Hill figures are large designs or motifs created by cutting into a steep hillside to reveal the underlying geology. They are a type of geoglyph, and are intended to be seen from some distance away. There are many such figures in Britain, England in particular, although they can also be found in other parts of the world. They include human and animal forms, especially horses, as well as more abstract symbols, and nowadays, even advertising brands. There are sixteen known white horses in the UK (seventeen if the painted one on Cleadon Hill is included). Many hill figures date from around the 17th and 18th centuries, and some from much more recently. My favourite and the oldest by far, is the famous Uffington White Horse, included amongst those shown here:
The geology of England, particularly in the south with its rolling chalk hills (downs) makes it very suited to the creation of these figures – which are often just called ‘Chalk Figures’. The county of Wiltshire is especially well known for these figures.
There are three main methods of creating them, the first being one used in areas where the soil is thin. It involves stripping away the the turf and soil so that the underlying white chalk stands out clearly. This is a quick method, but one that needs regular maintenance if it is not to become overgrown and disappear from view.
A second method is known as the trenching method, used in areas where the chalk is not near the surface. It involves digging trenches down to the rock along the figure’s outline and filling them in with rock brought from elsewhere. This is a far more permanent method and allows traces of the figure/design to remain visible even when it becomes overgrown. The Uffington White Horse was created by this method.
A third method, known as the covering method, involves laying rocks along outlines cut into the turf, and is generally used in areas where there is either no underlying chalk, or no tools are available for cutting down to it.
The Fovant Regimental Badges, on a chalk hill in south-west Wiltshire, are examples of the covering method. They were created by soldiers garrisoned nearby waiting to go out to France during WW1. The first was made in 1916, although many of the original carvings failed to survive the elements and by the end of WW1 there were 20 identifiable badges. During World War II, they were left to become overgrown so they couldn’t be used as landmarks by enemy aircraft, but once war ended the local Home Guard formed themselves into an Old Comrades Association and began the task of restoration. I believe only twelve remain today.
I’ll say a word here about the painted horse at Cleadon, up in North-East England. This is quite different to the hill figures of further south, being a small figure of a white horse, two metres tall and three metres long, painted on a low cliff on the hill. Interestingly, it is one of only four ‘horses’ in the UK that face to the right.
Today it is very defaced by graffiti. It’s thought to have appeared in the 1840s and there are at least six possible reasons for its creation. I won’t go into these, but I’ll add a link HERE to a site with a photo of it in its graffitied state and a little bit about it so you can have a quick look at it if you’ve time.
The reasons for the creation of hill figures are still obscure, but the practice dates back to prehistoric times. They could have simply been created for artistic reasons, or as representations of particular gods. They may even been symbols of the nearby tribe and act as a warning to other tribes to keep out of their territory – as the Uffington White Horse.
Stylised in shape, this is the oldest hill figure in Britain, now believed to be 3000 years old. It is also the second largest figure measuring 360 feet /110m by 126 feet/38.5m. It is located in Oxfordshre (formerly Berkshire) about a mile and a half from the village of Uffington, the village associated with the famous 19th century novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, written by Thomas Hughes. The figure is believed to have held political significance as it sits high on the Berkshire Downs escarpment, dominating the valley below – aptly called the Vale of White Horse.
It is thought there were many white horses at the time of the Celts, but time and the ever invasive grass and weeds have caused many to disappear from view. As I mentioned above, there are sixteen known white horses in the UK today. White horses were considered to be lucky by the Celts, as were horseshoes. Some historians believe the Uffington Horse figure represents the goddess Epona, protector of horses, who was connected with the local Celtic tribe, the Atrebates. An alternative theory suggests it is not a horse at all but the mythical dragon slain by Saint George. A mound at the foot of White Horse Hill is known as Dragon Hill.
My second favourite hill figure is the Cerne Abbas Giant – also known as ‘The Rude Man’ or ‘The Rude Giant’ – and is one to make little old ladies blush and everyone else just giggle. He can be found at the village of Cerne Abbas near Dorchester in Dorset and we dropped by to say ‘hello’ to him four years ago. This is our picture of the figure as in can be seen from the road. It doesn’t show the complete outline too well, so I’ll add an image from Wikipedia:
The Cerne Abbas Giant is 180 feet/55 m high and 167 feet/51 m wide, making him the largest human chalk figure in Britain. The club in his right hand is 120 feet in length. The figure was created by a turf-cut outline being filled with chalk. It was once thought to have been Celtic in origin, some sources claiming he was identified as Hercules during Roman times. But the figure’s actual history can’t be traced back further than the late 17th century, making that claim difficult to prove. It is not mentioned in writings before 1694, and it has been suggested the figure is an offensive representation of Oliver Cromwell.
It isn’t known how many hill figures have disappeared over the years, and many at present are in danger of becoming ‘lost’. Grass gradually encroaches and the figures need constant maintenance to keep them visible. Many figure undergo organised restoration every few years. I believe it’s every seven years for the Uffington White Horse.
Wikipedia – (general site on hill figures)
Various Wikipedia sites for different hill figures