At least 3,000 years old, the Uffington White Horse on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border is the oldest chalk cut figure in the country. Steeped in myth and legend, this remarkable figure is usually off-limits to visitors, who can only admire it from a distance. Once a year however, anyone can join in to re-chalk it, participating in a tradition which is itself centuries old.
Chalk cut figures are a common feature of the English heritage landscape, mostly appearing in southern counties such as Wiltshire which have a chalk bedrock. It is not always horses on display; there are military badges such as those at Fovant and Sutton Mandeville, the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, the Bulford KiwiHorses are by far the most common though, with 17 across the UK, eight of which are in Wiltshire. Dating from the prehistoric era to far more recent engravings, their purpose has always been something of a mystery, but despite this they have become an integral part of the historical landscape of England.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE UFFINGTON WHITE HORSE
The Uffington White Horse is by far the oldest white horse in the country, dating from the late Bronze Age, with archaeological investigations dating it to between 1400 - 600 BC. The horse is part of a wider area of pre-historic features and sits on The Ridgeway, an ancient trackway which is Britain's oldest road. The Ridgeway runs from Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire and has been in continuous use for over 5,000 years, pre-dating both Avebury and the White Horse. Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hillfort, is just above the horse and was part of a chain of defences running across the Ridgeway, being installed a good 500 years after the horse. Below the horse is Dragon Hill, a natural hill with a man-made flattened top. Just a mile away is Wayland's Smithy, an early Neolithic long barrow dating from 3600 BC.
The horse itself was found to be made from trenches 3 feet deep in the ground, not just scratched onto the surface as many had originally thought. It is possible that it was not intended to actually be a horse, it may have been a dog or a sabre-toothed cat, but it has been widely accepted as a horse since at least the 11th century AD when it first appears in documentary evidence.
The design is unusual, not just because the horse is not a continuous depiction, but also because it is shown in motion, looking as if it is running across the hill.
As you would imagine, the horse is connected to many myths and legends. It is said that the horse leaves the hill over night once a year to go down into the valley, known as The Manger, to graze, and also that it goes to Wayland's Smithy to be re-shod. Dragon Hill beneath it has a large area on its flat top of chalk - this is said to be where Saint George slayed the dragon, its blood so poisonous that it has stopped anything from ever growing. The truth is rather more prosaic; shaped by glacial meltwater it was quarried and levelled by the Celtic Dobunni tribe before the Roman invasion. Nothing grows because of the high levels of potash found at the summit, probably due to all of the ritual fires and sacrifices performed in the pagan ceremonies held there over the centuries.
Re-chalking the White Horse
The horse has needed regular maintenance over its 3000 years, otherwise it would have disappeared as so many other chalk cut carvings have over the years. From at least the 17th century there was an annual event known as The Pastime, a major social occasion for the local community, where they would clear away any vegetation and then participate in various games and events. These included catching a greased pig which you could keep if you caught it, chasing a cartwheel down the steep slope with a cheese as a prize, wrestling matches and a 'Jingling Match' where blindfolded participants had to catch a man with a bell around his neck.
The Pastime is sadly a thing of the past, but the horse does still need to be cleaned and re-chalked. Once a year the National Trust, who now manage the site, run a week of re-chalking. They clear all of the vegetation and weed the horse, then cover the horse in lumps of fresh white chalk. Volunteers are given a hammer, a kneeling pad and a pair of gloves. You each take a small section of horse and use the hammer to break up the large lumps of chalk, bashing away until they have crumbled. You then grind away with the side of the hammer until the area is just chalk dust. It is quite a time consuming process and it can be quite hard on the hands, but it is an enjoyable and satisfying activity.
The horse is usually off limits throughout the rest of the year so this is the one time that you get the chance to walk around it and over it. As you would imagine the views are spectacular with the valley stretched out before you, a patchwork of fields, woods and villages. Buzzards wheel overhead in the huge open sky. All you can hear is the friendly chatter of those working and the rhythmic muffled tapping of scores of hammers on chalk. I overheard one father tell his small child to stop bashing with the hammer and to just listen for a bit, which she did. 'That noise', he said, 'is the sound of the horse galloping over the fields,' and he was right, it really did sound like hoofbeats.
There is old folklore that says that if you stand in the horse’s eye and make a wish, it will come true. Another says that if you walk around the head three times and wish, then your wish will come true. This is the only time you will every get the chance to do this as it is usually behind a barrier, so I did take advantage of it and stood in the eye to make a wish. Walking around the head seemed harder as the horse is on quite a steep slope so I gave that a miss.
Volunteers can stay as long as they like with many just doing half an hour. Others seemed to be settled in for the long haul, and did multiple days. It is a rare and unique opportunity to be part of an ancient tradition which goes back over 3000 years, keeping the horse visible for generations to come and you really feel a part of the landscape and the community who have cared for it for so long.
Re-chalking the Uffington White Horse: the Practicalities
Postcode: SN7 7QN
Park at the nearby White Horse Hill Car Park - it is free for National Trust members.
Facilities: There are no facilities on site except an ice cream van, which was cash only. I would advise taking your own food and water particularly on hot days.
What to wear: There is no shade so suncream/hats are essential. You will end up covered in chalk so don't wear your best clothes. Gloves are provided. There is a lot of long grass on site so cover your legs to avoid tick bites.
Who can re-chalk the White Horse: Anyone can volunteer - you just show up on the specified dates, there is no need to book and kids can join in too. People came from far and wide to help out - on our day there were even people from Southampton and Swansea. National Trust staff are on hand to answer any questions and to direct you to the bits which need doing - we worked on the front leg.