Westbury residents are facing a long wait before their cherished landmark can be restored to its former glory. The famous White Horse has become covered with lichens, causing it to lose its gleaming appearance. The plight of the monument was recognised by English Heritage in July last year and work began to restore the discoloured surface... continues...
A warm sunny day and after a bit of a problem I eventually found my way to the car park on top of the hill. There were a lot of people on top carrying out a wide range of activities - paragliding, playing football, model airplane flying, football etc. Dafydd was particularly impressed that there was also an icecream van - so impressed he had two!!
There are splendid views to be had and the ramparts of the hillfort are only a short walk away. I was surprised by how well preserved some of the ramparts were (Dafydd has now discovered the joy to be had by sliding down said ramparts on his bum - although I doubt his mother will be so impressed when she sees the state of his new trouseres!!). The barrow is quite large and must have been an impressive site when first built. At the far end of the carpark is a standing stone monument to the battle between King Alfred and the Vikings in 878AD.
English Heritage have recently re-paved the approach roads (good), but the car park is still very pot-holed. A fence has been erected across part of the site to allow the local farmer to run his sheep there. The Frriends of the White Horse and local dog-walkers are pretty upset. Lots of low-flying planes can be noisy when the RAF decide it is time for an exercise. The ice-cream vans are handy on a hot day. The lack of any rubbish-bins on the site has led to their being a lot of litter at times. The local paper is trying to get the Horse cleaned again. This is done by the local (awful) cement works - perhaps to recompense for the high incidence of local asthma cases. Even worse they are burning old tyres there now. The local quarry is also trying to expand which will destroy a lot of local by-paths.
We came up here yesterday - any excuse, but the excuse this time was to play frisbee on the convenient nice mown flat field behind the fort. It was a fine day and although it wasn't ridiculously clear it really struck me how far you can see from up here. I could definitely see the white horse near Devizes. In addition to the distance I was surprised by sheer 'wideness' of the view - if it had been clearer and I hadn't been preoccupied by avoiding getting bashed on the head by the frisbee I would have taken more time to figure out exactly what I could see. For visitors with more commitment there is one of those pillars with an engraving on the top of what you can actually see in all directions - well worth a look. It's one of those spots where you just know you can see lots of other sites (if only you knew just where to look). I know I've seen the top of Kelston Round Hill nr Lansdown when it's been very clear - also it's possible to see the tv mast that indicates where the Mendips are (and Priddy Circles for example).
Westbury White Horse used to be a favourite hang out of mine when I lived in the area (Trowbridge). It's a fantastic spot, especially if you sleep over night in the car. Many a morning myself and some friends would wake up to find all of Wiltshire, or as mush of it as we could see, under a thick white fog, what a site! Even better when the fog lifts and comes rolling up the hill...
The hangliders and paragliders then turn up, along with the dog walkers and general site seers. Can't recommend it highly enough in any season. If you get the opportunity go and watch an electrical storm from there, it's more than memorable.
An example of the imaginative descriptions you can spin to tourists, probably:
[The view] seems better than anything you saw before. Besides, it is historic ground; here the English fought their way up into the Danes' stronghold. Villagers will show you 'Guthrum's kitchen' and other of his haunts inside the still perfect rampart.
From 'Good-bye to Wessex' in 'London Society' magazine, April 1871.
It's said that when the horse hears the church clock in Bratton strike midnight, it goes down to the nearby Bridewell ('Briddle') springs to have a nice long drink (these are at ST 892518, according to Katherine M Jordan in her 'Haunted Landscape' book).
But maybe Bratton's church doesn't have a clock.
Bratton Castle is the name of the hill fort perched up here above the white horse between Bratton and Westbury. Right in the middle is a longbarrow, so I suppose people have been using the site for a lot longer than the Iron Age. The view up here is pretty fantastic. You sometimes get mad people up here hanging off their parachute/kite contraptions which is quite entertaining to watch.
Bratton Castle is reputedly the battlefield for King Alfred's victory over the Danes, with the white horse being built as a memorial. There's some debate about how long a white horse has been here at all. Some say the present (now concreted) one was made in the 18th century, but drawings exist of a horse facing in the opposite direction - perhaps that was there previously, or is it a printer's mistake? The drawing shows a stretched out animal, apparently half daschund, looking a bit bonkers. The present figure frequently undergoes controversial little alterations - it has been turned into a zebra, and has also sported a hat.
It's a fantastic spot (particularly when sunny) - especially if you ignore the cement works below. My boyfriend's grandma had her ashes scattered here (unfortunately it always seems rather windy up here and he got a faceful).
Francis Wise's 1742 "Further Observations on the White Horse and other Antiquities in Berkshire" is often mentioned as the earliest bit of evidence in the 'Is The Bratton/Westbury Horse Old?' debate. I can now bring you the relevant passage. Apologies for the length.
There is a monument of this kind* which I once imagined would have confirmed my opinion beyond all possibility of doubt; though I had the mortification afterwards to find myself disappointed.
In the neighbourhood of Edington in Wiltshire, the place where Alfred gained the second most remarkable victory of his life, is a White Horse cut on the side of an high and steep hill, and under a large Roman fortification called Bratton-Castle, from the neighbouring town of Bratton: so that in this respect tis not unlike the Berkshire Horse. Bratton Castle is likewise the very place, whither, as antiquaries agree, Alfred after the battle pursued Guthrum the Danish King, and after a siege of fourteen days brought him to surrender: and this was another strong reason for referring it to the time of that prince.
Notwithstanding which I must give my readers a caution about it. For did not the fabrick discover it to be modern, yet the inhabitants of Westbury, a borough town about a mile from it, who made it and instituted a revel or festival thereupon, might inform them as much; it having been wrought within the memory of persons now living, or but very lately dead.
Yet still I think it may deserve the enquiry of others, who have more leisure than myself; How the common people came to be so fortunate in their choice of ground? and whether the authors of it had not preserved the tradition of some older Horse, now obliterated; and of some more ancient festival now forgot?
Now am I right, or is this very hard to understand? What does that penultimate paragraph mean? Is he speculating or what? And if he's so certain, why the last paragraph? To me it sounds like he's saying it's constructed as though it were modern, and for confirmation, you could go and ask. But not that he did ask. He's determined his beloved Uffington horse is the real deal and the standard (no pun intended - he's obsessed with King Alfred) by which all other horses must be judged.
[* He's talking about ones of iffy antiquity, I think].
The plot thickens slightly with the Richard Gough's comments in his updated 1789 version of Camden's 'Britannia'. He disputes Wise's doubts:
On the south-west face of the hill is a most curious monument unnoticed by bishop Gibson: a white horse in a walking attitude cut out of the chalk, fifty-four feet high from his toe to his chest, and to the tip of his ear near one hundred feet high, and from ear to tail one hundred feet long: an undoubted memorial of this important victory, and like that by which Alfred commemorated his first great victory in Berkshire eight years before. The whole of this figure is hollowed out of the chalk, and not marked with outlines so hollowed, as Mr. Wise seems to insinuate the Berkshire horse is.
I am surprized this very learned investigator of these kind of monuments among us should doubt the antiquity of this horse, which so exactly corresponds with the other both in execution and intention, and represent it as of modern make within memory. As I could find no such tradition when I surveyed it in 1772 he must have been misled to confound the scouring as they call it with the orginal making.
So, he could find no such tradition?.. so the horse could be older. And besides, when was local rumour ever right!
Don't believe those people who say youths were better behaved in their day, as surely their behaviour accounts for the following, in 1930:
Disfigurement of Prominent Landmark
..Damage has been caused by the tearing up of the edging stones which border the outline of the figure. Many of these have been wrenched out of place and rolled down the steep hill on the side of which the figure of the horse is carved. Turf has also been removed from around the edge, exposing the chalk and detracting from the shape of the figure. The head of the horse has been especially singled out for spoliation. The general condition of the landmark is bad, the chalk surface which forms the figure being sadly in need of cleaning.
Because the horse was on War Department land, it couldn't be scheduled as an ancient monument. The Office of Works man suggested perhaps a notice could be put up to say the horse shouldn't be disturbed..
Reading a dusty old book in the library ('The White Horses of the West of England - With Notices of Some other Ancient Turf-Monuments' by the Reverend W C Plenderleath (MA)) I came across his comments about the redesigning of the horse.
A man called Gough drew the horse as it was in 1772, complete with a strange curvy body and a crescent to the tip of the tail. It's thought that the horse was then recut in 1778:
"by a wretch of the name of Gee, who was steward to Lord Abingdon". Presumably that's the closest to swearing a Victorian vicar can get.
I think I'd like the old Rev Plenderleath. In his 'White horse jottings' in the 1891 vol of Wiltshire Arch. NH. Mag. he dryly remarks:
"Mr Gee's horse... was repaired and the outlines practically recut, about the year 1853... Since  some further reformations have, I believe, taken place. I remember that before the latter works were begun some one was good enough to write and ask me [..] whether there was any objection to the outlining of the figure with kerb stones..
Mr Gee's horse appeared to me to enjoy the same security against injury causable by restoration as did Juvenal's traveller against loss by robbers when his purse was already empty."
He also mentions, interestingly, that the Gough drawing of the earlier horse might not be as weird as we now think: he says that Gough described the figure being 100ft in length, by nearly as much in height - therefore perhaps the drawing is just a product of foreshortening.
Gough (in 'Britannia', above) describes the horse as 100 feet long and 100 feet from eartip to toe - but this is nothing like he drew it (see the link for the strangely distorted animal) - you can tell that he drew it from above the horse because its body is much bigger than its legs... I think we can conclude that it's bloody difficult to draw an upside down horse whilst allowing for massive foreshortening. I'm even inclined to think this could also account for the wavy tail and that it's facing the opposite way to today's reality. The HFH charitably suggests that a printer error might have reversed the image.
(I've seen quite a few versions of this Gough drawing - I'd like to know which is the Real One!)