The Wiltshire White Horses

Wiltshire has many of the famed white horses, mainly in southern England, which is well suited because of its geological structure; the hills are solid chalk beneath a thin layer of topsoil.

The art of carving white horses is known as leucippotomy, a term coined “half-humorously” by Morris Marples in 1949, although it does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

There are 17 white horses across Britain, eight of which are in Wiltshire, six others existed at one time around the county but these have been lost through lack of upkeep, as they need to be continually re-cut and cleaned. With the exception of the modern Devizes white horse, the remainder in Wiltshire all face to the left.

Folklore would have it that real white horses predicted the future husband of an unmarried girl. She would have to count how many white horses she could see and the first man she saw after the 100th white horse she would one day marry.

Wiltshire White Horses

Wiltshire White Horses

Cherhill White Horse

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Our local white horse originally measured 40m wide x 45m high and is situated on the steep north-western slope of Cherhill down, just below an Iron Age hillfort known as Oldbury Camp, and the 38m high Lansdowne Monument erected in 1845. It is the third oldest white horse in the country, after Uffington (1st millennium BC) and Westbury (re-cut in 1778 but possibly much older), and was cut in 1780 at the expense of Dr Christopher Alsop. Apparently, he first marked out the horse with small stakes bearing white flags and then used a large speaking-trumpet to shout instructions from the bottom of the hill to his workmen who would adjust the stakes this way and that until he was satisfied; his eccentricities earned him the nickname ‘the mad doctor’. The turf was then cut out and the hollow filled with chalk, almost to the surrounding surface level and the inner circle of the eye was filled with upturned bottles to sparkle in sunlight; these have long since disappeared. Even the replacement bottles put in place by children on a youth project in the 1970s suffered the same fate and so the eye is now a mixture of chalk and concrete. The style of the horse is likely to have been influenced by the work Alsop’s friend, the well known artist George Stubbs, famous for his equestrian paintings.

The horse was floodlit in 1937 for the week of King George VI and the letters G & E were picked out in red lights above, all powered by a generator in the field below. It has also featured in music videos (Doctorin’ the Tardis by the Timelords) and famously in an advertising campaign for a motor car when it was part covered in black plastic.

The horse is periodically restored (in recent times, 1994, 2002 & 2013) to maintain its well defined features. It is best viewed from the A4 Calne to Marlborough road at Cherhill.

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Uffington White Horse

The Uffington White Horse is by far the oldest of the white horses and is very different in its appearance being made of a somewhat stylised sweeping curves and is roughly twice the length of the other white horses at 365 feet. The Uffington horse was always believed to have dated from the Iron Age but using the modern techique of Optical Stimulated Luminesence Dating it was established that it was created somewhere between 1200 BC and 800 BC making its origins in the Bronze Age .

It is found on an escarpment on the Berkshire Downs below White Horse Hill and close to the village of Uffington. Although originally in Berkshire, by virtue of the changes in the county boundaries in 1972 it is now in the county of Oxfordshire. It is not known the original intent behind the building of the white horse but the Celts in Gaul originally worshipped the Horse Goddess Epona. Her counterpart here was the Goddess Rhiannon and although only speculation it is thought that the white horse may have been carved by cult followerd of the horse Goddess. It is also speculated that the horse may have been cut by followers of the sun God Belinos, sometimes spelt Belenus, who was often depicted on horse back and depictions of the time the horse is now known to have been cut showed the sun Chariot being drawn by horses.

The horse is said to act as a whispering gallery and the author Ralph Whitlock recounts the following incident. In the 1950s, Mr Whitlock went with the owner of a Devizes firm engaged in repairing the horse with concrete to see the work taking place. They found the foreman giving directions from a shoulder of the hill a quarter of a mile or more from the horse, speaking in a normal voice. The face of the hill appeared to act as a whispering gallery, and his voice carried clearly to the workers at the site of the horse.

The Uffington white horse is rich in folklore and legends.

  • It is said to be a mare, and to have her invisible foal on the hill beside her. At night the horse and foal come down to eat at the slope below known as the Manger, and to drink at nearby Woolstone Wells, which were formed from a hoofprint from the horse.
  • It is also said that anyone who stands on the eye of the Uffington horse and turns around three times clockwise with their eyes closed whilst making a wish will have that wish come true. Because of the damage that was being caused to it, visitors are now requested not to walk on the horse .
  • Near to the Uffington horse is a flat-topped hill known as Dragon Hill, and the Uffington horse is sometimes said to represent a dragon, not a horse. There is a story that St George killed the dragon on Dragon Hill, and the patch of bare chalk on the flat summit is the spot where the dragon's blood fell.
  • Once every hundred years the Uffington horse gallops across the sky to be reshod by Wayland in his smithy. This is said to have last happened in around 1920, although eye witness accounts seem scarce!
  • There are many stories that King Arthur is not dead, but lies sleeping, and will one day awake when England is in peril. It is said locally that when Arthur awakes, the Uffington horse will rise up and dance on nearby Dragon Hill.

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Broad Town White Horse

Broad Town is about three miles south of Royal Wootton Bassett on the Marlborough road and the white horse is to be found on a steep hillside just to the north east of the village. According to a Reverend Plenderleath in 1885 it was cut by a Mr William Simmonds in 1864 who then owned the Little Town Farm on which it was dug. It has been documented that William Simmonds always intended to enlarge the horse over time but had to give up the farm and so never finished the task he had set himself. However The Curator of the Imperial War Museum claimed in a newspaper article that when he was a schoolboy had helped to scour the horse in 1863 and that he had been told at the time that it was about fifty years old at that time. If this were true then William Simmonds may not have cut the horse as was claimed but had scoured the horse instead in 1864.

The horse has been neglected through much of its history until the Broad Town White Horse Restoration Society was formed 1991 after a village appraisal to take charge of the management and restoration of the white horse.

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Hackpen White Horse

The Hackpen White Horse is near the Ridgerway on the edge of the Marlborough Downs on Hackpen Hill where the Royal Wootton Bassett to Marlborough road zig zags up the hill. Its origins are not well documented but it is believed to have been cut in 1838 by Mr Henry Eatwell, the parish clerk of Broad Hinton with the assistance of the local landlord of a pub in commemoration of the coronation of Queen Victoria. In 2000 Mr John Wain cleaned the horse on his own in readiness for flying Mr David Brewer over the area taking pictures of the white horse and the village oif Broad Hinton for the cover of his book on the area. Both John Wain and Bevan Hope single handedly cleaned the horse periodically until Feb 2011 when he formed a team to take on the challenge annually with the support of local farmers Jill and James Hussey.

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Rockley White Horse

The Rockley White Horse has proven to be a bit of an enigma as little is known of it prior to its discovery in 1948. A field on Rockley Down was being ploughed and the plough brought to the surface a lot of chalk in a pattern which could not be readily identified from the ground. Local farm workers and shepherds had long suspected that something was beneath the ground there from drought marks in the grass during the summers. After aerial photographs had been examined it was discovered that the chalk was from the backfilling of a previously unknown white horse. The plough had moved the chalk infill but was still recognizable as a horse. The horse was found near a footpath running along the edge of a beech plantation about four miles west of Marlborough. Who created it and why is still a mystery and with the land ploughed and the chalk long since dispersed across the area its origins will probably never really be known.

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Marlborough White Horse

The Marlborough White Horse is a smaller horse and is just to the west of the A345 from Marlborough to Pewsey on Granham Hill above the village of Preshute. The horse was first cut in 1804 by boys from a local boys school under the direction of Mr William Greasley of Greasley's Academy in the High Street which is now The Ivy House hotel. It was designed and laid out by a pupil William Canning who came from the manor house in Ogbourne St Gerorge. The horse was scoured annually by boys from the school until Mr Greasley's death in 1830. The horse fell into a state of neglect when the school closed after his death. Its fortunes were mixed until 1873 when a Captain Reed, one of the former boys of Mr Greasleys Academy who helped in its creation, had the horse scoured. The original design was simple with just two squat legs, during Captain Reed's restoration two further legs were added. Over the years it has changed in appearance from the more naturalistic form seen in photographs in the early twentieth century, but is now much leaner and more stylised.

It was restored in 2001 by the 2nd Marlborough Scout Group using materials supplied by Marlborough College, removing grasses and mosses growing on the horse and bushes and scrub growing on the hillside below. The horse was then re-chalked and now Marlborough College has assumed responsibility for its upkeep.

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Ham Hill White Horse

The Ham Hill horse, sometimes known as the Inkpen Hill horse, is one of those in Wiltshire which is now totally lost. It was just inside the border of Wiltshire on a steep slope on Hackpen Hill about five miles south of Hungerford.

It was originally cut by Mr Wright sometime between the late 1860s and 1877 being the dates when he bought Ham Spray House and when it first appeared on an Ordnance Survey map. It was created simply by removing the turf in the shape of the hoirse but with no chalk infilling. When the property changed hands the new owner had no interest in maintining it, so the horse was slowly claimed back by nature as the soil covered the horse over again. With no chalk infill to lay hidden under the soil there is nothing at all remaining to show where the white horse once was.

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The New Pewsey White Horse

The new Pewsey horse is on Pewsey Hill, size 20m by 14m just off the minor road from Pewsey to Everleigh not far from the site of the old Pewsey White Horse. In 1937 a committee had been formed to find a suitable way of commemorating the coronation of George VI. The idea had been put forward of creating a white horse and at that time George Marples, who was an authority on hill carvings, happened to be in the area researching the old white horse. He was approached by the committee and produced three designs, one of which was approved. All of his designs had the date of 1937 incorporated into them to establish its date of origin for all time. In April of that year George Marples, father of Morris Marples who is credited for the creation of the term 'Leuccippotomy', set out his design on the ground and in late April that year the horse was cut by volunteers from Pewsey Fire Brigade. Although the horse itself is well looked after, these days by the Pewsey 6X Club, the date has since been lost. The Horse looks out across the Pewsey Vale towards the white horse at Alton Barnes. The horse was recently renovated by the Pewsey Horse Restoration Group in 2004.

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The Old Pewsey White Horse

Pewsey has been blessed with a new White Horse since 1937 but had one which was much older of the minor road from Pewsey to Everleigh road very close to where the new white horse is now sited. The old horse was cut by Mr Robert Pile of Manor Farm, Alton Barnes although some reports say he just directed the work and not cut it himself in about 1785. The white horse at Alton Barnes followed about twenty five years later also cut by a Mr Robert Pile of the same address but this may have been his son. The Pewsey white horse was scoured four years later in 1789 but records show that this was probably the only time it was ever scoured as the landowner of the time objected to the festivities and revelry which accompanied it and refused to allow it again. It fell into disrepair through neglect and by the 1930s the chalk was no longer visible. The outline of the head and body were just about visible as a raised contour shown up by the early morning sun and tell-tale drought marks in the summer grass. Local tradition has it that the horse had a boy rider but there certainly appears to have been no rider visible in the 1800s when the chalk was still visible, so whether this is fact or legend is uncertain.

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Alton Barnes White Horse

The Alton Barnes horse is 50m square and is on the side of Milk Hill the ridge of which continues to Walker's Hill, about a mile from the village and looks out over to the nearby New Pewsey white horse and can ber reached today via footpaths from the Lockeridge road. It was commissioned by a Mr. Robert Pile from Manor Farm at Alton Barnes in 1812. A gentleman of the same name and address also commissioned the old Pewesey White Horse although no one seems certain whether this is the same man or they were father and son. Mr Pile paid the sum of £20 to a journeyman/painter, a Mr John Thorne, also known as 'Jack the Painter', to design, and then cut the turf to form the white horse. He, in turn, sub contracted the turf cutting work out to Mr John Harvey from Stanton St Bernard. Before the cutting was complete Thorne disappeared with the money and Robert Pile was forced to pay out again for the work. Thorne was hanged eventually for an unrecorded crime although records in Portsmouth say that a man of the same name also known as 'Jack the Painter', was hanged for 'arson in the dockyard' in 1776. Our John Thorne could have been a son or relative of the one hanged or one or other dates could have been recorded incorrectly. The horse has been regularly scoured throughout its history although on one scouring in 1866 a new chalk pit was dug just above the horse which spoiled its appearance for some years. In 2010, landowner Tim Carson, together with Alton Barnes parish council, commissioned a substantial renovation and had 150 tonnes of chalk flown in by helicopter and a team of volunteers carried out the work of scouring the horse and re laying the chalk. A tradition of lighting the white horses to mark special occasions has been longstanding and since the turn of the millenium it has been lit to mark the winter solstice most years. It was also lit on 30th June 2012 to mark its 200th anniversary. In the nearby village of Alton Priors stands a sarsen stone at the roadside and has a minature of the Alton Barnes white horse carved into it.

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Tan Hill White Horse

The Tan Hill white horse is no longer visible and until recently there were those who dismissed it as folklore. The only known reference to the white horse in print came relatively recently when Kathleen Wiltshire published her book "Wiltshire Folklore" in 1975. In it she refers to "a small 'donkey' is still partly visible on Tan Hill, though the legs have become quite overgrown. The shepherds call this 'Donkey Hill' and one told me he had 'eaten bread and cheese on its back scores o' times'. This pony or donkey is 75 feet from nose to tail, which stretches down much like that of the Uffington horse, and its head is very large." It is unclear whether it was actually a donkey or a horse but the supposition seems to be derived from the size of its head although hill figures are not generally noted for there scale and proportion not their anatomical accuracy. In her book she notes "between Tan Hill and Rybury Camp stands a miniature stone circle of nine upright sarsen stones about four feet in height, in the centre of which lies a prostrate stone, about the length of a man. A pathway leads up to the 'donkey' from the circle." But until 2002 no trace of either the stone circle or the 'Donkey' had been found. The reference to the stone circle being between Tan Hill and Rybury camp has proven to be incorrect ( http://www.wiltshirewhitehorses.org.uk ). The circle can be found in the mouth of a combe on the western side of Tan Hill instead and although the path still runs up from the stone circle to the site of the 'horse' there is nothing now visible of the horse itself. It seems that the horse was cut and maintained by visitors to the Tan Hill Fair, a sheep fair and accompanying entertainments held in August since the fifteenth century or before but ceased in 1932. If this is true then it is little wonder that the horse was difficult to see in 1975 and gone completely now.

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The New Devizes White Horse

This is the most recent of all the Wiltshire white horses and was cut in 1999 by around 200 volunteers to mark the millenium, to the north of Devizes on Roundway Hill. The plan of the Old Devizes Horse was drawn in 1954 when pupils at Devizes Grammar school did a research project on it. One of the pupils, Peter Greed, drew up plans at that time but nothing further came of it then. However in 1998 Sarah Padwick, being a new resident of Devizes wrote to The Gazette & Herald with the suggestion that a new horse be cut into the chalk to celebrate the millennium. A local farmer, Chris Combe, a tenant of Crown Estates offered land at the top of Roundway Hill which was agreed to by the Crown and with one minor adjustment to Peter Greed's plan which had faced left like all other Wiltshire white horses the design was amended to become the first Wiltshire white horse to face right. Work on the new white horse for Devizes began in August 1999 with 200 volunteers plus various bits of heavy plant and in September of that year Devizes had a new White Horse. The horse is visible from Hopton Industrial Estate off the A361 heading north from Devizes.

The horse fell into disrepair until, in September 2008 it was barely visible. The Devizes Millennium White Horse Committee were looking for funding for the repair of the horse when the Probation Service - Community Service Group offered their help and thoroughly cleaned the horse. They have been taking care of maintenance of the horse ever since. The committee recieved a grant to put edging in and install a mobility gate on the dissolution of Kennet District Council.

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The Old Devizes White Horse

Devizes does have a new and quite modern white horse cut to commemorate the millenium but it once was able to boast of a much older white horse which is no longer visible. The old horse was about a mile further west of the site of the new one below Olivers Castle. It was positioned well on the side of a steep slope visible for miles around.

The Old Devizes horse was cut on the Whitsun of 1845 by the local shoemakers. The local dialect word for a shoemaker is 'Snob' and so this horse was known as 'Snobs Horse'.

The horse was quickly neglected and the turf began to encroach slowly covering it until by the end of the 19th century it had disappeared altogether. In certain light and weather conditions during the 20th century the horse was said to have been visible to those who would but look. Despite several proposals to restore the horse, none of them came to anything, until in 1999 the new Devizes horse was cut.

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Westbury White Horse

The Westbury White Horse is a little older than our own Cherhill White Horse making it the oldest one in Wiltshire still visible. It is in a fine position on Westbury Hill on the edge of the nearby Bratton Downs and immediately below the Iron Age hillfort, Bratton Camp. There is a car park below the horse with a view point to see the horse and also a car park above the horse on Westbury Hill.

The earliest known reference to a Westbury horse is thought to be in "Further Observations on the White Horse and other Antiquities in Berkshire" by the Reverend Wise, published in 1742. In it he refers to the Westbury White Horse and that he had been told by local folk that it had been first cut within the living memory or at least those that had only recently passed on. This would have put a date on its construction of perhaps the mid to late 1600s. The horse of that time was different in design to the one we see today and was perhaps Saxon in appearance. There being no earlier reference to the horse than the one of the Reverend Wise it leaves it possible that the one he speaks of is a mock early medeival design or folly of the time.

The steward to Lord Abingdon, Mr George Gee, had the horse re-cut in 1778 to a new design which was much close to the one we see today. However over the next hundred years, in subsequent maintenance, the horse had deviated somewhat from its original design and was restored to its more recent layout by a committee set up for that purpose. Edging stones were installed at that time to keep the turf from encroaching and the chalk from being washed away. In the earlier part of the twentieth century concrete was added to support the edging stones so the shape of that restoration is largely what we see today. During the late fifties the horse was completely concreted in, making it a permanent structure and the concreting was repeated again in 1995. At some point in the ensuing years the concrete was painted white and is still so today.

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