Spectre beyond time, beyond words

A midsummer evening brought about the extraordinary encounter. some might call it midsummer madness. I had been headed homeward across the Berkshire Downs when a latent desire to see the White Horse of Uffington struggled to the surface.

My watch showed nine o'clock. The sun, however, lingered on the chalk hills, giving them a beckoning look. The moment was too rare to let slip. Overcast, this landscape was forbidding, and in a mist, conjured up legends of scaly monsters haunting the hollows.

I detoured into the Vale of the White Horse, lured on by the kind of magical evening England stages to make up for a season of bad weather. A hush had already fallen on the gray houses of Uffington, the village which native-born Thomas Hughes lovingly describes at the opening of "Tom Brown's School Days." As I drove through it and continued along the Vale, I scanned the bare green hills for the only incontestable equine survivor from a prehistoric age. But the White Horse eluded me, just as he tends to elude all cameras but that of the aerial photographer. It almost seemed that he had been carved into his upland slope to appease some watcher from the skies.

The scene was solitary. I had passed no one before turning into the single track that leads up White Horse Hill. As my car crawled along the flank of the hill, the silence grew oppressive. Even before the arcane figure rose up in front of me, I knew I had entered an alien world. This was no white charger of knight or warrior. His visage was as cold and strange to my western eye as an Egyptian heiroglyphic. Looking even longer than his 375 feet, he dominated the site like a god. For him, I was of no more moment than the chalk rubble eroding from his sides. Hadn't he bent generations, centuries, of mortal men to his service, cutting away the turf and scouring out his form?

A legend had grown up in the area that St. George slew the dragon on this spot. Below me was Dragon's Hill, on which the blood had spilt, branding its eminence with the observable bald patch. Some claim to detect a dragon's form in the elongated and impressionistic horse. I could more readily sympathize with this fanciful response than that of Hughes and his fellow Victorians who thought him a mere commemorative marker for alfred's victory over the Danes at Ashdown.

I knew in my bones that the creature was pre-Christian. Pagan rites had taken place here. So charged was the atmosphere that I could almost believe they were about to begin again on this charmed night. The date of at least 150 B.C. is established by Iron Age coins bearing the equine image.

Perhaps, as some archeologists speculate, Uffington Castle, the Iron Age earthwork to the right of the horse on the summit, was not originally a fort but a meeting place for a nomadic people. Passing by its edge is the perfect access route, the ancient Ridgeway. And perhaps, as local historian Ernest Pocock believes, these nomads returned periodically to the site to worship their god, the White Horse, bringing with them the bones of their dead for burial. Nearby is a burial ground of 2000 B.C. known as Wayland's Smithy. Its dolmen strains the imagination, for only Hercules could have heaved the Stonehengian slab onto the supporting boulders.

As dusk fell, I left the White Horse in command of his hillside. Inscrutable , he gave away no secrets. Yet for me, he has become the emblem of Britain's mysterious past: the unaccountable stone circles, mounds, barrows, and sarsen stones. A twelfth century chronicler felt something of the same sort when he proclaimed the White Horse of Uffington "one of the wonders of Britain."

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