Monday, 25 March 2019

The Uffington White Horse

This hill figure is carved into the chalk downlands on the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border, near the Uffington Hill Fort and Wayland's Smithy, overlooking the Vale of the White Horse. It is the oldest hill figure in Britain, dating to around 1000BC, the mid-Bronze Age, and was possibly created by the people of Uffington Hill Fort.

It is formed of trenches, originally around a metre deep. Chalk figures are rapidly obscured by grass and erosion, and the figure was scoured clean every seven years as part of a local fair. This was first documented in 1736 and continued until the late 19th century. It is now maintained by English Heritage.

The horse is very different to other British hill figures, and there is debate as to whether it even represents a horse. It resembles horses depicted on Iron Age coins, which has led to suggestions that it represents a Celtic horse-goddess such as Epona or Rhiannon. Horses were important in Iron Age Britain, and likely that reverence and the Goddesses linked to it originate in an earlier Bronze Age culture.

The figure is intended to be visible. Approaching from the north, it can be seen for miles across the flat vale and the hill itself commands all-round views for several miles. Standing beside the figure, which crowns the top of a punishingly steep valley, the focus seems to sweep down the slope and across the distant vale. It seems to reflect dominance and control of this vast area of the land, both territorially and magically.

The steep valley known as The Manger, above which the horse stands and where legend says it grazes at night.

The figure has been referred to as a horse since at least the 11th century, but some say it represents a dragon, associating it with ley lines or the earth-spirit which does feel especially strong on this part of the hillside. Its positioning, so it seems to be ‘flying’ up the hillside, perhaps supports this.

Intriguingly, a small hill a short distance from the horse is known as Dragon Hill, and according to legend is the hill where St George killed his dragon. The white patch of chalk where no vegetation grows was where the dragon’s blood flowed.

St George is a medieval addition to British legend, but the legend may have an historical basis. Archaeologists have found evidence of large-scale burning on the artificially flattened hill, perhaps from huge cremation pyres, and those fires may have survived in later legend as the fire of a dragon.

View from Dragon Hill. The topology of the surrounding hillside draws all focus straight back towards the horse.

A local legend states that the horse goes to Wayland’s Smithy every hundred years to be reshod. In 1920, an unknown man, dressed in old-fashioned clothes and a smith’s leather apron, limped into a local pub and ordered a pint. The locals heard a horn echoing through the night and the stranger leapt up and hurried out. They looked up at the hill; the horse was gone. The next day, the horse was back in its place, its hooves shining brightly in the morning sun. Some time next year, this will presumably happen again.

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