I don’t remember the first time I saw the mysterious chalk creature leaping across the downland turf at Uffington, but I was a kid, and probably under the inevitable ‘horse-love’ spell of girls of a certain age. But along with the more prosaic, and very recent, white lion etched into Dunstable Downs not far from my childhood home of St Albans, and the puzzling and spindly Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex with his parallel poles, these pictures scraped out of the chalky soil were familiar and welcome landmarks we saw on the way to the zoo or from a train going to my grandparents. They were greeted cheerily as it meant we were ‘almost there’; I didn’t get to see the Cerne Abbas Giant until I was an adult – not sure what kind of salutation he would have been given!
The 3,000 year old Uffington Horse, arrested mid gallop and placed with some visual awkwardness near the top of its hillside home is a familiar and iconic image, and representative of various ‘mystical pasts‘ – a Celtic horse goddess, a dragon not a horse, a sun god etc – whatever the explanation for its existence I’ve always enjoyed it’s dynamic form. The most recent glimpse I’d had was from the London to Bristol train, a journey I rarely take but on my last trip, oblivious to the route with my head in a book, some reflex made me raise my head just in time to see the figure, as if it was hailing me from across the vale that’s named after it. But, I’ve never been close to it and after reading a post about Uffington on Landscapism it felt as though a visit was due. So, on a recent and tediously regular M4 journey we decided to take a detour to see the chalky beast, and the experience was quite a surprise.
The road to White Horse Hill is single-track with steep dips and rises and the surroundings are short grass or bare fields – it feels like being in Eric Ravillious’s painting, driving back in time, a sensation reinforced by passing a tweed-clad, gun-bearing, gaiter-wearing hunting group (complete with seven-year-old miniature versions), waiting to cross the road in pursuit of hapless wildlife. Lots of living horses animated the landscape too, galloping up the creamy, flinted hills, becoming invisible in a sparse beech hanger cresting the hill, then re-emerging again on the skyline. Such strange terrain – the steep-sided hills look sculpted, scraped, moulded, but although new vistas of the Downs emerge as you round yet another bend, the anticipated view of The Horse doesn’t materialise.
You’re being firmly directed to the discreet car-park but once you’re out and up the steps onto the footpath you do at last get a sight of this Bronze Age enigma across the fields, but it’s not that revealing. It was a bone-achingly, eye-wateringly cold day to be walking on such an exposed escarpment, past sheep and under red kites and crows riding the chill wind, but breathtaking, in every sense. The brilliance of the day made the world pin-sharp from this high point on the Downs; you could see a thousand fields clearly defined by miles of hedgerows; pick out a train on the London to Bristol Railway railway line and count the blades on the wind turbines half a dozen miles away. Closer were the rippled flanks of the Manger Hill strikingly picked out in light and shadow, and the steps cut into the nearby flat-topped Dragon Hill showed clearly – the bare patch on the top is where the spilt blood of the dragon slain by St George parched the ground and nothing will ever grow there.
The White Horse itself was now laid out below us on the steep, steep hillside, and though the large scale of the figure was evident, some of the lines were concealed by undulations and tussocks, converting what was visible of the chalk marks into some glyph-like scrawl. The strangely beaked head and eye were nearest to us, immense stark calligraphy of white gashes in the green grass, and combined with the oblique views and fluid abstraction of the fragmented body stretching down the flanks of the hill made for an oddly thrilling sight. It’s curious that the best way to see the White Horse in full, and admire it’s equine grace, is from the air; I’m sure there are those who believe the original creators had winged horses or UFOs from which to direct the turf cutting….But for us, on this dazzling day, the figure remained tantalisingly indecipherable – perhaps it’s good not to have the mystery unravelled too far.