One of those sites which is better viewed from a distance rather than up close. Although you just HAVE to have a look when visiting the Hillfort! It was nice to note that people were observing the signs asking for people not to walk on the chalk. A long hot walk finished off with an ice cream in the car park next to the National Trust lorry!!
Charlie and I visited the white horse for the first time yesterday, and what a place! The views from just above the horse on the hill are breathtaking. We walked down past the horse looking at the chalk close up. The actual outline of the horse makes no sense at this close range, but it seems really well looked after and maintained. On reaching the bottom and climbing up to Dragon Hill the white horse figure takes on it's full shape and the dramatic landscape all around adds to this viewing pleasure.
At the risk of sounding like an american tourist, the horse at Uffington wasn't as big as I expected. Ok, it is quite big, but I imagined it was going to be much more chunky. Perhaps it has taken on a symbolic magnitude in my brain over the years. Or perhaps I couldn't help comparing it to the fatter Westbury horse, which I know better, which sits above its own rippley valley in much the same way.
Whatever, this is just a fantastic spot. Sitting next to the horse you get the same kind of fresh-air-in-the-brain feeling you get looking over the sea. The figure is obviously positioned right at the point where the view opens up and you can see in a huge arc (not that the horse would be visible from the east side of it). I sat there with the skylarks trilling, swallows dive-bombing and the wind whistling through the wire fence (currently protecting the grass above the horse). It may be my overactive imagination but the model gliders seem to make a whinneying noise overhead.
It seems obvious to ask where the horse is facing - why is it positioned where it is? Looking directly out there are three wooded lumps in the middle distance of the landscape. I rather thought it was built to address these, but maybe it's more general than that. I can't quite work out what these lumps are - perhaps someone more familiar with the area knows.
When you sit by the horse you are naturally drawn to the flat-topped hill below you - Dragon Hill. This is a scheduled monument so I assume that means it was artificially levelled - or was it even artificially made, Silbury-like? I felt absolutely certain that when I reached it the horse would be plainly in view - but it wasn't clear at all: just the back, hind legs and a snip of the head. It's perched so high up on the slope. I suppose it's reasonably clear from afar, but up close it's not particularly obvious.
When you're sitting on Dragon Hill you have an excellent view of the Manger, and the siting of the horse seems to make sense in terms of this weird valley - it's on its back wall (not the flatter, steeper side wall which you'd think would make more sense was the Manger not there).
The Manger is certainly a singular place even without the horse. It has amazing undulating sides, a totally flat bottom and a narrow opening. Such a weird dry valley must surely have drawn speculation from our ancestors as to its origins or 'purpose'. It's certainly an ideal stabling spot for a gigantic horse! but as for a manger, even the Uffington horse couldn't eat that much food.
The rippling sides of the manger are rough chalk grassland, but at its far end it is smoother, and on the other side of the road turns into woodland (containing springs). As I walked back up I noticed it is like a natural amphitheatre - the voices of people behind me were carrying a really long way. I liked it a lot here. I was feeling fed up and it made things seem right again.
It was about 12 years ago when I first visited this enigmatic hill figure. That day was very misty and I hadn't had a chance to wander properly or visit Dragon Hill. This time I had a perfect view for miles and miles across the Oxfordshire countryside. And I got to go down to Dragon Hill, which is as amazingly flat topped and as out of place as I'd always envisaged it. I love the look of the escarpment from the hill, both up towards the horse, and across the side of the escarpment as it concertinas its way along to the west.
No-one seems to have done the obvious yet....(car centric) directions. A large (and free) National Trust car park exists just off the B4507, up the hill, opposite to the road to Woolstone. From the car park it's a 600-700m walk to the Horse / Castle. I think a separate car park for people with disabilities exists closer to the Horse / Castle and is approached via the narrow road that starts opposite to the road to Uffington village and cuts Dragon Hill from The White Horse (hhmmmm!). This is all well signposted. Note - The B4507 lives up to it's ranking in the B roads stakes. It's a twisty, potholed, slightly narrow thing.
Released from the daily grind, due to a week's leave in which I can potter and please myself, it was a real treat to visit the White Horse on a Tuesday lunchtime with very few people about. There was an added frission due to the spectacular weather, and there's nothing I like more than being out in spectacular weather on a week day.
Even better was the fact that I was in the company of the exquisite Cheryl, an earth magicy babe of the first order. We walked up to the White Horse, watching several skylarks whizzing about and squeaking at each other, and then just stayed there for ages drinking in the atmosphere and view (which was unfortunately pretty hazy). The delightful Jane calls this place the 'roof of Oxfordshire' and she's so right. It's an amazing landscape, one that calls for some real meditation and absorption. And a very healing place, should you require it.
It was wonderful to feel the warm breeze blowing across one's skin, listen to the black-faced sheep bleating continually, and just zone out. With shirt sleeves rolled right up, and Cheryl basking in the sun, could it really be March, I wondered?
I only noticed the trick whilst I was driving away, but I reckon that if you approach the hill from the right angle the horse/bull/dragon beast appears to spring out of Dragon Hill. As the animal is not fully visible from any other land point this is the best explanation for its siting and the carving of the minor hill away from the escarpment. Has anyone else noticed this effect?
I have to say that I absolutely love it atop the hill, and looking out over the patchwork beauty of Oxfordshire. It makes me feel so empowered. I can remember standing up there one day and I could taste the static in the air from the approaching storm and spots of water alighting against my skin...it was awesome!
Uffington is just the most enchanting and special place. If you get the chance to go, then do it. You will not regret it. It is quite simply MARVELLOUS!!!!!!
After 25 miles cycle ride (ok so we walked up the hill to Uffington) and still 15 miles from Avebury, what a great place to get a puncture and discover your wheel nuts are rusted solid, rendering puncture repair kit and spare tube useless. An hour of shearing slices of steel off the nuts with a useless spanner sat in the blazing sun within the confines of Uffington Castle, I momentarily lost interest in things Ancient. Returned following day in car, far more sensible and yes this is an awesome place. I don't know why but I had always assumed the horse was on a South facing slope . Weird.
this is my favorite spot in England; something about the surrounding countryside viewed from the top of White Horse Hill; the trees and meadows take on a timeless quality. Sounds silly but I feel a part of something there. Looking down towards Long Compton on a clear day...magic. I love the walk along the Ridgeway to Waylands' Smithy too.
I recently got the white horse tattooed on my back. :)
Wouldn't this place be a great place to do your rock'n'roll! What a space! ! Go to other white horses near by Devizes way and compare the geological similarities. Like a big bowl of vibrational energies. As for the hill fort - what were they guarding? Treasure? Food? hmm -perhaps they weren't really guarding anything after all. And the chalk mound where St George slew the dragon. hmm internal dragons? Looks a little like Silbury doesn't it.
Twice I've been to the Uffington White Horse(http://www.wansdyke21.org.uk/wansdyke/wanvisit92.htm), and I will go back some more, I can tell you that! The steep valley below is called a coombe, and I've no doubt that there is a reason for Dragon Hill to be the best place to view it. Does that make the 'Horse' a dragon? Who knowns! That small hillock is dedicated to St Michael (who slew a dragon), so many say it does. Whatever, the site has everything for all kinds of theories. It's on the Ridgeway, which may have been guarded by the hillfort. It may have been a border-marker of the Celtic Atrebates tribe. It may even have been a monument to King Alfred beating the Danes around here...
The views must have been the prime reason, though..
Is it a horse? A cat? A dragon? Man those people could draw! Various visits to the site have proved it to be a very special place, and one I feel strongly connected to. The "horse' seems to be jumpimg up into the sky, or into the very steep valley adjacent to it- what ritual is this? It was a private one at least; you cant really see the horse until you're right up on it. The best vantage point being Dragon hill opposite. Dont forget the hillfort on top of the hill!
Historian, Brian Edwards' paper *'The Scouring of the White Horse' – published in the 2005 WANHS magazine, has a section on the scouring of Uffington White Horse which proved of great interest. The Revels, a two day festival of rustic games, backswording, wrestling, sack races and pole climbing, was held as a precursor to the scouring. However, the last scouring and games to took place in 1857.
*Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's Schooldays) wrote a novel in 1859 called The Scouring of the White Horse.
The last chapter of Alfred Williams book Villages of the White Horse (first published 1913) is also about the about Uffington, the White Horse and the last games that took place in 1857. He too drew on Thomas Hughes' original work for his information but although he says that nearly all who took part are now dead he managed to find an eye witness account in the person of Old William Reeves of Shrivenham who was by then nearly 90.
"Old William with his picturesque red woollen waistcoat, red knitted cuffs and head slightly inclined, is delighted to talk about the Revels, though he admits there was a little "blaggardness" sometimes, and sundry small accidents; as when, in the cart-horse race, a big mare stumbled and fell on her rider, killing him on the spot; and again after the pig hunt, how five competitors claimed the prize, and killed the poor pig in contending as to which should have it; and how thieves broke into the booths and carried off all the taking, and other suchlike happenings."
Very descriptive and possibly clues as to why it was abandoned.
'One great occasion in the Vale was the pastime accompanying the scouring of Uffington's White Horse. It usually took place in Uffington Castle but occasionally moved to Kingston Lisle or Seven Barrows Farm...'
From 'Rural Life in the Vale of the White Horse' by Nigel Hammond.
Interesting that the festival didn't always take place at Uffington Castle:
The Kingston Lisle site must be because Mr Atkins owned the Estate there (and it's reasonably close by, and must have had an inn or tavern).
Seven Barrows Farm (near the Lambourn Seven Barrows site) may have been in the area of the barrows, but after you've finished scouring, that's a fair trek across the downs (you'd probably go past Rams Hill and head towards it that way). Did they get the payment in beer on the hill (and therefore wandered drunk over to Seven Barrows Farm) or when they arrived?
'The Great Mare', the goddess of a horse cult who is most likely to be identified with the Irish édáin echraidhe or macha and the welsh Rhiannon. As goddess of horses, she was of great importance within a horse-based culture such as that of the Celts. Her image appears on over 300 stones in Gaul, although rarely in Britain, and she is usually depicted riding side-saddle. In Romano-Celtic imagery she is constantly associated with corn, fruit and, strangely, serpents (my italics) - strangely because serpents are natural enemies of the horses. These associations led her also being considered a goddess of fertility and nourishment.
Extract from Celtic Myth and Legend by Mike-Dixon-Kennedy.
A nice connection between a horse and a serpent? the white horse and dragon hill?
'... The cleaning of the horse (the scouring) was an important part of the open-air festivals that took place on the hill at intervals of seven years or so until 1857. These were great occasions for games, competitions, dancing, singing and drinking. It was reported that 30,000 people atened the festival in the year 1780. A local saying tells us that 'while men sleep, the Horse climbs up the Hill'. This is not as outrageous as it sounds, for as the soil falls away from the upper edges and exposes more of the chalk, and the lower edges silt up and become colonized by grass, so the horse does indeed climb the hill!
"There seem to be few genuine traditions attached to the Horse, for its 'traditional' attribution to King Alfred is almost certainly due to Francis Wise in 1738 and is not mentioned by Baskerville or Defoe. But it is believed that if you make a wish standing on the Horse's eye and turning round three times, your wish will come true. I was told of this by local inhabitants forty years ago."
The Scouring of the White Horse
G. W. B. Huntingford
The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 87, No. 1. (Jan. - Jun., 1957), pp. 105-114.
After this manner our Horse is formed, on the side of an high and steep hill, facing the North west. His dimensions are extended over an acre of ground, or thereabouts: his Head, Neck, Body and Tail, consist of one white line; as does also each of his Four Legs. This is done by cutting a trench into the chalk, of about two or three feet deep, and about ten feet broad. The Chalk of the trench being of a brighter colour, than the turf which surrounds it, the rays of the afternoon's Sun darting upon it makes the whole figure visible for ten or a dozen, nay fifteen miles, if I am rightly informed.
The Horse at first view is enough to raise the admiration of every curious spectator, being designed in so masterlike a manner, that it may defy the painter's skill, to give a more exact description of that animal: which were it not so apparent, would hardly gain belief with an antiquary, who considers to how low an ebb the art of drawing was sunk at that time; as appears from the works of their best makers, the Saxon coins, and the jewel of King Alfred, described by Dr Hickes and others, and now preserved in the Museum at Oxford.
If we consider it further, we must otherwise allow, that no small skill in Opticks was requisite, both for the choice of the ground, and for disposing rude lines, as they appear to a person on the spot, in such a manner, as to form so beautiful a representation.
And again, if durability was intended, the ingenuity of the artist will appear still greater. For from its barren soil, and steep situation, it has nothing to fear from the inroads of the plough, the grazing of larger cattle, or the stagnation of waters; all of which contribute more or less to efface things of this sort.
When I saw it, the Head had suffered a little, and wanted reparation; and the extremities of his hinder legs from their unavoidable situation, have by the fall of rains been filled up in some measure with the washings of the upper parts; so that in the nearest view of him, the Tail, which does not suffer the same inconvenience, and has continued entire from the beginning, seems longer than his legs. The supplies which nature is continually affording, occasion the turf on the upper verge of his body, for want of continuity, to crumble, and fall off into the white trench, which in many years time produces small specks of turf, and not a little obscures the brightness of the Horse.
Though there is no danger from hence of the whole figure being obliterated; yet the neighbouring inhabitants have a custom of Scouring the Horse, as they call it; at which time a solemn festival is celebrated, and manlike games with prizes exhibited, which no doubt had their original in the Saxon times, in memory of the victory.
This falling of the turf into the trench is the reason likewise, why the country people erroneously imagine, that the Horse, since his first fabrication, has shifted his quarters, and is got higher upon the Hill, than formerly.
Francis Wise, who is convinced it's all down to the Saxons (and unfairly rubbishes the latter's drawing skills to compound his error), in 'A letter to Dr Mead concerning some antiquities in Berkshire' (1738).
A chalk hill figure on White Horse Hill known as the 'White Horse'. It is situated 160 metres north-east of Uffington Castle hillfort. The figure appears as the side view of a stylised horse with its head to the right, measuring 110 metres in length from tail to ear, and 40 metres high. The horse is visible from all over the valley floor on a clear day, and is maintained by the National Trust. The White Horse is known to have existed since at least the 12th century on place name evidence. The first documented maintenance of the horse dates to 1681, and subsequent restorations occurred at various intervals until the last recorded scouring funded by the landlord in 1892. Scouring took place every seven years from at least 1677, and involved stripping the discoloured and damaged surface, weeding, and trimming/replacing of the turf edges; it was then packed with a new layer of chalk. When this custom ended cleaning occurred only when the appearance became so poor it caused public comment. To what extent the repeated scourings affected the original design is unclear, although 19th century illustrations indicate some minor changes to the legs and head. The horse was camouflaged in 1940 to prevent German navigation by landmarks during World War II, and was last scoured between 1951 and 1953, at which time a small trench was excavated at the end of the nose. This revealed a series of layers of chalk, and indicated the nose had originally been longer. Geophysical survey and excavation in the 1990s showed some changes to the form and position of the horse. It was generally believed to be Iron Age in date on the basis of stylistic comparisons with images on Iron Age coinage, making it contemporary with the hillfort to the south. However, in 1995 Optical Stimulated Luminescence dating was used to date the figure to the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age, and was probably constructed between 1380 and 550 BC.
"There seem to be few genuine traditions attached to the Horse, for its 'traditional' attribution to King Alfred is almost certainly due to Francis Wise in 1738 and is not mentioned by Baskerville or Defoe"
Can't let that pass, the person who wrote it had obviously not read Jacquetta Hawkes on the subject or H.J.Massingham - two favourite books, if you want to read about the emotional love affair people have with their English countryside ;) look no further than early 20th century literature.
The scouring ceremony is first mentioned by Aubrey and the best early record dates from 1677 when Baskerville wrote;-
"Some that dwell hereabouts have an obligation upon their hands to repair and cleanse this Lande marke, or else in time it may turn green like the rest of the hill and be forgotten"
The Uffington White Horse sired nearly every other 18th century chalk horse in the district!
He holds within his image, the beautiful celtic curvilinear design to be found on the horse furnishings around this area, he can be called a Saxon horse because of association with King Alfred and white horses, and of course he belongs to St.George and his dragon. His various mythical and magical guises link him to gods and harvest ceremonies....
I wish I was on White Horse Hill
At the breaking of my day;
Along the sweet horse gallops I'd run.
And in the stars I'd play.
Where daisies fall, nightingales call
Little owls to play.
Oh I wish I was on White Horse Hill
At the breaking of the day.
Come crows come sheep come chalk hedgerows,
I'd fly the big green hill.
Come nights come snow come stars' haloes,
I'd follow the greensand trail.
Where daisies fall, nightingales call
Little owls to play.
Oh I wish I was on White Horse Hill
At the breaking of my day.
The horse the pack the moon the track,
All travel the north wind road.
The Thames it flows, the man down he goes
Along his winter road,
Far down his winter road.
Where daisies fall, nightingales call
Little owls to play.
Oh I wish I was on White Horse Hill
At the breaking of my day.
From the first chapter of 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' by Thomas Hughes (1857)
Right down below the White Horse is a curious deep and broad gully called "the Manger," into one side of which the hills fall with a series of the most lovely sweeping curves, known as "the Giant's Stairs." They are not a bit like stairs, but I never saw anything like them anywhere else, with their short green turf, and tender bluebells, and gossamer and thistle-down gleaming in the sun and the sheep-paths running along their sides like ruled lines.
"The hill-figure of the horse at Uffington may represent Epona (Celtic God), who not unreasonably might be considered to be the tutelary duvinity of the neighboring hillfort". Nora Chadwick, The Celts.
From my reading of 'The White Horses of the West of England - With Notices of Some other Ancient Turf-Monuments' by the Rev. W C Plenderleath MA. (1885?).
He mentions that the Great Western Railway passes the hill about 2 miles away, yet because the horse's outline is very narrow and because you have to be at just the right angle to see it properly, "it would not easily be found by anyone who did not know exactly where to look for it." I've noticed this myself from the train and thought it odd. Even in fine weather it's quite difficult to make the horse out. Other contributions above comment on the less than obvious placing of the figure on the hill. Westbury horse, for example, is very obvious, and can be seen from miles and miles away (perhaps aided by the landmark of the smoke belching out of the cement works, who can say).
People trying to date hill figures understandably look to old documents to see if they're mentioned. The Reverend has a very sensible word to say on the matter. Only one medieval document seems to allude to the horse "But this does not in the least throw doubt upon its existence at the time they wrote; for not only they, but the Saxon and Roman chroniclers as well are equally silent [about] Silbury Hill, the largest solid earthwork in Europe, which was indubitably in existence in their time, and close to which all travellers by the western high road must have passed." Right on Rev! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Incidentally, the medieval document it is mentioned in is a 'cartulary' of the abbey of Abingdon, written around the reign of Henry II. It's about some monks and their inherited lands: "One of them, Godric, becoming possessed of Spersholt, near the place commonly known as the White Horse Hill" (locum qui vulgo mons albi equi nuncupatur).
The following made me smile too. Dr Francis Wise published a letter in 1738 putting forward the idea that the horse (the emblem of Hengist, which means stone horse) was carved in 871 to commemorate Alfred being victorious over the Danes at Ashford. Two years later a reply appeared by 'Philalethes Rusticus' entitled 'The Impertinence and Imposture of Modern Antiquaries Displayed.'
PR disputed that the carving even depicts a horse. And as for any significance of its colour:
"I may venture to hold [Dr Wise] a small wager, that should the Horse scape a scouring but two seven years more his Dapple would become a Green One, which would be a still greater Rarity for all true Lovers of Antiquity."
Another theory about the horse derives from its strange 'beak'. Some Celtic coins show horses and birds with a similar beak. In Taliesin's medieval (?) poems the horses of Ceridwen are sometimes referred to as 'hen-headed steeds'. Ceridwen is said to have assumed the form of a white mare, and was also known as the 'high crested hen'. Hence the suggestion that the Uffington horse could be a representation of Ceridwen??
The wind was blowing
My eyes were sore
The rain ran down my face
My mind was moving
Above the Earth
Below the sky
The path before me
I kept on moving
Take a look and you may see - exactly what you need to see
Take a walk and you may be - exactly where you need to be
Didn't know where I was
Didn't know what was real
The sun was going down
the colours were shifting
Below the Earth
Above the sky
The path before me
I kept on moving
The sun burst through the clouds and I
Saw her standing there
I was frigtened and confused as she stood at ease and stared
She didn't talk she didn't move
She seemed to call my name
I looked into her eyes and
I knew we were the same
copyright 2002 mindweed written near uffington white horse
Candida Lycett Green died recently, her claim to fame was of course her father John Betjeman, so her prose in this article is no surprise.
Also to remember Wysefool, who died a few years ago, he loved this part of the world, a guardian of Wayland's Smithy longbarrow.
And thanks to Anna Dillon for putting this link up on F/B.
Courtesy of Oxford University, a book containing lots of earlyish discussion on the horse. It includes
'A letter to Dr. Mead concerning some antiquities in Berkshire' by Francis Wise (1738)
and A refutation of said letter, called 'The Impertinence and Imposture of Modern Antiquaries Displayed'.
Chesterton's The Ballad of The White Horse is a lengthy read.
Here's a snippet from Book VII The Scouring of the Horse:
And all the while on White Horse Hill
The horse lay long and wan,
The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
Unwrought the work of man.
With velvet finger, velvet foot,
The fierce soft mosses thenCrept on the large white commonweal
All folk had striven to strip and peel,
And the grass, like a great green witch's wheel,
Unwound the toils of men.