Hill Figures of Britain

Hill figures are large designs or motifs created by cutting into a steep hillside to reveal the underlying geology. They are a type of geoglyph, and are intended to be seen from some distance away. There are many such figures in Britain, England in particular, although they can also be found in other parts of the world. They include human and animal forms, especially horses, as well as more abstract symbols, and nowadays, even advertising brands. There are sixteen known white horses in the UK (seventeen if the painted one on Cleadon Hill is included). Many hill figures date from around the 17th and 18th centuries, and some from much more recently. My favourite and the oldest by far, is the famous Uffington White Horse, included amongst those shown here:

The geology of England, particularly in the south with its rolling chalk hills (downs) makes it very suited to the creation of these figures – which are often just called ‘Chalk Figures’. The county of Wiltshire is especially well known for these figures.

There are three main methods of creating them, the first being one used in areas where the soil is thin. It involves stripping away the the turf and soil so that the underlying white chalk stands out clearly. This is a quick method, but one that needs regular maintenance if it is not to become overgrown and disappear from view.

A second method is known as the trenching method, used in areas where the chalk is not near the surface. It involves digging trenches down to the rock along the figure’s outline and filling them in with rock brought from elsewhere. This is a far more permanent method and allows traces of the figure/design to remain visible even when it becomes overgrown. The Uffington White Horse was created by this method.

A third method, known as the covering method, involves laying rocks along outlines cut into the turf, and is generally used in areas where there is either no underlying chalk, or no tools are available for cutting down to it.

The Fovant Regimental Badges, on a chalk hill in south-west Wiltshire, are examples of the covering method. They were created by soldiers garrisoned nearby waiting to go out to France during WW1. The first was made in 1916, although many of the original carvings failed to survive the elements and by the end of WW1 there were 20 identifiable badges. During World War II, they were left to become overgrown so they couldn’t be used as landmarks by enemy aircraft, but once war ended the local Home Guard formed themselves into an Old Comrades Association and began the task of restoration. I believe only twelve remain today.

I’ll say a word here about the painted horse at Cleadon, up in North-East England. This is quite different to the hill figures of further south, being a small figure of a white horse, two metres tall and three metres long, painted on a low cliff on the hill. Interestingly, it is one of only four ‘horses’ in the UK that face to the right.

the_7th_october_2012_repaint_of_cleadon_white_horse-jpeg

The Cleadon White Horse, repainted, located in South Tyneside, North East England. Author: S. Whitelaw Creative Commons

Today it is very defaced by graffiti. It’s thought to have appeared in the 1840s and there are at least six possible reasons for its creation. I won’t go into these, but I’ll add a link HERE to a site with a photo of it in its graffitied state and a little bit about it so you can have a quick look at it if you’ve time.

The reasons for the creation of hill figures are still obscure, but the practice dates back to prehistoric times. They could have simply been created for artistic reasons, or as representations of particular gods. They may even been symbols of the nearby tribe and act as a warning to other tribes to keep out of their territory – as the Uffington White Horse.

uffington-white-horse-sat

Uffington White Horse. Satellite image from USGS Creative Commons

Stylised in shape, this is the oldest hill figure in Britain, now believed to be 3000 years old. It is also the second largest figure measuring 360 feet /110m by 126 feet/38.5m. It is located in Oxfordshre (formerly Berkshire) about a mile and a half from the village of Uffington, the village associated with the famous 19th century novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, written by Thomas Hughes. The figure is believed to have held political significance as it sits high on the Berkshire Downs escarpment, dominating the valley below – aptly called the Vale of White Horse.

It is thought there were many white horses at the time of the Celts, but time and the ever invasive grass and weeds have caused many to disappear from view. As I mentioned above, there are sixteen known white horses in the UK today. White horses were considered to be lucky by the Celts, as were horseshoes. Some historians believe the Uffington Horse figure represents the goddess Epona, protector of horses, who was connected with the local Celtic tribe, the Atrebates. An alternative theory suggests it is not a horse at all but the mythical dragon slain by Saint George. A mound at the foot of White Horse Hill is known as Dragon Hill.

st-georges-mount

Dragon Hill

My second favourite hill figure is the Cerne Abbas Giant – also known as ‘The Rude Man’ or ‘The Rude Giant’ – and is one to make little old ladies blush and everyone else just giggle. He can be found at the village of Cerne Abbas near Dorchester in Dorset and we dropped by to say ‘hello’ to him four years ago. This is our picture of the figure as in can be seen from the road. It doesn’t show the complete outline too well, so I’ll add an image from Wikipedia:cerne-abbas-giant-dorset

cerne-abbas-giant-2001-cropped

Cerne Abbas Giant at Cerne Abbas, Dorset, Author: PeteHarlow. Creative Commons

The Cerne Abbas Giant is 180 feet/55 m high and 167 feet/51 m wide, making him the largest human chalk figure in Britain. The club in his right hand is 120 feet in length. The figure was created by a turf-cut outline being filled with chalk. It was once thought to have been Celtic in origin, some sources claiming he was identified as Hercules during Roman times. But the figure’s actual history can’t be traced back further than the late 17th century, making that claim difficult to prove. It is not mentioned in writings before 1694, and it has been suggested the figure is an offensive representation of Oliver Cromwell.

It isn’t known how many hill figures have disappeared over the years, and many at present are in danger of becoming ‘lost’. Grass gradually encroaches and the figures need constant maintenance to keep them visible. Many figure undergo organised restoration every few years. I believe it’s every seven years for the Uffington White Horse.

**

References:

Historic UK

Wikipedia – (general site on hill figures)

Various Wikipedia sites for different hill figures

The Chesterfield Pagans

Chalk Figures of England

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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38 Responses to Hill Figures of Britain

  1. Fred Rock says:

    That’s really cool, I had no idea.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Fred. I like these figures a lot, particularly as we lived at the foot of the Berkshire Downs for six years in the ’70s. The Uffington White Horse almost became like a neighbour! 🙂

  2. I’ve never heard of this before they are beautiful.

  3. Very interesting! I’ve never read about these before, but now I’d really like to see them in person someday.

    • milliethom says:

      I suppose they’re a very English thing, so I imagine most people outside of the UK wouldn’t have heard of them. Having said that, there are others around the world, although not all on chalk hillsides. (I believe the Nazca Lines are something similar to these hill figures.) There’s such a concentration of them on chalk downland in southern England. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

  4. Joy Pixley says:

    The Huffington horse is my favorite too. Even if I didn’t know it was the oldest ( which you know is a draw for me) I find the stylized design most appealing. How odd to imagine what the original creators would have thought about which ones survived and which gave been lost over time.

    • milliethom says:

      The Uffington Horse is my favourite because it’s in King Alfred’s Wessex (my hero!) and it gets a mention in my second book. But it’s also because we once lived on its doorstep for six years. I agree with your attraction to stylised designs. It is a great pity that so many have been lost. A few have been discovered, barely visible, and been restored. Others have a strange history of ‘being worked over’ – meaning that new shapes have been created over the existing ones. It’s funny what our ancestors did! The Uffington Horse has survived so well because of the method of its creation (trenching method). Thank goodness for that. Thanks again, Joy.

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I’d never even thought about the various methods for trenching, that was really interesting to learn, too. I’m so glad the Uffington Horse was the durable kind, although who knows how many other even more beautiful ones have been lost!

      • Another form of Pentimento. How interesting.

      • milliethom says:

        Yes, that’s what it appears. I think the style of horse created changed to suit the ‘fashion’ of the times. The Uffington horse is the only stylised one and doesn’t seem to have changed shape over the centuries.

    • milliethom says:

      Hi Dinata. The Cerne Abbas Giant is excellent and never fails to have people laughing. It’s probably more well known than the Uffington Horse, too, simply because it’s impressively funny. As I said in the post, it was once thought to be Celtic, and the design would suggest that, too, but records can’t be found of it that far back. I’ve no idea whether or not they can scientifically test this one, as they did with the Uffington Horse, to prove it was 3000 years old. In the case of the Horse, I believe they could date-test the rock under the rubble in the trenches. But the Giant is ‘turf cut’ and they may not be able test it the same way. I’ll have to ‘have a read’ about it when I get a spare moment. Thanks for visiting!

  5. arv! says:

    Wow! Quite interesting actually. we don’t have such a thing here in Jaipur!

    • milliethom says:

      Ah, but in Jaipur you have other amazing things that we don’t have in England – like fabulous, marble temples. And that’s just for starters! All countries have their own ‘wonders’ and I love finding out about them all. Thank you, Arv.

  6. anroworld says:

    Absolutely fantastic, dear Millie, I have never seen anything like that before!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Ann. The figures are very impressive, especially after periods of regular maintenance, when the chalk has been cleaned or fresh chalk laid along the lines. The white figures really show up against the green hillsides, then. 🙂

  7. draliman says:

    Very interesting! I recognise the rude one 🙂

  8. Hi!
    I run the website for cerne abbas (cernevalley-dot-co-dot-uk). We’d love to put a link to your article on our website if that is ok with you?
    Regarding the scientific dating of the Cerne Giant – that is a very interesting idea (to date the rocks below). The Giant is managed by the National Trust so it may be worth checking with them?
    Feel free to follow us @TheCerneValley on Twitter 🙂

    Best wishes,

    Geoff

  9. milliethom says:

    Hi Geoff! Thank you for visiting my post – it was a pleasant surprise. I’m fascinated by the Cerne Giant and would be pleased to discover it’s actually older than available records show. The design is so Celtic, for a start. On the other hand, it could just be, as has been suggested, a parody of Cromwell. I have to admit, one source of reference did say the Giant was created by the trenching method, whereas several others called it a ‘turf cut’, so I went for that one. I think a question or two to the NT would be a good idea. My husband and I are both members, so I’ll go ahead and do that. I’d also be delighted to have you link to my post! All the hill figures of England are quite remarkable but the Cerne Giant and the Uffington White Horse always intrigue me the most. 🙂

  10. Fantastic – please let me know what you find out from the NT!

  11. so very interesting and you give a wonderful history though the figures are not so old as the old stones!! You must do a post on crop circles if you haven’t before! These remind me of the Nazca lines in Peru which are very mysterious and possibly as old as 500 BCE..

  12. inesephoto says:

    Magnificent! Uffington White Horse is my favorite too – it looks ancient. The Rude Man does look offensive, and his club looks very unusual. Would be very interesting to learn his story. The hills and the valleys are breathtaking – gorgeous photographs and really delightful post!

  13. irinadim says:

    Most interesting, Millie. I’ve seen photos of some hill figures but never knew their history and how they were made. To think that the Uffington White Horse has endured for 3,000 years is amazing. I find The Fovant Regimental Badges very moving and The Rude Man is hilarious. Thank you for this wonderful post. 🙂

  14. Every time I visit you, I learn so many interesting things, and not just about Great Britain. I think I would like to visit England again just to go on a quest for these wonderful pieces of natural art. Thanks, Millie and I hope all is well with the writing.

    • milliethom says:

      Hi, Clare. Sorry for the late reply but we were in Iceland last week and I only had my Kindle with me – which I really can’t type on! The hill figures are interesting, but the only two I really find fascinating are the Uffington White Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant. Needless to say, my writing isn’t doing too well at the moment but I’ll have to make a concerted effort with it now I’m home. Goodness knows when my book will get finished at this rate. I hope yours is doing much better! Thanks for visiting, Clare. I’ll hop over to your site very soon.

      • Millie, I’m planning to have a launch in the spring of 2017. But my little mystery book is nowhere near the complexity of your historically- based trilogy. I have no good excuse for the procrastination except that I am enjoying the Fall and am not spending much time in front of my computer.
        And you are continuing to travel. I hope to read more about the wonderful places you visit very soon. I have been remiss with reading other blogs this month, but with the winter ahead, I will certainly cuddle up with a hot cup of tea and catch up on my visits. Take care, Millie – your friend, Clare

  15. Christy B says:

    Wow!! I had not heard of hill figures before… This is all new to me. Wonderful, Millie!!

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, Christy. I’m in Iceland this week and haven’t been on my blog until today (Thursday). I’ve just popped over to your site and read your interview. Well done! You’ve given some excellent advice to writers.

  16. Norma says:

    I had seen the images of Uffington White Horse on google and had no idea what they were called. Thanks to you, Millie, I now not only know what they are called but also its history. 🙂
    People of olden times knew how to create art, especially with so less tools available to them.

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, creativity is nothing new. It’s just geared to the ideas and beliefs of the time – and the availability of the necessary tools, as you say. The Uffington White Horse is an incredible thing. Standing right next to it, it looks huge. I took a few photos up there on the ridge and all I could fit into one photo was its head! The only way to get a good photo is from a helicopter, or suchlike. Unfortunately I can’t afford one! Lol

      • Norma says:

        Haha! At least you got a shot at its head – as a souvenir. 😉
        I can only imagine how big it would be. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the post Millie and I’m sure you too would have enjoyed your time there. 🙂

  17. That’s a fascinating and excellent piece. I love the Uffingon White Horse and, of course, the Cerne Abbas Giant always raises a smile, so to speak. I didn’t realise we had so many…and I’ve often wondered whether they had anything in common with the Nazca Lines in Peru.

  18. DG MARYOGA says:

    Interesting read,captivating narration and phenomenal images,dear Millie!Best wishes to you from a WP outsider,at the moment …
    PS:Trying hard to empty my inundated email inbox,I selectively visit the posts of some very special friends like you 🙂

  19. milliethom says:

    Hello, Doda. Thank you so much for the surprise visit! I knew you hadn’t been on your blog for some time – but my own blogging pattern at the moment is very sporadic, to say the least. Life has a way of inhibiting blogging at times, and for me, this is one of those times. 😦
    I really appreciate your visit and kind words and hope you are enjoying life to the full in your wonderful Greek sunshine. (Your wonderful ‘postcards’ on Twitter were a delight.) ❤

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