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Cherhill Down and Oldbury

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Cherhill White Horse Restoration


Historic horse turns a whiter shade of pale.

Wiltshire landmark, discoloured by erosion and vegetation, restored using 160 tonnes of chalk and 2,000ft of timber.

Owen Bowcott
Monday September 9, 2002
The Guardian

Designed by a mad surgeon and derided for its elongated neck, the white horse of Cherhill was yesterday gleaming again on the Wiltshire Downs after undergoing anatomical alterations and a four-week facelift.

Motorists passing on the A4 between Marlborough and Calne can admire the completed restoration work carried out by villagers on the ancient landmark which is sculpted into the contours of the hillside beneath the iron age earthworks of Oldbury Castle.

Erosion, vegetation and damage by grazing sheep had discoloured the carving and the passage of time threatened final obliteration. A grant of £18,000 from the National Trust, which owns land near the site above Cherhill, helped purchase 160 tonnes of chalk and 2,000ft of timber to preserve the monument described by one archaeologist recently as a "giraffe-necked... charger".

"There was a lot of distortion," admitted Bob Husband, of the White Horse Restoration Group, when the revitalised horse was officially un veiled yesterday. "The head and neck were particularly difficult, especially when working on a 40 degree slope. But it has been a success and we are absolutely delighted with the result.

"It looks more horsey now, and you can see it from miles around again."

Old paintings of the white horse were transferred to computer and compared with recent photographs. Once a new outline was agreed, local Scouts pegged out the shape. Money for the project was donated by a local firm, Hills Waste, through the govern ment's landfill tax credit scheme.

The Cherhill white horse, originally 165ft by 220ft, owes its existence to the 18th century fashion for landscape follies. A surgeon, Christopher Alsop, of Calne, dragooned local people into taking part in the project in 1780.

He reputedly stood below Labour-in-Vain hill and broadcast his instructions through a loud-hailer to direct their turf-cutting.

Known locally as the "mad doctor", he was a friend of the society painter George Stubbs whose canvases of race horses and other animals may have influenced his final design. The white horse's oddest feature was a glass eye formed from upturned bottles pressed into the chalk. It's dazzle was apparently visible from a great distance on a sunny day; the original bottles have been stolen by souvenir hunters.

It has been restored several times. To mark the coronation of George VI in 1937 it was floodlit and the letters GE (for George and his queen, Elizabeth) spelt out in red light bulbs above the horse.

The letters were illuminated for five seconds, then the horse floodlit for 10 seconds in a continuously repeating pattern. The display, powered by a generator at the bottom of the hill, took place every night during coronation week except for two nights when there was thick fog.

Last summer another Wiltshire monument, the Westbury white horse, was restored by English Heritage. Traditionally believed to have been cut in the ninth century to mark Alfred the Great's victory over the Danes, it was recut in 1778, and probably provided inspiration for Dr Alsop's Cherhill charger.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
10th September 2002ce
Edited 16th January 2004ce

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