7

of England's Most Fascinating Hill Figures

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Carved like scar tissue into the rolling hills of rural England is a collection of more than 50 majestic, somewhat curious geoglyphs. These giant hill figures are the result of meticulously digging into the vegetation to expose the underlying rock, which in most cases is chalk. Some of these hillside drawings hark back to a time of pagan rituals, some honor former kings, and others commemorate troops during the World Wars. Horse figures often take center stage — there are currently 16 spread across the country — but there are also humanlike images, exotic animals, crosses, and military badges etched into the landscape. Explore seven of England’s most intriguing chalk figures and the stories behind them.

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Uffington White Horse (Uffington, Oxfordshire)

An aerial panoramic view of a white horse made out of chalk on Oxfordshire.
Credit: Dave Price/ Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Appearing as if galloping across an emerald-green hillside, the Uffington White Horse is the oldest of England’s remaining chalk figures. Historians once believed that the horse was created in Anglo-Saxon times, either by King Alfred or Hengist, King of Kent. According to local legend, the horse is associated with King Arthur and will rise on the day that the sleeping king wakes to lead the nation into battle. There’s an alternate story that the horse is actually a dragon and connected to the legend of St. George. However, scientific tests on the soil confirmed that the origins of the Uffington White Horse date back approximately 3,000 years to the Bronze Age.

Measuring 360 feet long, the horse displays an abstract design and bears similarities to the horses depicted on Celtic coins. It was covered with grass during World War II to prevent Luftwaffe pilots from using it as a navigation tool. But today the figure is clearly visible and is maintained by the National Trust heritage conservation charity. It forms part of a complex of ancient natural and human-made landmarks. Crowning the hilltop is Uffington Castle, an Iron Age fort once inhabited by a Celtic tribe.

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Westbury White Horse, Westbury, Wiltshire

The Westbury White Horse on the hill of Wiltshire.
Credit: Grandrouge/ Shutterstock

The lowlands and rolling rural pastures of Wiltshire, a county in South West England, are ground zero for equestrian chalk figures. There were once as many as 13 of them dotted across the region’s picturesque countryside, but only eight remain. The most famous is the Westbury White Horse. Nobody knows for certain how old this geoglyph is, but historians estimate it to be over 300 years old. The earliest recorded mention is in a book about antiquaries written in 1742. Common belief is that the horse commemorates the Battle of Ethandun, which took place in 878 at Bratton Camp — an Iron Age fort set above the 180-foot-tall and 170-foot-wide horse.

The Westbury White Horse and Bratton Camp are also unusual in that they afford views of two other Wiltshire chalk horses: On clear days the Alton Barnes White Horse and Devizes White Horse are visible across patchwork fields to the northwest.

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Osmington White Horse, Weymouth, Dorset

View of the ancient white horse on the hill of Osmington.
Credit: SusaZoom/ Shutterstock

The Osmington White Horse holds the distinction of being the only horse geoglyph in Britain that depicts a rider. King George III, who was a frequent visitor to the nearby seaside resort of Weymouth, sits atop a 280-foot-long portrayal of his favorite horse, Adonis. Carved out of limestone — which gives the figure its grayish, off-white color — the horse figure was created in 1808 near the end of the king’s reign. Legend has it that the king was so offended at being depicted as trotting away from Weymouth that he never returned to the town. It’s more likely, however, that his ill health and confinement at Windsor Castle were the reasons for his absence.

Situated on Osmington Hill and just off the scenic South West Coast Path walking route, the landmark affords sweeping views of England’s Jurassic Coast — a UNESCO World Heritage site that was named for its outstanding collection of fossils, rocks, and landforms. Restoration work on the Osmington White Horse took place in 1989 and again in 2012 to maintain the appearance of the king and his steed. The latter restoration coincided with the 2012 London Summer Games and the king’s ancestor Princess Anne, gave it her royal seal of approval.

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Bulford Kiwi, Salisbury, Wiltshire

Aerial view of the chalk Bulford Kiwi on Wiltshire.
Credit: Education Images/ Getty Images

One of the more unexpected animal figures etched into the English countryside is that of New Zealand’s national emblem, the flightless kiwi bird. The Bulford Kiwi stretches a mighty 420 feet tall and has a 150-foot-long bill. Below the bill are the letters “NZ,” which confirm the bird’s origin for those who might be unaware. The hill drawing was designed by Sergeant-Major Percy Blenkarne, who visited London’s Natural History Museum to study the anatomical dimensions of a stuffed kiwi.

Bulford Kiwi is located on Beacon Hill, above the military town of Bulford. During World War I, approximately 4,500 New Zealand soldiers were stationed at the town’s former Sling Camp training depot. Restlessness among the soldiers, who were awaiting demobilization, caused riots to break out in the camp. In order to distract the troops, officers deployed them to carve the commemorative kiwi over a three-month period in 1919. They removed a foot of topsoil and then inserted chalk pebbles. Like the Uffington White Horse, the kiwi was hidden from German bombers during World War II. The landmark is currently maintained by the Ministry of Defence.

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Fovant Badges, Salisbury, Wiltshire

View of the Fovant Badges on the hill of Wiltshire.
Credit: Lilly Trott/ Shutterstock

Just 20 miles from the Bulford Kiwi is another commemoration of the World Wars. The Fovant Badges are a group of chalk designs that portray the insignia of various military regiments. Upon the outbreak of World War I, the town of Fovant was chosen as one of the locations to accommodate and train volunteer soldiers. Many soldiers didn’t return from the battlefields, so their colleagues decided to remember them by carving the badges into a chalk hill of the Wiltshire Downs.

The first badge — most likely created by the London Ridge Bridge — appeared in 1916. By the end of World War I, there were 20 in total. Of the eight remaining today, five are more than a century old, and three are from after World War II. They represent both British regiments and the Australian Commonwealth Military Forces. In 1961, the Fovant Badges Society was established to maintain and preserve the appearance of the badges. Thanks to the society’s efforts, the insignia stand as reminders of the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

2

Cerne Abbas Giant, Cerne Abbas, Dorchester

View of the chalk Cerne Abbas Giant in the Dorset area.
Credit: RMAX/ iStock

Looming over the Cerne Valley of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is one England’s most perplexing figures. The Cerne Abbas Giant is a 180-foot-tall, club-wielding naked man, and there’s great debate about the origins of the giant. Some archaeologists believe that it was once used as a fertility aid, and others suggest that it represents a Celtic deity or a portrayal of Hercules. Still another theory is that the giant is a parody of politician Oliver Cromwell, which fits neatly with the first written record of the figure in a document at Cerne Abbey that dates back to 1694.

Today, the Cerne Abbas Giant is overseen by the National Trust, which carried out archaeological research in 2020 to determine its exact age. Following extensive examinations of the sand and soil, it was revealed that the giant was probably carved during the late Saxon period, between 700 and 1100. Consequently, archaeologists are now speculating that it is an image of the Anglo-Saxon god Helith — nearby Cerne Abbey was possibly founded to convert locals who worshipped the god.

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Long Man of Wilmington, Wilmington, East Sussex

Long Man of Wilmington on the hillside of East Sussex.
Credit: Khrizmo/ iStock

As imposing as the Cerne Abbas Giant, although somewhat more modest, is the Long Man of Wilmington in South Downs National Park. The monumental silhouette of a man, holding a staff in each hand, measures 235 feet tall and is the largest geoglyph of a human in Europe. Besides a sketch by a surveyor in 1710, there’s little historical documentation of the figure. Local theories range from it being everything from a Romano-British relic to the artwork of medieval monks and the outline of a giant that died on the hill.

For many years, the Long Man was marked by packed chalk and only visible when the sun was in a certain position or following light snowfall. In 1874, yellow bricks were laid over the chalk, making it viewable in all conditions. The mystery of the man makes it a sacred place for pagans, who gather for neo-pagan festivals throughout the year. At dawn on May Day, the Long Man Morris Dancers perform at the foot of the figure to celebrate Beltane, the halfway point between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

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