Joanna here, talking about a British hill figure, the White Horse of Uffington.
This is Nicola’s neighborhood, as you see here. I will nonetheless forge on bravely into her bailiwick.
Okay. Let’s say you’re a Regency miss visiting friends in Oxfordshire in the parish of Uffington. Even though the White Horse can be seen twenty miles away, your carriage arrived in the Vale of the White Horse at night. You had to pull yourself out of bed at dawn to creep out in the garden and finally see it.
A skimped, hurried breakfast and you’re off. This is Midsummer’s Day. You drive through throngs in the morning to get to the White Horse. You’re not surprised there’s a fair and foodstalls, jugs of beer, and sports. Midsummer’s Day is always a big event. You have a village fair back home in Yorkshire. But this is huge. Beyond anything. There must be thousands of people here.
You’re in time to see the festivities start. The young men gather in a troop, up spade, shovel, mattocks, and hoe, and head up hill for the “scouring of the White Horse.” All the nearby towns, you’ll be told, claim a role in the scouring and restoration of the White Horse by ancient custom.
Now I will break into your Regency scene here and say that I have been to the White Horse of Uffington myself. It’s impressive. There it is, carved into the endless green, 374 feet long, 227 feet high. Designed to be in proportion when viewed from below. It’s . . . big.
The figure is on the side of that sloping hill, just a lazy walk from the road below. It was clear and quiet when I was there. The figure feels very old. The artistic convention of it is sophisticated, but alien. And it’s beautiful.
There’s a superstition that if you stand in the ‘eye’ of the horse and make a wish, it’ll come true. So I did that. And it pretty much did.
Back to the Regency, where I spend much of my time. Your giggly friend twirls her umbrella and admires the manly form of the local squire’s son who’s joined the village lads scraping away at the encroaching vegetation.
You climb the hill with the others to get a close look. The White Horse is made simply enough. You can walk over and see how the shape of it is cut into the ground. This chalky ground underfoot has fascinated you from the first. The paths bordering the garden at your friend’s house are all perfectly, dazzlingly white. The stones in the fields are white. Under a layer of grass and dirt, you find chalk. The White Horse was created when people scraped away the grass, set the edges, and filled in level with more chalk. But in every generation since then, these people have kept the figure alive. You’re lucky enough to see it happen when you arrive at the one-year-in-seven festival when the White Horse is ‘scoured’.
The White Horse, you’ll be told, was dug in the Ninth Century to commemorate King Alfred’s victory over the pagans. You’ll hear that the White Horse is a mare and has an invisible foal that sits beside her. They go together to Woolstone Wells at night to have a drink.
Then the scholarly vicar comes along. “It’s Pendragon Hill, actually,” he’ll say. “Arthur was killed in battle here and buried there.”
Below the White Horse the ground dips away in folds and valleys and forms a steep bowl called ‘The Manger’. The squire’s son says, “We’ll do the Cheese Roll there. They loose a round of cheese at the top and everyone scrambles after it. With the amount of ale in everyone, there’ll be broken bones and cracked heads by the end of it.”
The vicar sniffs disapprovingly.
But these legends and old stories don’t tell the half of it. The Uffington Horse is OLD. It was ancient when King Alfred fought and defeated the Danes in battle in 871.
The design—sinuous, abstract, with the curiously ‘beaked’ head—hinted at a familiar Celtic representations. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century experts remarked on the resemblance to horses found on coins of the Celtic tribe Atrebates, local to the area. Could the White Horse be the model for those coins? Could it be as old as the Roman invasion of England?
We ain’t there yet. No.
Older than King Alfred. Older than the Romans. The White Horse was running on that hill when the Atrebates were dealing with that pesky influx of pedites and centurions. Optical stimulated luminescence—you know, that old stuff— of the chalk tipped into the very first, very bottom, of the initial fill indicate the White Horse might date between 1200 and 800 BCE. That would make the White Horse more than two thousand years older than any other existing figures. It was the precursor and model for the earliest of the other hill figure horses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
They were still making hill figures in the Regency. Our adventurous miss could have visited Dorset in 1808 to watch the creation of the Osmington White Horse or Wiltshire in 1812 to see the Alton Barnes White Horse being cut.
I look at the hill figure and I wonder. Do we see anything of the original design after 3000 years of communal ‘scouring’ and cleaning, the natural silting over and erosion? The Celtic coins tell us that 2000 years ago the figure of the White Horse may have held much the same form it does today. Can I hope that spirit and artistry somehow stretches back three millennia and that the White Horse has been galloping, wild and free, that long?
Uffington Horse photo attrib DavePrice. white horse attrib jeanetienneminhduy
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