Location

Two miles south of Uffington, near Wantage, Oxfordshire.

 

Overview

The White Horse is one of the most iconic images of Ancient Britain. It sits on the northern face of the Berkshire Downs and boasts spectacular views in that direction, although it is very difficult to obtain a similarly satisfying view of the monument itself as it projects almost vertically off the hill. As can be seen on the photographs below, the best views on site, though still a little obscured, can be obtained from Dragon Hill or the road just above the Manger. Failing the availability of a light aircraft, the most superior view of the White Horse can be found several miles away across the Vale.

 

It has been suggested that the horse may instead be a greyhound or a dragon, though surely the length of the tail, the shape of the body and, not least, the neck, are all indicative of a symbolic horse at the gallop. Measuring 110 x 38.5 metres, it is the second largest chalk figure in the British Isles, and possibly the oldest; new dating techniques indicate that the horse was constructed around 8-700 B.C. It must have been a considerable undertaking as, due to its size, the builders would be unable to verify its proportions by standing back from it, and so may have employed some sort of scale, and a knowledge of mathematics therefore, to be sure that their endeavours were not horribly deformed. And there was need for some precision, as the horse is not merely defined by a loose scattering of chalk across the surface, rather a trench was dug to outline the shape and this was then filled with chalk blocks.

 

Why was it created? A much favoured explanation is that it is the banner of the local tribe, who decided to impose it on the landscape as a demonstration of their power. Modern archeologists thoroughly enjoy the notion of ancient man embracing his inner wild animal by marking his territory in such a way, and so announcing to the surrounding world that he and his enormous genitalia are here and are a force to be reckoned with. This may well be true; humans have always attempted to impress and overawe outsiders with such displays of strength, though we must question why so few others in Britain felt the need to repeat their posturing if this were the case. Personally, I prefer the explanation that it is a religious symbol. Some have suggested that is it connected with Epona, the Goddess of Horses who was worshipped throughout the Celtic world, and though the White Horse is believed to pre-date her cult, it is perfectly possible that it is connected with an earlier similarity. If this is so then it perhaps makes some sense, as its image projects more vertically towards the Heavens than it does horizontally across the Earth. The horse has long been a symbol of power, wealth and prestige, so we could easily return to the marking of territory argument, but I believe the White Horse Hill landscape must take precedence.

 

It is an unusual place and has many connections with pre-history, and more still with spirituality throughout very different ages. A few yards to the south of the White Horse is Uffington Castle, a hill fort built at the same time, but apparently more for ritual purposes than for occupation or defence, and running beside it is the Ridgeway, Britain's oldest road. Between Uffington Castle and the White Horse are a series of burial mounds; the earliest and largest, the pillow mound, was raised in the Neolithic, long before the fort or the horse, and it was found to contain 50 skeletons, many with their skulls missing. Other burial mounds are of a later era in the Bronze Age, though, most unusually, some of these were reused during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon eras, reinforcing the spiritual importance of this site throughout the ages. A little further afield, a walk of 1 miles along the Ridgeway will bring you to Wayland's Smithy, a splendid Neolithic burial chamber; although built by a much earlier people, probably for long forgotten reasons, it may well have retained its mystical significance to those at the White Horse. Immediately below the Horse is Dragon Hill, where, legend has it, St George slew the dragon, whose blood so polluted the soil at the summit that no grass will grow there, leaving the bare white spot that we see today. The real reason is that Dragon Hill is a natural chalk outcrop, though its almost symmetrical shape surely adds weight to the belief that it may have been deliberately shaped by man at some point, we can only speculate for religious purposes. Beside it is the Manger, an extraordinary feature that was formed during the last Ice Age; another equally dubious legend states that the White Horse leaves the hill one night each year to graze in the Manger, always returning to the hill by dawn.

 

In view of all these unusual features, historical and geographical, it is not hard to imagine why pilgrims may have been drawn to this place as a spiritual centre, and so it seems more probable that the White Horse had a purpose within this context, rather than as a separate tribal emblem with no function other than to tickle the ego of the locals. The burial mounds show that White Horse Hill had a spiritual importance in the Neolithic which was carried through into the Bronze and Iron Ages with Uffington Castle and the White Horse itself, and with the reuse of the burial mounds in Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon times, strong remnants must have existed in these eras too, though possibly they were more inspired by the visual remains of the horse than a faithful adherence to the word of the early religion. This pilgrimage to White Horse Hill endured in much later times; the site is first mentioned in literary evidence in the 12th Century, when it was listed as one of the wonders of Britain, and from the 17th to 19th Centuries, Victorian "pagans" used it for their festivals, or "Pastime", the last being held in 1857.

 

Guide to Photographs

 

Photographs

The White Horse

The White Horse

1.The White Horse

2.The White Horse

3.The White Horse

4.The White Horse

5.The White Horse

6.The White Horse

7.The White Horse

8.The White Horse

9.The White Horse

10.The White Horse

11.The White Horse

12.The White Horse

13.The White Horse

 

Links

    The Uffington White Horse