Thursday, 14 April 2011

The White Horse of Uffington

A couple of nights ago, in the bright light of a half moon, we went up on to the Downs to visit the Uffington White Horse. This was an activity I discovered a few years ago, in winter – and believe me, visiting the Horse on a frosty winter night under a full moon is magic enough to make the back of your neck prickle.

For those of you who don’t know it, or aren’t lucky enough to live as I do, in the Vale which bears its name, the Uffington White Horse is a prehistoric chalk figure, cut into the turf to expose the white chalk beneath, close to the Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle which rings the crest of the hill above it – but a bit older, late Bronze Age - around 3000 years old.  Nobody knows anymore what it was for or what it signifies, but the impressive fact is that it has been maintained by local people - continuously - for the last three millennia, by a process of ‘scouring’ it every few years: this involves weeding it, and pounding lumps of broken chalk into the outline to rewhiten it.  Otherwise, the turf would’ve reclaimed it within a few decades.  In historical times, a huge country fair used to be associated with this.  Nowadays, the National Trust turns up every so often with piles of chalk and baskets of hammers, and asks for volunteers.  I’ve had a go myself – there’s a bit of the upper foreleg which is forever mine – and the thumping of about fifteen or twenty hammers pulverising the chalk up and down the length of the figure as it curls over the shoulder of the hill (it’s far too big to see all of it at once when you’re up close) sounds weirdly like galloping hooves…




Some people say the Horse isn’t a horse, but a dragon.  It certainly isn’t a realistic representation of a horse, but it’s very much like horses on early Celtic coins: the Celts went in for abstract, flowing lines, and I’d agree with Granny Aching from Terry Pratchett’s  wonderful Discworld book ‘A Hat Full of Sky’: "Taint what a horse looks like, it’s what a horse be."

Anyway, by moonlight, the Horse glows.  We walked over the top of the Iron Age fort (past the much more recent barrow where Roman soldiers were buried) and down the slope in the watercolour moonlight, in the teeth of a sweeping cold wind, and down towards the head of the Horse. It lay there on the dim hill, its great eye and strange, open parallelogram of a head glowing mysteriously, almost appearing to throw more light back to the moon than the moon could give.  Its body swept in a serpentine line over the slope of the hill, away out of sight.

I would say I feel sure it was meant to be looked at by moonlight, except that I’m not sure.  It’s hard to be sure of anything at all about the Horse.  But I am sure that, intentional or not, once anyone’s seen it by moonlight, now or three thousand years ago, they’d agree that this is when the Horse comes into its power.  I half expected it to lift its head, come alive and levitate off the hill.


You would think there would be scores of poems written about the White Horse of Uffington, but the only one I can find is GK Chesterton’s immensely long ‘Ballad of the White Horse’ (written when the Horse was still thought to be as recent as King Alfred’s victory over the Danes, and much more about Alfred than the Horse).  I think these lines from the poem do still suggest something of the Horse's wonder and power.  


Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.


Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.


Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.


For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.


For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.


So... does anyone know any other poems about the White Horse?  Or have any of you written one?


Photo credits: 'The Uffington White Horse' by Microlightpilot.com; the White Horse's eye by Berkshire History.com

27 comments:

catdownunder said...

Mo, but I am trying to remember the name of a book for children which was inspired by it! It concerns, I think, the discovery of a "Wyrm" in winter snow. If you know the title can you tell me? If I think of it I will tell you!

David Calcutt said...

Thanks for bringing the Chesterton poem to my attention. Marvellous lines.

Anonymous said...

Magical- now I must go there by moonlight! Jenni C

Thomas Taylor said...

A wonderful post! I live near the Long Man of Wilmington, but I've never seen him by moonlight.

Sue Purkiss said...

I haven't written a poem, but I did visit the Uffington white horse, and the one near Edington (Ethandun) further west, when I was researching my book about Alfred, Warrior King. I thought the atmosphere at Uffington - and especially at Wayland's Smithy, just above, was extraordinary: it felt like a place outside time. I wrote a scene where the white horse (the one further west, but the idea came from the power of both places) came alive and terrified Guthrum... I think the idea came partly too from the notion that the horses may have represented the Celtic goddess of war, Bellona, but I would have to check my notes to be certain of that. Wayland and his smithy come into Susan Cooper's book too, The Dark Is Rising. Powerful stuff. Thanks for a very evocative post, Kath.

Joan Lennon said...

Dear Cat - are you thinking of Sun Horse, Moon Horse by Rosemary Sutcliffe? I only remember that it was about a white chalk horse ... and didn't have Wyrm in the title, so I'm probably not even close!

Great post, Katherine - thanks!

Lynn said...

It must be amazing to walk along there by moonlight, huge white horse aglow! There are so many magical spots in Britain - and it's wonderful to see how they are then woven into poems and stories. Thanks for another fascinating post, Katherine!

catdownunder said...

Hello Joan - no - this one is set in the 20thC and I think the author is male - I have a copy somewhere but cannot find it which is most frustrating! There is also an amateur meteorologist and an ice yacht...

Book Maven said...

I love that horse too! (though I've never seen it by moonlight). I also love the way it is abstract and modern-looking while being so ancient.

Kath I wish you'd put it in a book! And thanks for the Chesterton, which I didn't know. "Children of some second birth" is perfect to represent the human condition.

Charlie Butler said...

Not a poem, but I do have a theory: http://steepholm.livejournal.com/142530.html

Katherine Langrish said...

Ha! I like your theory, Charlie! I remember now that guy who said it was a dog... not like any dog I know.

Cat, I thought you might have been thinking of William Mayne's 'A game of Dark' - till you added the ice yacht and the meterologist. I'm stumped!

lily said...

Everything looks better by moonlight! Your description is wonderful.

I don't know any poems but there was a great children's TV series when I was kid, set in Victorian or Edwardian times, about a blind girl and the Uffington horse and pagan sacrifices - am racking my brains to remember what it was called.

Catdownunder - The Giant Beneath the Snow?

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh, Lily, yes - John Gordon's 'The Giant Under the Snow' - though that was literally a giant and not a wyrm. Marvellous book, though!

catdownunder said...

No Lily - but thankyou for reminding me of that one! I will continue to think about it!

lily said...

hooray, you remember who The Giant Under the Snow is by! I read it as a kid and actually don't recall the plot at all, just some vague scary images, but know I loved it.

And the TV series was called The Moon Stallion.

Katherine Roberts said...

I remember our Charney walk up to White Horse one day in July - afterwards, I was inspired to write a fantasy novel about it, but the story's still half formed, rather like the horse itself, trapped on the hillside awaiting some powerful word to emerge...

Katherine Langrish said...

I hope you finish it one day, Katherine! I should love to read it.

Cathrin said...

What a beautiful post. I'm so glad that you didn't assume everyone has heard of the white horse; I hadn't. As I read your words and looked at the pictures, I envisioned a horse for the first time as a creature that can carry us over a threshold between worlds. Since I live in a land of rodeos and barrel riding, this is saying something. I love horses, but I've never had that vision before. I would love to know why the creators of the chalk image chose a horse. It's too bad we can't ask them.

Katherine Langrish said...

Cathrin, I wish you could come and see it! I'm sure it must have been regarded as a courier betwen worlds.

Swan Artworks said...

I love that Horse and oh how I would love to see it by moonlight and let the primal part of the mind blur the past with the present. There's something about the night that draws at the roots of us I think...

stonepoem said...

Enjoyed your post. It is a special place

Here's a poem that coincidently also notes the magic of the Uffington moonlight.

http://stonepoem.com/too-good-to-burn-v2

- hope you enjoy.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely! - sounds like something that should set to music...

stonepoem said...

Thank you! And yes, well spotted. In my head it's a traditional English folk song. It just wouldn't work with Thrash Metal 8-)

Lucy said...

Catdownunder - it may have been Black Woolly Pony / White Chalk Horse - by Jane Gardam. It was two books in one - one about a girl called Bridget and her shetland pony, and one about a girl called Susan who tries to save a white chalk horse near her village.

H.M. Castor said...

I was lucky enough to live in Uffington village for a few years more than a decade ago. I would walk up to the White Horse as my lunchtime writing-break. Such a privilege! I love the shape of the horse - something cat-like in it? - and am just astonished & awed by the idea that these ancient people created something that is so stunning seen from the air, without ever being able to have that view themselves. I was also always intrigued by the white spot on the hill just below it - isn't that supposed to be something to do with a dragon? (Oh, I used to know & have now forgotten!)

In Uffington I was lucky enough to get to know an elderly man who had lived in the village all his life - never owned a car - & had worked (as had his parents) on the estate of which the village was a part. I don't know why I mention this, really, but the sense of continuity... of the old way of life so attached to *place* for so many centuries... of generations and generations who in the main did not travel much... somehow was as powerful for me as the magical White Horse itself. Living in the village for just a few years, I felt so attached to the horse... how much more attached must he and his forebears have felt?

Molly Gourley said...

The resemblance between this horse and the depiction of the horse carved into Red Horse Hill on the cover of Runemarks by Joanne Harris is unmistakable. I had no idea it actually existed! I'll have to make sure to visit it now.

Minerva Black said...

I've only stumbled across this post now and am so thankful that I did. Wonderful! The Uffington White Horse is one of my favourite places and I feel grateful to be able to visit often. The poem always brings tears to my eyes. I'm a wanderer who finally found my home with the white horses.