Uffington White Horse

"The owld White Harse wants zettin to rights,
And the Squire hev promised good cheer,
Zo we'll gee un a scrape to kip un in zhape,
And a'll last for many a year"

The Uffington White Horse is a prehistoric figure cut out on the hillside, exposing the natural chalk beneath the grass. It needs frequent cleaning (or "scouring") to keep it white and to avoid the build-up of a turf. There is some evidence that in prehistoric times a number of layers of compacted chalk were laid down. Today the responsibility for the horse's upkeep is taken by the National Trust, owners of the site, but before their ownership the village people took on the job. And with what relish they did so, using the scouring as a good excuse for fun and games.

The Uffington white horse, one of only three that face to the right, is high on an escarpment of the Berkshire Downs below Whitehorse Hill, a mile and a half south of the village of Uffington, and it looks out over the Vale of the White Horse. Though on the Berkshire Downs, it has been in Oxfordshire since county boundary alterations in the 1970s.

This is by far the oldest of all the white horses, and is of an entirely different design to the others. Unlike the solid and more or less naturalistic figures of the other horses, it is formed from stylized curving lines some ten feet or less wide, and its length of around 365 feet makes it over twice as long as the longest of the Wiltshire horses. Whether it is indeed intended to represent a horse, or some other creature instead, has been debated, but it has certainly been called a horse since at least medieval times. A cartulary of the Abbey of Abingdon from between 1072 and 1084 refers to “the place commonly known as the White Horse Hill” ("locum qui vulgo mons albi equi nuncupatur").

Until 1995 the Uffington white horse was thought to date from the Iron Age. However, in the nineteen-nineties, a new dating technique was developed. This technique, optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL), can show how long soil has been hidden from sunlight. The lines of the horse consist of trenches dug in the hillside, then filled with chalk. OSL testing of soil from between the lower layers of that chalk shows that it has been buried since between 1400 BC and 600 BC, and probably between 1200 BC and 800 BC, and thus the horse is of Bronze Age origin.

The original purpose of this horse is unknown. It may have been the emblem of a local tribe, and have been cut as a totem or badge marking their land, or it may have had a religious purpose or significance. The horse-goddess Epona was worshipped by the Celts in Gaul, and she had a counterpart in Britain, Rhiannon. The Uffington white horse may have been cut by adherents of a cult of the horse-goddess.
The horse seems to have been sited to be seen from afar, and it can be seen from up to twenty miles away in good conditions. It can be seen close up from the top of nearby Dragon Hill, but is perhaps best viewed from three or four miles away, as it is on the very top of the escarpment where the slope is less steep. On my last visit in June 2002 the horse was in good condition.

The Horse

The White Horse at Uffington is one the most famous hill figures in Britain and has recently been dated to at least the Iron Age (around 500 BC) but it could well be much older. The horse spans 110 m in length but can only be fully viewed from the air. The best position to see it from the ground is about a mile and half away to the N and from here one can see that the figure resembles as much a dragon as it does a horse.

The chalk figure has survived through the centuries due to the local tradition of scouring the horse every seven years. This involved a weekend’s festivities up on White Horse hill where local villagers gathered for fun and games within Uffington Camp and to clean up the ancient figure. Cheeses were raced down the hill into the Manger, a very old tradition common all around Britain. Only during the last century did this ritual come to an end.

Below the hill figure is DRAGON HILL where St.George is supposed to have slain the dragon, burning the ground where its blood was spilled so that no grass could grow but the history of the mound is no doubt older than Christianity. The wind seems to always be stronger at this lower level than it does high up the main hill.

The White Horse looks down on THE MANGER (pictured), an area spectacularly enclosed by the rolling sides of White Horse Hill. On a fine summers day, the long grass up the sides provide an excellent relaxation spot where it is easy to picture the arena below full with people undertaking ceremony and ritual.

The Camp

Perched on White Horse Hill above the chalk figure, this earth enclosure surrounds 9 acres of land with a single bank and ditch and an entrance to the NW. The camp is in a very strategic location positioned beside the ancient the Ridgeway trading route, overlooking the Vale to the N and thus was utilised by consecutive peoples over many thousands of years but it probably began life as a Neolithic camp used for seasonal gatherings.

The Ridgeway

The Ridgeway is one of the most famous stretches of road in Britain and can boast a history spanning at least 6000 years that saw Neolithic farmers, Bronze Age spiritualists, Celtic warriors and Saxon traders all making important journeys along its upland route. Only the Romans ignored it, preferring the lowlands for their travels. In certain areas it is possible to go for miles without seeing human habitation making the route unbelievably remote. The section on the high downs running from Avebury, where the road begins, to Uffington (about 30 miles) is much like this making it a rewarding hike. About 40 miles of the Ridgeway remains today connecting at Streatley with another famous road, the Icknield Way, which takes one all the way out to the Wash on the east coast.

Wayland’s Smithy

This long barrow lies in a wonderfully atmospheric enclosure of beech trees beside the ancient Ridgeway about a mile to the west of Uffington Camp. The walk from there is an ideal opportunity to follow in the footsteps of people who have travelled the trackway for the last 6000 years. This section of it has thickset hedges creating the impression of a ceremonial avenue. A wooden mortuary structure was erected at the site in about 3700 BC before being sealed with sarsen stones and covered over with the present long mound in 3400 BC. This mound was held in place by a continuous arrangement of large stones some of which still remain. The facade consisted of 6 large uprights flanking the entrance to a cross-shaped chamber tomb. Burials were discovered at each of the stages.

The name of the tomb comes from the smith to the Saxon gods Wayland who is said to reside here. Folklore says that if you leave your horse at the long barrow overnight with some coins then come morning it will be shod. This legend probably originated from the original use of this site over 5000 years ago, 3500 years before the Saxons arrived, when people came to make offerings to their ancestors.

References:

J.R.L Anderson “The Oldest Road: The Ridgeway”, Whittet Books, 1992
Thomas Hughes “The Scouring of the White Horse”, MacMillan & Co, 1859