Wiltshire’s white horses

A week­end’s gal­lop among the white horses of old Wes­sex.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: JASPER WIN N

ND…. AND… AND THERE YOU ARE…” We rounded the cor­ner of the track and I flung my arm out at a dis­tant hill. “Et voilà… the Broad Town white horse.” I waved my hand around and even wig­gled my fin­gers a bit as if ac­tu­ally sketch­ing the shape of the mythic beast into the far-off slope of scrubby grass.

Mar­ian seemed just a tad un­der­whelmed. “Well, it’s not very white, and it looks more like a…” She ran a few zoo­log­i­cal sim­i­les through her mind, and picked the most apt. “…like a rather rick­ety sheep.”

I was just glad that the grey­ish, sheep­ish horse was still there. I’d have felt a bit fool­ish wav­ing my hand at a bit of horse­less hill­side. It might have dis­ap­peared in the ten years since I’d last seen it. If they’re not reg­u­larly ‘scoured’ – weeded and scraped – the turf grows back over the chalk and they fade away. Quite a few of Wiltshire’s orig­i­nal sta­ble of hill­side horses have been to­tally lost, leav­ing just eight, al­though the Uff­in­g­ton Horse in neigh­bour­ing Ox­ford­shire has lasted since the Bronze Age.

I’d walked the full 90-mile cir­cuit of eight equines on the White Horse Trail a decade be­fore, and based on that ex­pe­ri­ence had come up with this week­end walk that would give us a ‘ best of’ trot around five of them. We’d bagged two ex­tra horses on our drive to Broad Town, ogling the far-off West­bury horse (worth it) and the De­vizes horse (not so much). We’d de­cided against driv­ing to tick off the Marl­bor­ough horse and also against vis­it­ing the Uff­in­g­ton horse, which in a clear case of across­the-county-line stock rustling, had been in­cluded in a re­cent re­vi­sion of the Wes­sex White Horse Trail. In­stead we’d started walk­ing.

Still wav­ing my arm around in art lec­turer fash­ion at the Broad Town horse I ex­plained that Wil­liam Sim­monds, the landowner, had the flawed idea of start­ing with a rel­a­tively small horse and then with each sub­se­quent scour­ing push­ing out

the edges of its sil­hou­ette to en­large it. A quick doo­dle of a horse shape and then draw­ing around it a few times will show you where the prob­lem lies; your Dob­bin soon be­comes Blob­bin. Or a sheep. Still, it’s a nice nod to Wes­sex’s past sheep econ­omy.

The ma­jor­ity of Wiltshire’s horses were cre­ated by landown­ers or vil­lage com­mit­tees in a late 18thand early 19th-cen­tury craze for hill­side equines and as­pired to the nat­u­ral­ism of a Ge­orge Stubbs painting, though with dif­fer­ing de­grees of suc­cess. Some are a bit stick-fig­urey; prob­lems of per­spec­tive and fore­short­en­ing dis­tort oth­ers. The Marl­bor­ough horse was cut in 1804 by a bunch of school­boys who were prob­a­bly just happy to be miss­ing Latin home­work, rather than keen to cre­ate great art.

We strode away from Broad Town over rolling hills to­wards the Hackpen horse, teth­ered on a slope be­low the an­cient track of the Ridge­way. First glimpsed from far away (where it looks its best), the horse changed shape and then dwin­dled and dis­ap­peared into the con­tours of the land as we got closer. Of­ten reach­ing the best place to see a horse is more im­por­tant than ar­riv­ing at the horse it­self. Mar­ian pointed out a kestrel hov­er­ing high over­head like an avian drone, and we re­alised that it was see­ing the horse as the artist ac­tu­ally con­ceived it. From a bri­dle path that took us up to the Ridge­way we saw a herd of ac­tual horses can­ter­ing across a field pro­vid­ing un­fair com­par­i­son with the awk­ward, im­mo­bile chalk horse above them.

We can­tered down the grassy track of Green Street and into Ave­bury, pass­ing an­cient trees hung with tal­is­mans, rib­bons and amulets. Walk­ing amidst the cir­cles of Ne­olithic stones had the ef­fect of mak­ing the white horses seem as con­tem­po­rary as Pin­ter­est im­ages. Foot­paths amidst stand­ing stones and long bar­rows led to Cher­hill Hill. From a lay-by on the A3 the Cher­hill horse, one of the most sat­is­fy­ing of the eight, came into view, along with a hori­zon-pierc­ing obelisk. The re­al­is­tic shape and per­spec­tive of this horse was down to Dr Christo­pher Al­sop, un­fairly dubbed the ‘mad doc­tor,’ who shouted in­struc­tions through a mega­phone from his, and our, cho­sen viewpoint, to the men peg­ging out the out­line high above.

“Dur­ing WWII the horse had been cov­ered up, as all of them were, to avoid help­ing en­emy air­craft nav­i­gate.”

Dur­ing the Se­cond World War the horse had been cov­ered up, as all of them were, to avoid help­ing en­emy air­craft nav­i­gate. More re­cently pranksters turned the horse into a ze­bra. An­other time jok­ers… er… how will I put this... well, both defini­tively con­firmed and en­hanced the an­i­mal’s gen­der.

We spent the evening with beers and plates of proper walk­ing food, and camped in Honeystreet ready to ride out the next day and lasso a cou­ple more horses to bring our count up to five. In the early morn­ing, from a bridge over the Ken­net and Avon canal, we could see the out­line of the Al­ton Barnes horse to the north. Its blue­print was sketched from this same canal viewpoint and so we saw a rather perky an­i­mal trotting along be­low Walk­ers Hill, just as the artist had en­vi­sioned it.

Our trot was pretty perky, too, as we fol­lowed the tow­path east. Nar­row­boats chugged past. A king­fisher ar­rowed by. Mar­ian kept div­ing into the hedgerow to for­age for flow­ers and fruit, reap­pear­ing with dog roses and crab apples. The White Horse Trail way­mark­ers led us down farm lanes, into woods and then climbed up onto airy down lands with long vis­tas in all di­rec­tions. It was a route we were un­likely to have taken if there hadn’t been a chalk horse at the end of it.

The Pewsey white horse was dug in 1937 to com­mem­o­rate the corona­tion of Ge­orge VI, and af­ter the De­vizes Mil­len­nium horse is the se­cond youngest of the octet. It is a lanky an­i­mal with more of a dog’s than an equine’s head and with an enor­mous grassy cir­cle for an eye. Ar­guably more at­trac­tive was the straight green lane that ran from the horse’s hooves to Pewsey, and to a bus back to Honeystreet.

For most peo­ple the Wiltshire White Horses are sin­gle beasts fleet­ingly glimpsed in the dis­tance from a car win­dow. But we’d dis­cov­ered a whole land­scape that we wouldn’t have ex­pe­ri­enced if not walk­ing to join up the nags that an en­gag­ing bunch of ec­centrics once hacked into the hill­sides of this green and pleas­ant land.

u HACKPEN Like many of the Wiltshire horses, the Hackpen filly was de­signed to look best when seen from above – which is cu­ri­ous, when you con­sider it was cut in 1838 be­fore the dawn of avi­a­tion…

 NO HUR­DLES The dis­tinc­tive way­mark­ers of the White Horse Trail lead you from one hill­side etch­ing to the next.

 BROAD TOWN This one was orig­i­nally much smaller but has grown with years of en­large­ment.

AL­TON BARNES Con­ceived in 1812 by Robert Pile of nearby Manor Farm, the horse was de­signed by a jour­ney­man artist known as John the Pain­ter.  PEWSEY The se­cond youngest of the Wiltshire horses, the Pewsey beast has a grassy clump for an eye.

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