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