Southwest England has more chalk horse carvings than anywhere else in the world. The land is chalky and rolling, so it’s the perfect place for the large white hillside images. For centuries people here have been digging out the grass and topsoil to make designs in the white chalk beneath. One ancient horse carving still exists, and there are several later ones which date mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Uffington Horse
The Uffington White Horse dates from the Bronze age and doesn’t look like any of the other chalk horses. It’s stylized and elegant – even modern looking. It’s 374 feet long with lines up to 10 feet wide, and it’s been scientifically dated to be about 3,000 years old. The earliest written mention is an 11th century document which refers to White Horse Hill. Then in the 12th century, the horse was listed as one of the wonders of Britain.
Horse or Dragon?
Because of the lack of detail, some have questioned whether it’s even a horse at all. It’s right next to a chalk outcropping called Dragon Hill where, according to legend, St. George slew the dragon. This leads some to wonder if the abstract figure might be representing the dragon. But I think it’s safe to assume that the figure is a horse, because the St. George and dragon legend originated in the middle ages and the White Horse of Uffington has been galloping across this hillside much longer than that.
It is an odd-looking horse. But horses resembling this one – with disjointed limbs and rectangular faces have been found on coins from 2000 years ago. In prehistoric times, these chalk hills might have been decorated with many such horses. Evidence shows that there was at least one other chalk horse of similar design (and possibly of similar age). However, it disappeared in 1778 when the new Westbury horse was carved over it.
Chalk carvings are fragile by nature, and if they aren’t regularly maintained, they’ll soon be overgrown and disappear. The weather also erodes the chalk, so new chalk has to be brought in from other sites and packed into the design. That makes us wonder how in the world the Uffington horse has managed to survive for 3,000 years.
The Pastime Festival
As it turns out, the secret to this horse’s longevity is a great big party. Even our ancestors knew that if you wanted people to work you needed to offer them lots of free food and drink – and a bit of a carnival-like atmosphere wouldn’t hurt either.
In ancient times, cleaning (or scouring) the horse might have had religious significance and been carried out in a reverent manner. But by the Middle Ages, taking care of the horse had become just another excuse for a party. Every seven years the local folk would gather to clean and repair the white horse – and have a three-day-long festival called the Pastime. There were cheese rolling contests, jugglers, wrestling, sideshows, plenty of food and drink, and lots more. In the 1700s this song was written for the cleaning party:
The old White Horse wants settin’ to rights And the Squire has promised good cheer So we’ll give it a scrape to keep it in shape And it’ll last for many a year.
The Pastime festival continued into the mid 1800s. Now the horse is cleaned annually by volunteers under the supervision of the National Trust and English Heritage – party not included.
The ancient and mysterious Uffington White Horse has several myths and legends attached to it:
- The valley below the horse is called the Manger and that’s where the horse is said to go down to graze at night.
- Legend tells us that King Arthur will come back to help if England is in danger. When that happens, the Uffington White Horse will dance on dragon hill.
- And to make a wish come true, all you have to do is stand near the horse’s eye – not on it, as you are not allowed to walk on the carving – close your eyes, turn around three times, and you will get your wish.
The Uffington Horse is in Oxfordshire, but in the neighboring county of Wiltshire you can find eight more chalk horses. Most of them were carved in the 18th and 19th centuries, so they are all modern compared to the Uffington one.
What spurred this new era of horse carving? It was a painter called George Stubbs who became famous for his realistic horse portraits. Horses were all the rage, and people in this area combined the new fashion of horse paintings with their ancient custom of chalk carving. Many new chalk horses popped up on the hillsides of southwest England during this time. Unfortunately, they were sometimes carved right over older, possibly ancient, ones.
The Westbury Horse
The Westbury Horse is the largest and oldest of Wiltshire’s eight chalk horses. It was cut in 1778 over an older stylized horse that might even have been a contemporary of the Uffington horse. The landowner decided he didn’t like the old odd-looking horse. He wanted something more modern and realistic – like Stubbs’ horses. So he had a bigger horse designed and carved right over the old one which is now lost forever.
I guess the landowner got tired of the maintenance needed to keep his horse in shape. Maybe his cleaning parties weren’t as much fun as the old Pastime festival had been, and he didn’t draw much of a crowd. Anyway, he decided to give his horse a permanent makeover. In the 1950s, he had it filled in with concrete and painted white. No more messy chalk to deal with for him.
Where to See Chalk Horses
Chalk horses can be difficult to find because they don’t have exact addresses and they are best viewed from afar. They are also harder to spot if they haven’t been cleaned in a while. The two I’ve written about here are probably the easiest to visit.
- The Uffington Horse (Bronze Age) is managed by the National Trust. You pay to park, then you can walk up to the horse. It’s signposted from the B4507 and A429. Uffington, Oxfordshire, SN7 7UK.
- The Westbury Horse (1788) is easy to see because of its location and its nice coat of white paint. It’s best seen from a viewing area on the B3098. It can also be visited from a parking area at the top of the hill. It’s next to the ruins of an Iron Age hill fort called Bratton Camp. From there you can see the horse from above. The address is Port Way, Bratton, Westbury BA13 4TA. This site is managed by English Heritage.
If you want to see the other seven chalk horses in Wiltshire, I would suggest hiring a guide or getting this little booklet: White Horses of Wiltshire & Uffington. The horses are designed to be seen from a distance so you can see them from the road if you know where to look.
Other Chalk Figures
Horses aren’t the only images carved into those English chalk hills: there are military badges, a kiwi, crosses, and giants. But we’ll leave those for another time…
You Might Also Like:
- The Camargue White Horses in France
- London Frost Fairs
- British Crop Circles: Their Mystery and History
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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Thanks, Margo. It’s hard to beat this story about dead horses! 🙂
Thanks, Bill. 🙂 But they are only dead during the day… at night they come to life (at least the Uffington one does). 😉
I helped add chalk to the Uffington Horse last year! We were scheduled to do it again this year but couldn’t due to the lockdown. There are some photos here:
Sorry, for the delayed response. Your comment went into spam – I guess because of the link. Sorry, I didn’t see it sooner.
I’m so jealous of you chalking the Uffington Horse. I think I would like to do that too – especially if they would throw a big party like they did in the old days. 🙂
It must be amazing to take part in a ritual that has been going on for thousands of years. Thanks so much for the link too.
Maybe next year I’ll see you there. Fingers crossed. 🙂
Interesting. So the Westbury horse isn’t the original one … oh! I recently drove along the B3098 road and was very impressed to suddenly see this large horse on the hillside high above me. My book of battlefields (by John Kinross) says that “according to legend, the Westbury white horse was built by King Alfred (the Great’s) solders to commemorate the Battle of Ethandun & Bratton Down” (Eddington village is on the other side of the road), in 878AD. After this famous victory for the Anglo-Saxons, England was divided half-half between the Saxons and the Vikings (the Danelaw), and the Vikings finally stopped marauding … The famous novel “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott says that the figure of a white horse was a well-known symbol of the Anglo-Saxon kings and their warriors. I wonder if many of the other old white horse carvings were also monuments of ancient Celtic or Saxon battles …
Yes, I’d love to know that too. Maybe some day they will find more evidence. In the meantime, we’ll just have to enjoy them as they are. 🙂