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Six of the Best: Walks with Chalk Hill Figures

If you’ve never had chance to visit a chalk hill figure, then you are missing out on this enchanting phenomenon which is seen especially in England. The creation of hill figures has been practiced since prehistory and can include human, symbolic and animal forms. Whilst many of the figures are found in the county of Wiltshire, there are also spectacular examples in other counties that are well worth a visit. Here we present six iFootpath walks that allow you to discover some of these chalk hillside emblems…

uffington white horse smlThe carving of giant horses (sometimes called leucipotomy), and figures (gigantotomy) in the British landscape has been carried out since ancient times. The figures are usually carved into chalk or limestone areas, exposing lines of the white rock underneath which allows the image to contrast with the darker surrounding soil or grass. It is a bit like a giant version of the wax etching pictures many of us created as children.

The oldest surviving figure is the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which dates back to around 1,000BC, making it more than 3,000 years old. Other figures are relatively modern (from the 1600s-1800s) although some of them replace figures that were much older than that. There are more than 50 chalk hill figures in Britain, although without periodic maintenance and scouring, many others have vanished.

Horses are the most common form of chalk hill figure and no-one is sure why this should be the case. 16 of the chalk figures in the UK are white horses, 8 of which are in Wiltshire. In fact, the white horse is now generally considered to be a symbol of Wiltshire. The reasons for the creation for the figures are varied and obscure. They are clearly designed to be seen from miles around and so could act as a symbol of political power or to celebrate specific events whilst some examples are thought to be representations of gods.

These iFootpath walks take you to four of the best white horses (one if which is mounted by a king) plus a giant depiction of a god and a giant crown. If you fancy just driving to visit some of the other finest examples, you could try the White Lion set within the grounds of Whipsnade Zoo, the White Kiwi near Bulford (created by New Zealand troops) or the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset.

osmington white horseWestbury White Horse and Imber Range Path, 4 mile walk, Wiltshire

The Westbury White Horse has existed on its present site since the mid-1700s. It is sometimes claimed to be a memorial to King Alfred's victory at the Battle of Eoandun in 878.

The Osmington White Horse, 4 mile walk, Dorset

Sculpted into limestone hills north of Weymouth in 1808, the Osmington White Horse is a depiction of King George III. Legend has it that George was unhappy that the figure was shown riding out of Weymouth, a sign that he was not welcome, and he never returned.

Wayland’s Smithy and Uffington White Horse, 3.5 mile walk, Oxfordshire

Around five miles from the town of Wantage, the Uffington White Horse is a stylish figure, which is believed to be about 3,000 years old. The route also allows you to explore such Wayland's Smithy, a neolithic tomb located nearby.

wilmington long manLong Man of Wilmington, 6 mile walk, East Sussex

One of two human hill figures in England, the Long Man of Wilmington plays host to a number of neo-pagan rituals throughout the year. Constructed in the 1500s, the earliest known visual record of the figure dates from 1710, and this clearly shows that the figure originally had a distinctive helmet-shaped head, giving credence to theories that he is a depiction of a helmeted war-god.

Kilburn White Horse Trail, 1.5 mile walk, North Yorkshire

Kilburn Woods and White Horse, 6 mile walk, North Yorkshire

The Kilburn White Horse is within the North York Moors and was created in 1857 after a local resident was inspired by a visit to the White Horse at Uffington. From above the chalk figure you are rewarded with outstanding views across the Vale of York.

Wye and the North Downs, 5 mile walk, Kent

The Wye Crown was cut into the chalk hillside to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII by college students, on the Wye college estate on 12th June 1902. From the superb viewpoint above the crown a vast panoramic view stretches out over the Vale of Kent, the Wealden Forest and beyond Romney Marsh to the Channel.

25 September 2017
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