Great Britain is full of horses, all types of them.
From Clydesdales to Shetland Ponies and everything in between. They are horse mad on this side of the world. And I say “this side” because I am here, travelling about the UK in search of horse-related things and castles.
Branching away from real horses I went in search of depictions instead and what better place to start than the Wiltshire chalk horses. There are nine in total in County Wiltshire, but only seven are visible, though some say eight.
The white hill horse on Westbury White Horse is the most well-known of the herd. It is easily spotted from the road, which is a bit dangerous since everyone here, with the exception of myself from time to time, drives on the left side. The county was clever and put in a few little parking spots so inept drivers, such as myself, can pull over and look skyward to behold the magnificent steed.
This enormous gray is 108 feet long and 182 feet high and is one of the few with a long tail. The message board said flowing tail, but it doesn’t appear to be flowing to me, just long.
If you want a closer look you can drive up a steep narrow road following signs to Bratton Camp, where at the top a large parking lot awaits. From there you can walk to the horse and peer perilously at it from above and, if you are so inclined, touch the top of its ear.
Above the Westbury horse is an Iron Age hillfort known as Bratton Camp and if you climb to the top of that, you may, on a clear day, see two other white horse figures at Cherhill and Alton Barnes.
While these equines are considered chalk horses the Westbury White Horse was (dismayingly) cemented over in the 1950s in order to keep the vegetation at bay and preserve our equine friend with minimal upkeep.
There was a time, however, during WWII, when the horse was intentionally covered with brush and turf to avoid enemy aircraft using it as a landmark. They are that big.
The reason county Wilshire is home to so many of the white figures is due to the vast expanse of chalk downs and their steep even hillsides. The place lends itself to the art of turf cutting or what Morris Marples, a 20th century author called leucippotomy.
Leucippotomy is a weird and not an overly popular word. The prefix leuc means white and stems from the Greek leukos. Think leucocytes, aka white blood cells. The suffix (o)tomy means to cut and is derived from the Greek tomia, such as lobotomy. Finally, the middle part of the word, ippo relates to horses and comes from the Greek hippo, meaning horse, such as hippopotamus, which translates into river horse.
There are 17 chalk horses in the UK, the oldest of these is the 360-foot-long Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire (featured above), which dates to the bronze age. Most, such as the one in Westbury, are around 300 years old.
Only one chalk horse has a rider and that is the Osmington Hill Horse in Dorset.
This figure was created to commemorate King George III, who was a frequent visitor to the region. However, the King, who apparently had some self-esteem issues, took umbrage at the figure because it looked to him as though it was heading out of town and the King thought the villagers were suggesting he leave and never come back. “I said good day!”
As an aside, the carving of gigantic human figures into the land is appropriately called gigantotomy.
Maintaining these chalk figures is a labor of love and various trusts and local groups have taken on the responsibility of clearing away any vegetation that dare try to obscure a depiction thus keeping them clean and white.
There are nearly 50 hill figures in the UK coming in a wide range of forms. There are crosses, regimental badges, territorial markers, men with large sticks and an array of animals. All equally fascinating.
The ancient trend of creating enormous chalk horses, however, remains a mystery.