In the Vale of the White Horse

This is a walk I’ve wanted to do for a while; or rather a destination I’ve wanted to get to, which on this occasion meant a long walk. The Uffington White Horse is by far the oldest of England’s hill figures, all the others are by comparison modern. Uffington’s white mare is about 3000 years old – compare that with the Cerne Abbas giant, which has the “feel” of something ancient but is probably 16th century. Practically every other hill figure is younger than this, making Uffington “the one”, by a long chalk.

I hadn’t intended to make the journey a pilgrimage; the plan was to take the train as near as I could, walk the rest of the way and back and then return to Oxford. It turns out there isn’t a train station for miles and the nearest bus drops off about five miles away. After an hour or so of working out the bus routes, bus timetable, bus stops and bus fare I realised I could still do the walk and get back in time for my evening event…just. The layers of complexity in getting there galvanised the realisation that I really wanted to see it.

My interest in the horse has been incremental. I knew about it as a child, during a “stonehenge” phase when I was ten. I remember 10 years ago, Channel 4 painted a huge Big Brother logo in the field behind it to advertise their well-loved series. I felt sure it was a computer graphic when I first saw it, as that would surely be quicker, cheaper and wouldn’t desecrate the site. It turned out they had sprayed paint onto the grass to create the effect. “Wait til English Heritage find out!” I thought naively; but it transpired English Heritage had taken a £2k bung from C4 to allow the ad to be painted. It felt then that something was wrong with the situation. What exactly was English Heritage’s role in safeguarding the monument? At that time, I wasn’t especially interested in history and didn’t attempt to get to the bottom of it.

A similar thing happened last year: Irish bookies Paddy Power staked out white polythene lines to the horse to create a jockey; an advert for their company around the time of the Cheltenham races. The advert, apart from committing the crime of not even being an original idea, didn’t seek permission from EH, who were outraged by the desecration. This time I tried to articulate my dissatisfaction: how would it be taken if I chalked a huge ad for Still Walking on the wall of Birmingham Cathedral, or of my local mosque? “Don’t worry, it will come off, and I’ll stick a tenner in the cannister. No harm done.” It would be an outrageous act, of course and would only damage the brand. How can “temporary” ever mean “acceptible”? I’m not sure how Big Brother fans felt about it, or Paddy Power punters, but there must be thousands who saw the images for whom the act did not feel right, regardless of religious persuasion. I think the neopagans specifically were unhappy about the religious aspects of the desecrations (and various other hill figure guerilla billboard campaigns since) but I think the root of my concern was in the sheer length of time this drawing has been there. It has to be maintained regularly and has been recut several times over the years, but it’s the fact it links us to the bronze age that I feel is the significant thing here. This horse was old when Jesus was doing his thing. It’s an unbroken link to our early ancestors.

So, I decided to visit it.

My first surprise was that Oxford Tourist Office hadn’t heard of it, or of Uffington (or able to help get me there). Uffington is about 12 miles from Oxford, true, but the area between it and Oxford is called the Vale of White Horse. In Abingdon, for example, which is about five miles from Oxford, the horse appears constantly on menus, teatowels, carparks, &c. Clearly it wasn’t enquired about often enough to provoke the response “it’s far, and it’s hard to get to”. Once I’d worked out the route, I was committed to a solid afternoon’s march. My first blunder was to leave my hat behind on the bus: the driver drove straight through the town I wanted to stop at and I scurried to the front, sans hat when I saw we were hurtling away from Farington. It was a cold day too. Within a quarter of a mile, I had turned my scarf into a makeshift turban.

I tried to get off the busy A road as quickly as possible. A sign indicated “footpath”, which I took. This turned into a bridle path, OK to walk on as a pedestrian, but usually chewed up by hooves, and today frozen solid. There was no challenge in locating the White Horse – it was instantly visible on a distant hill. Nice to not have to check the map at any point. Once off the bridle path, I encountered a mysterious ice pool by the roadside. The pool itself wasn’t frozen, but the splashed water created by passing cars was being frozen, in an intricate icicle arrangement on the verge and in surrounding bushes. Beautiful; but no real mystery: the mud in the puddle was keeping it from freezing and the action of splashing filtered out the suspended bits from the water. Nevertheless, a first.

Further up the road, in the tiny village of Fernham, I found a black hat sitting on a wall waiting for someone to find it. Good: it was beginning to snow.

The next village was Uffington: pretty, though not much there beyond than a Tom Brown School Days museum and some thatched cottages. George Orwell is buried nearby apparently. There are plenty of tiny villages like this throughout Oxfordshire, with just a pub and a post office. None here were doing the tourist thing: no postcards, t shirts, calendars or fridge magnets to be seen anywhere on the entire journey. The only concession to passing tourist trade was a jam stand with an honesty box outside a large home a mile or so from the White Horse, but unbranded with any obvious association. There were certainly horses here: many passed on foot, lived in fields or rattled by in giant horseboxes. Stables, riding schools… certainly this is the Vale of the Horse.

As you near the horse, it disappears. It is more a landmark from a distance than created to decorate the area. In the last mile of approach it isn’t until you are at its tail that you can see it again. Access by foot takes you to Dragon’s Hill, a mysterious viewing platform with a flat top below White Horse Hill. From here, you can make out some details of the figure, but it isn’t very clear. There is an area of exposed chalk here: the legend is that here St George slayed the dragon and the blood of the dragon killed the grass off.. forever! The last stage is steep and challenging. Sheep are all around. When you get to the horse, you first encounter its long tail, and it seems you have found a footpath. A small cordon has been put up, presumably to demonstrate you have now reached the horse: don’t walk on it. You still can’t see it all at once, you need to assemble its strange, disassociated shapes in your mind. The head has a strange beak.

There are many theories about the origins of the horse, and why it looks the way it does. One interesting theory is that the marks are recut as a horse figure from chalk exposed by land slippage. When you are on top of it, the lines do seem to sit on top of a succession of level steps in the landscape. But there is also evidence that the horse looked very different in even recent history. Sketches made in the last 200 years show significant differences, and it is clear that the various recuts over the years have created a kind of slo-mo animated movie, or chinese whispers. The prehistoric feel of the design is possibly just a result of successive well-intentioned but inaccurate retracings. Over three thousand years of constant weeding, it can’t be the same horse – merely maintain some degree of horseness. Some people don’t even accept it is a horse – it’s long tail and whiskers looks more like a cat or dog.

The actual chalk is regularly replenished by the locals, ground up and poured into troughs. A sign says don’t walk on the horse, but the dust is spread everywhere, by illiterate dogs. I picked up an empty can of Strongbow, and a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch, more as an anticipated duty rather than in outrage. The temperature dropped noticably, and the batteries of both of my cameras failed. While gazing out from the hill across Oxfordshire, I realised that the locals don’t want people to come and visit… local meaning Oxford. While I was there, the horse was visited by a slow but steady stream of visitors, mostly by car but also many cyclists. Most didn’t stay long, as if they visited regularly. The site certainly does feel important, but also very fragile. A horse postcard or guide book in the tourist office, or a bus link, would mean more displaced chalk, more motorists speeding through the tiny villages and more crisp packets on the site. The village doesn’t need the revenue: everyone there is already wealthy. There is only something to lose by increasing the flow of visitors. Perhaps the difficulty in accessing it naturally filters out the tourist deemed unworthy of visiting.