Stone Age steed or fiery dragon? Exploring the mysterious Vale of the White Horse
- The Uffington White Horse is cut into the smooth hillside turf of White Horse Hill
- It originally may have been a fertility symbol or had some religious significance
- Martin Symington visited and was unsure if it looked more like a horse or dragon
The Uffington White Horse is visible from miles away. My first sight of all 374ft of it is from the B4507 west of Wantage. Cut into the smooth hillside turf, the big-eyed beast looks gracefully elongated but oddly abstract, almost modernist in design.
Which is strange, since archaeologists tell us the mysterious creature has spread itself across the Berkshire Downs for some 3,000 years.
Other figures have been cut into the undulating chalk of southern England, but most of them are Victorian-era follies. There is even a word for sculpting white horses into hillsides: leucippotomy.
Ancient mystery: Uffington White Horse has occupied the Berkshire Downs for 3,000 years
Oxfordshire’s Uffington horse, in the care of the National Trust, really is ancient. Originally it may have been a fertility symbol or had some religious significance. Nobody really knows.
I stride up to the Ridgeway and summon lines from G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse:
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.
But is it a horse at all? As I approach the figure, the ground drops away steeply to a small, rocky outcrop like an upturned bowl.
This is Dragon Hill, on which, according to legend, St George slew the dragon and the dying beast’s blood poisoned the ground forever.
So, is the horse really a dragon?
Up close and personal, all I can make of the carving is earth scraped from the turf to expose broad lines of chalk underneath, as white and bright as you would cut for a classroom.
Just below is a dramatic gully and deep bowl curving away in sculptural lines, known as ‘the manger’.
Dragon Hill, pictured, on which, according to legend, St George slew the dragon and the dying beast’s blood poisoned the ground forever
Above the ‘horse’ I find a series of humps known, descriptively enough, as the ‘pillow mounds’. These are Neolithic and Bronze Age, although, unusually, excavations have found they were re-used for Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon burials.
The first recorded suggestion that the Uffington figure is a horse seems to be in the 11th century, when monks of nearby Abingdon Abbey wrote of the ritual scouring every seven years.
This continued right through to the late 19th century, as part of great fairs held on the hill. Nowadays the horse is ‘re-chalked’ annually on a July weekend by volunteers; many people turn up for the fun of it.
I climb back to the Ridgeway, passing Uffington Castle, an Iron Age fort crowning the hill and made up of concentric ditches and mounds.
Then, driving back through the vale, I catch a final glimpse of the slender figure stretched across the hillside.
Distinctly unhorse-like to my eyes now, its magic remains a riddle to be unfolded.