The Chalk Hill Figures of Britain

“On the west side of the hills north of the village is a figure cut in lines.  It is called the Giant and Hele, is about 15o feet long, a naked figure in a genteel posture.  It seems to be Hercules, or Strength and Fidelity, but it is with such indecent circumstances as to make one conclude it was also a Priapus.  It is supposed that it was an ancient figure of worship and one would imagine that the people would not permit the monks to destroy it.  The lord of the manor gives some thing once in 7 or 8 years to have the lines clear’d and kept open.”

Description of the Cerne Giant, October 1754 Dr Richard Peacock

(The Greek god Priapus had to have scaffolding to hold up his erect penis.  He was oddly enough associated with vegetable gardens, statues of him in gardens often included warnings as to what he would do to thieves with his, um… extensive… godly wrath.)

There are about 30 hill figures in Britain in the present day, the figures are temporary, the weeds and plants soon obscure them, leaving no trace without cleaning every few years.  Soil is akin to a dynamic organism, never static, but subject to gravity, weathering, excavation by animals and insects, water erosion, frost and ice – all of which cause it to move.  Not the most stable of media for creating large pieces of artwork.  You can probably name quite a few hill figures, but hopefully I’ll find some small bits of info that you’ve not come across yet.  The name for cutting horse figures into hillsides, especially in the South of England, is Leucippotomy, the practice for cutting giant human figures is known as Gigantotomy bet you didn’t know that (and yes, my spellchecker has just gone into a little overheated frenzy and fallen over…)  There are two basic categories, figures of horses, which include Uffington, and figures of people, which include the Cerne Giant.  I’ll start with the horses and work through…

Uffington Horse

Uffington White Horse

Uffington White Horse

Beneath my hands the planes

Of his bleached shoulders move

And the bow of his neck bends to the flint shaped head.

I ride the chalk-white horse

That moves over bone-bare hills

And from his streaming mane time falls away

.

Between the thighs of kings

Who are now chalk-bare bones

His ancestors, the stallion herds once strode

Who, bending their bird-beaked heads

Are now a shrinking scar

Across the downs from which time ebbs away

(Margaret Stanley-Wrench, 1958)

.

The Lost Gods of Albion describes this so much better than I could:

“The White Horse of Uffington dominates the vale that bears its name.  Artistically it is a triumph of imaginative omission – for it is the mind’s eye that completes the design.  Carved by human hands, it does not seem of this world, on account of its eerie whiteness, and a form that brings together aspects of dragon, bird and rodent.  The lines that define it are landscape lines, they curve and melt into the greens and browns of scarp, dip and glacial terrace.  Little more than a collusion of wind thin streaks, it is close to something half-glimpsed or apprehended in the dark of a dream – a long balancing backbone merging into a beak-head and streaming tail.. Few gaze upon it without becoming aware of its sad, timeless quality.”   (Lost Gods of Albion pg – 7-9)

Westbury or Bratton White Horse

Westbury Horse

Westbury Horse

There has been a white horse on the site for at least three hundred years or so. The earliest mention of it is in “Further Observations on the White Horse and other Antiquities in Berkshire” by the Reverend Wise, published in 1742. That horse was very different in design to the present one, and is perhaps Saxon or earlier in appearance. However, it could well have been a deliberate “mock-Saxon” pseudo-antique folly; there are no earlier references to a horse on the site, even by authors who mention the Uffington horse.  In 1778, a Mr. George Gee, who was steward to Lord Abingdon, had the horse re-cut to a design nearer to its present day appearance. He apparently felt that the older version was not a sufficiently good representation of a horse. I wonder if the name G Gee had made him overly sensitive about horses…

A century later the horse had become somewhat misshapen, and in 1873 it was restored according to the directions of a committee appointed for the purpose, and edging stones were added to help hold the chalk in place. The shape of the present horse dates from this restoration. In the early twentieth century, concrete was added to hold the edging stones in place.  In the late nineteen-fifties, it was decided that it would considerably reduce the maintenance costs if the horse were covered in concrete then painted white. The concreting was repeated in 1995. Given that the horse is now concrete, it is perhaps ironic that the marvellous panoramic view from the site of the horse is spoilt only by being bisected by the massive chimney of the local cement works. The works is no longer operating, so perhaps the chimney will be demolished eventually.

Osmington White Horse

Osmington White Horse

Osmington White Horse

This was cut in 1808, to commemorate George III royal visits to the surrounding area.  That’s him riding, right there…   The horse is regularly scoured and was restored in 1996 by the programme Challenge Anneka, a further restoration work is soon to begin, and the image will be broadcast over the world as part of the 2012 Olympic games.  It is currently looked after by the landowner and English Heritage.

Kilburn White Horse

kilburn white horse

kilburn white horse

here commemorated in stained glass at the James Herriott Museum

kilburn white horse stained glass

kilburn white horse stained glass

The Kilburn White Horse, aside from being the most northerly of all the chalk figures, also has an association. Finished in 1857 by a group of school pupils and their teacher John Hodgson, it fell into disrepair and was renovated by a campaign to raise funds in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1925.  It has nearly been lost several times in recent years, but thankfully clings on until better ways of preserving the monument can be put into future practice.

The Red Horse of Tysoe:

Only in more recent times has this horse faded from race memory and been demoted to scattered entries and passing references  in books.  Around the site are hills, streams and standing stones known as the Rollrights.  The Red Horse was cut where the Banbury – Stratford road descends the Edgehill Escarpment, about eight miles from Banbury near the village of Lower Tysoe.  Described in Camden (1607) as “Of the Redy soil here comes the name of Rodway and Rodley; yea, and a great part of the very vale is thereupon termed the Vale of the Red Horse, of the shape of the horse cut out in a red hill by the country people hard by Pillerton.”  Dugdale in Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656, pg 422) described it as “In the Red Horse ground, opposite the east window of Tysoe church”  and the Enclosure Award (1798) alluded to ‘certain houses and gardens under Red Horse Hill’.  The last Horse of Tysoe was ploughed over in 1800 and in 1959 the hill was forested, which didn’t help.  Despite attempts to discover its exact location and shape, the figure is now lost.

There are only two full human figures currently known, both have been identified as male.

Long Man of Wilmington

The Long Man of Wilmington

The Long Man of Wilmington

In Sussex, the figure of the Long Man of Wilmington has his head pointing south, which was once helmeted, giving rise to a theory of a figure of a helmeted war diety.  The oldest drawing of him was made in 1710, by John Rowley, which showed he once had facial features.  Now the Long Man outline is made up of concrete blocks painted white to preserve the outline.   Despite popular legend, there is no evidence to suggest that the Victorians robbed him of his manhood!  The Sussex Archaeological Society has a good page on him, here.

Cerne Giant

Cerne Giant

Cerne Giant

Postcards of the Cerne Giant are said to the be the only pornographic material the Post Office is willing to handle.  He is the most detailed of all the hill figures, with eyes, nose, ribs, genitalia and club notches all defined.  He also has potential traces of a further outline held in his left hand.  This has been tentatively identified as a lion skin cloak, and identifies the figure with the Roman emperor Commodus.  That’s tentative mind…

The Cerne Giant is parodied in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  The aptly named “Long Man” of Discworld is 20,000 tons of long burial mound with two small round burial mounds located either side of one end. The runic inscription on it reads – roughly – “I’ve Got A Great Big Tonker”.  It gets better. When a dwarf, after seeing and admiring the earthen mounds, goes inside and meets the aptly-named Long Man himself, a mythological figure with a healthy appreciation for not wearing any clothes. “Cor,” the dwarf says, “you don’t half look like your picture.”

There is a third grouping of chalk art which isn’t horse, nor figure: here I present the Chiltern Crosses.

Chiltern Crosses – Bledlow and Whiteleaf

Bledlow Cross

Bledlow Cross

Whiteleaf Cross

Whiteleaf Cross

Both of these enigmatic cuttings are to be found in Buckinghamshire.  The Whiteleaf Cross was first accurately recorded by the Rev Francie Wise in 1742, the cross cannot be accurately dated any older than that but tantalisingly there is a reference in a Saxon charter of 903 AD to a boundary mark at Whiteleaf called Weland’s stock (or pole).   The Bledlow Cross can only be dated to the early 19th Century and was last scoured (cleaned) in 1991.  The Revd. F. Lee (1883) conjectured that the Whiteleaf Cross near Princes Risborough was cut as a memorial for victory by King Edward the elder over his enemies. There is however, no evidence for this.

Modern commentary has resulted on companions and defacement of the monuments happening on a fairly regular basis:

Homer and Cerne

Homer and Cerne

The Cerne Giant has long been used as a publicity piece.  Here a figure of Homer was drawn out as a promotional stunt for the release of the Simpsons Movie.  At least he had Y-fronts…  It did upset the local pagan groups at the time.

Read Family Court Hell

Read Family Court Hell

… and here, subject to vandalism (the article can be found here) Not  only with a short expressive message, but also some strategically placed purple dye.

One of the more curious suggestions was that  the giants lust should be gratified by the addition of a female figure.  In 1980 Kenneth Evans-Loude, an artist from Devon proposed that he cut on the hill opposite the giant, a figure of Marilyn Monroe in her notable skirt fluttering sequence from The Seven Year Itch.  Despite the fact that the landowner approved, the Arts Council refused to sponsor the project. (Newman, Paul: Lost Gods of Albion, 1987 pg76)

The Long Man of Wilmington has also been used as a publicity stunt: on 2nd July 2007,  as part of an ITV programme hosted by Trinny and Susannah women were invited to lie on the monument and change the outline:

Long Woman of Wilmington

Long Woman of Wilmington

There are also very modern cut figures, such as the Whitehawk Hawk, East of Brighton, near the East Brighton Park.  It was carved by local artists Same Sky in 2001 with support from the Friends of the Sheepcote Valley and the residents of Whitehawk.  Apologies for the search engine decorations…

Whitehawk hawk

Whitehawk hawk

Further Reading:
Bergamar, K. (1997) Discovering Hill Figures. 4th edn. Princes Risborough: Shire.

Maples, M. (1981) White Horses and Other Hill Figures. 2nd edn. Stroud: Alan Sutton.

Newman, P. (1997) Lost gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill-Figures of Britain. London: Robert Hale.

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