell.
There are many stories that King Arthur is not dead, but lies sleeping, and will one day awake when England is in a great war. It is said locally that when Arthur awakes, the Uffington horse will rise up and dance on nearby Dragon Hill.
The Alton Barnes Horse
This horse is a little under a mile north of the village of Alton Barnes, on a moderate slope on Milk Hill. The founder was a Mr Robert Pile, of Manor Farm, Alton Barnes. He may have been the same man who was responsible for the first Pewsey horse (more info on that one below), or possibly his son. In 1812, Mr Pile paid twenty pounds to a painter, John Thorne, also known as Jack the Painter, to design the white horse and have the work of cutting it carried out. Thorne designed the horse, then sub-contracted the excavation work to a John Harvey of Stanton St Bernard. Before the work was finished Thorne took off with the money, and Mr Pile was left to pay out again. Thorne was eventually hanged, but what crime that was for seems not to be recorded.
Curiously, a John Thorne, known as Jack the Painter, was hanged in the dockyard at Portsmouth, Hampshire in 1776 for arson carried out there. Was this just coincidence? Was the Alton Barnes designer the son or other relative of the first, and took up the same trade and acquired the same nickname? Or is there some mistake over the dates? Who knows.
In 2010 the horse underwent a major renovation overseen by landowner Tim Carson and Alton Barnes Parish Council, when 150 tons of fresh chalk were delivered to the site by helicopter, which volunteers then used to replenish the surface of the figure.
The Alton Barnes white horse looks out over Pewsey Vale towards the new Pewsey horse, and can be seen for many miles. It’s said that the best views are from Alton Barnes itself, and from the road from Alton Barnes to Lockeridge. The horse can be reached by footpaths from the Lockeridge road.
Photo Source: news.bbc.co.uk
There is a tradition of lighting the white horses to mark special occasions, and in recent times this horse was lit by candlelight at the winter solstices in 2001 and 2002, and then every year from 2004 to 2011. It was also lit on 30th June 2012, marking its 200th anniversary. This horse was lit again for the 2012 Winter Solstice.
The Old Pewsey Horse
The new Pewsey White Horse. Photo Source: www.hows.org.uk
Pewsey has had a new white horse since 1937, but it once had a much older one. The older horse was on Pewsey Hill about a mile south of Pewsey. The new horse is very close to the site of the old one. The older horse was cut by, or on the instructions of, a Robert Pile of Manor Farm, Alton Barnes, probably around 1785. The Alton Barnes white horse was cut some twenty-five or thirty years later by a Robert Pile of the same address, but it isn’t certain whether this was the same man or perhaps his son. The Pewsey horse was scoured in 1789, and this was probably the first and last scouring, as the landowner objected to the festivities which accompanied it and refused to allow it again.
It fell into neglect, and by the mid 1800s was in a very poor state of repair. By the 1930s, the chalk was no longer visible, but the outline of the head and body could just be made out.
Local tradition holds that the horse had a boy rider, but there appears to have been no visible rider in the late 1800s when the chalk was still visible, so it is uncertain whether there really was one.
Like the old Devizes horse, the old Pewsey white horse is now no longer visible, but the chalk infilling may still remain under the turf.
The New Pewsey Horse
In 1937, George Marples, an authority on hill carvings, happened to be in the area researching the old white horse at just the time that a committee had been formed to find a suitable way of commemorating the Coronation of George VI. The idea of a new white horse was born, and Mr Marples was approached for suggestions. He produced three drawings, and one of these was approved by the committee.
Being only too aware of the difficulty in establishing the dates of origin of some white horses, each of his designs included the year 1937 above the horse. Mr Marples devised a triangulation method for the marking out of the horse, and in late April 1937 it was cut by volunteers from Pewsey Fire Brigade. The horse was cut to Mr Marples’ design, with the date above it, but though the horse itself is well-maintained today, the date has disappeared. The maintenance of this horse is done by the Pewsey 6X Club.
The Old Devizes White Horse, Or The Snobs’ Horse
Devizes has a new white horse that once had another white horse in it’s place which is no longer visible. The old horse was on the edge of Roundway Down, north of Devizes, just below the hillfort called Oliver’s Castle, about a mile from the site of the new horse.
The horse was cut at 1845 by the local shoemakers, and was known as the Snobs’ Horse, “snob” being a word for shoemaker.
Sadly, the old Devizes white horse was neglected. The grass had grown on it and by around the end of the nineteenth century it was no longer visible, though during the twentieth century something of the outline of the horse could still be made out in some conditions.
The Broad Town White Horse
Broad Town White Horse is three miles south of Wootton Bassett on the Marlborough road, and the white horse is on a steep slope half a mile north east of the village.
It is on land which once belonged to Little Town Farm. According to Rev. Plenderleath, writing in 1885, it was cut in 1864 by a William Simmonds, who was the owner of the farm then. Simmonds claimed later that it had been his intention to enlarge the horse gradually over the years, but he had to give up the farm and so did not have the opportunity.
There is another version of the origin of the Broad Town white horse, however. The Curator of the Imperial War Museum, in a newspaper interview in 1919, said that as a schoolboy in 1863 he had helped scour the horse, and that he had been told at that time that it was at least fifty years old then. If that is true, then William Simmonds may have scoured the horse in 1864, rather than cut it as he claimed.
The horse suffered from neglect through much of its history, but in 1991 the Broad Town White Horse Restoration Society was formed, and they restored the horse and continue to regularly scour it.
Visible for many miles, it is said that the horse can be seen well from the village of Broad Town. The site can be reached by footpaths from the village.
The Cherhill or Oldbury White Horse
The Cherhill white horse is the second oldest of the Wiltshire horses. It is situated on the edge of Cherhill Down.
The Cherhill white horse is the work of a Dr Christopher Alsop of Calne, sometimes referred to as “the mad doctor”. He is said to have directed the marking out of the horse from a distance, calling instructions through a megaphone. Dr Alsop’s design for the horse may have been influenced by the work of his artist friend George Stubbs, famous for his paintings of horses and other animals.
This white horse once had an unusual feature, a glass eye. The centre of the eye was formed from upturned bottles pressed into the ground to reflect the sunlight. Thus the eye apparently had a bright gleaming appearance, and was visible from a considerable distance. The bottles were supplied by a Farmer Angell and his wife. By the late nineteenth century, though, they no longer remained, perhaps taken as souvenirs. New bottles were set in position on at least one occasion. In the early nineteen seventies children on a youth center project put new bottles in place, with their names inside them. Unfortunately, they suffered the same fate as the originals as now the eye is made out of stone and concrete.
I hope you learned something new about these amazing white horses! I would like to visit one day.
Thanks for reading and be sure to come by next Friday for part two!
Huh? What? Well, I will believe that when I see flying Shetlands !