The gigantic white horses and other figures engraved on the hillsides of Britain have long intrigued visitors from overseas. The figures are cut into the turf, thus exposing the white chalk subsoil beneath. Some of the figures can be seen on a clear day from spots 20 miles or more distant. Indeed, so glaringly conspicuous are they that they were hurriedly camouflaged at the outbreak of World War II to prevent them being used as bearing points by Luftwaffe pilots.
From early times, animal forms have been used as badges or symbols by many nations, and the horse was often featured as an object of religious regard. Nearer to the point, as far as Britain's white chalk horses are concerned, is the fact that the Saxon regarded the horse with superstition, which is probably why the ancient Dukes of Saxony incorporated this animal in their coats of arms.
The sire of all of Britain's chalk horses is the one at Uffington, just over the Wiltshire border in Berkshire. It is probably the largest representation of a horse in the world, measuring 355 feet from nose to tail and 120 feet from ear to hoof. The horse is skeleton-like in shape and somewhat resembles a slender greyhound.
The Uffington horse is so ancient that its origin is lost in the mists of time. Many theories have been put forward, but none have satisfied antiquarians.
Some people reason that as its form strongly resembles the hen-headed steed of the type portrayed on the coins of Queen Boadicea (AD 612), it may have been engraved during the first century.
Others point out that as the hillside on which it is engraved is crowned with the double ramparts and ditches of an Iron Age camp, it could have been a sacred emblem of heathen worshipers.
In days gone by, when the Uffington horse was periodically cleaned and rechalked, the occasions were accompanied by various festivities, as may be gleaned from the following old local ballad: The old White Horse wants setting to rights And the Squire has promised good cheer; So we'll give him a scrape to keep him in shape And he'll last for many a year.
The horse at Westbury, in Wiltshire, is a magnificently proportioned blood charger and has retained its present form since 1778. It replaced a figure of great antiquity -- a crude elongated horse with a crescent-tipped tail and saddle. Such a feature may be seen on more than one ancient British coin.
It seems that in 1778 the original horse was in a sorry state of disrepair, and a local gentleman took it upon himself to carry out the transformation. A well-intentioned act, no doubt, but archaeologists still deplore the transformation as being the handiwork of a vandal.
Members of the Lions Club at Westbury recently undertook one of the most difficult community projects they had ever tackled -- completely renovating the horse. The figure is carved on a precipitous hillside and measures 170 feet from nose to tail, with a body 55 feet thick. A lost foothold on that precipitous slope would not be funny!
A popular theory is that the original Westbury horse was cut by King Alfred's men to commemorate a great victory over the Danes at Ethandune in AD 878.
There is an interesting story attached to the lively looking horse at Cherhill, Wiltshire, cut in 1780. There was much resentment locally at the coming of the railroad, and that famous engineer Brunell, in charge of the operation, had the idea of appeasing the opposition by changing the figure of the horse into that of a railroad locomotive. All was made ready for a transformation overnight, but happily, for some reason, Brunell had second thoughts, and so the spritely old horse prancesMDNM
Among four other white horses in the county of Wiltshire is one on a hillside near Marlborough. It was cut by pupils of an academy that once existed in the town's High Street, and they also had the task of grooming it periodically. For many generations this horse has been referred to in the school song of Marlborough College: Ah, then we'll cry Thank God! my lads, The Kennet's running still; And see! the old White Horse still pads Up there on Granham Hill.
Even the horse at Uffington cannot claim the antiquity of the Long Man of Wilmington, in Sussex, or the Giant of Cerne, in Dorset.
It is claimed that the Long Man is the largest representation of a human figure in the world, the engraving measuring 240 feet from head to toe. Its arms extend 148 feet, and in each hand the Long Man holds a stave. It has been suggested that the figure represents the Saxon god Balder, and that he is using the two staves to hoist himself from the depths of the Vastron (Hades).
The 180-foot Cerne Giant, engraved on Trendle Hill, brandishes a gigantic club as though menacing the whole countryside around. Legend has it that the giant devoured a flock of sheep and lay down on Trendle Hill to sleep it off. While he slept, local inhabitants killed him and traced his outline in the turf as a memorial of their valor.
The Giant's masculine nudity suggests that the figure was worshiped as a god of fertility. But, like many other hillside engravings of Britain, its date or purpose may never be known. They remain landmarks of mystery.