High above the village of Uffington, sprawled some 374 feet across the peak of the Berkshire Downs, lies the leviathon and abstract figure of a creature - known as the Uffington White Horse (SU 302 866). So immense and commanding is this landmark - formed by cutting the outline of the animal from the turf to reveal the white chalk underlaying the hill - that it drains much of the attention away from the village's list of other historical and literary points of interest.
John Betjemen (Poet Laureate 1972 - 1984) lived in Uffington, as did 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' author Thomas Hughes, who used this landscape so evocatively in many of his novels (a bronze statue of Hughes is displayed in the village's 13th Century Church). The area also holds many legends - one of which asserts that Dragon Hill - a peak nearby the Uffington figure - is the scene where St. George slew the infamous dragon (a patch of barren ground on this hill is said to have been poisoned by the dragon's spilt blood). Indeed, so prevalent is this particular legend amongst the locals of Uffington, that many people believe that the White Horse is not a horse at all, but is instead a representation of the huge, fiersome dragon destroyed by St. George. However, whilst its abstract and somewhat ambiguous design allows for such an interpretaion, most scholars on the subject are of the opinion that this hilltop creature is, in fact, a symbol of a horse and point to historical and archaeological evidence to support their assertions.
The Uffington White Horse is Britain's only truly ancient chalk hill geoglyph, predating its nearest competitors in the antiquity stakes by a good few thousand years. The first recorded instance of the actual design being described as a horse occurred in 1919 although the peak on which the figure is carved was known as White Horse Hill as far back as 1070. Images of a similar design to the Uffington geoglyph appear on numerous coins dated to the same era as the chalk figure and these are known to be connected to Epona - a horse goddess worshipped throughout much of the Celtic world at the time. Such stylised images, again of a proven equine heritage, have also been found depicted on Iron Age containers found in nearby Aylesford and Marlborough.Historically noted as being Britain's Second Wonder (beaten only by Stonehenge), many reasons for the existence of the Uffington White Horse have been put forward over the years, but it was not until the late 17th Century when the first real study and conjecture of its origins, beyond the level of local folklore, was made.Through the years, various hypothesis, ranging frm the Horse having been cut by Anglo Saxon King Hengist to celebrate his victory over the Danes in .871A.D. to the more "far out" conclusion that it was carved by, or at least for, aliens (due to its best vantage point being from the air) have all been forwarded to the debate (that recent evidence illustrates that the Horse has slowly migrated up the hill and was once far easier to view by the land-bound must now surely discount this latter theory). The latest studies of the Uffington White Horse, using Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating (whereby measurements can be taken from the soil which calculate the length of time elapsed since it was last exposed to sunlight) date the geoglyph to the Bronze Age, giving the Horse a similar age to that of Uffington Castle (reputedly the scene of King Arthur's victory over the Saxons in the battle of Baden) - the remains of which still stand proud above the chalk figure in the form of a series of mounds and ditches. Modern theory now supports the idea that the Horse was some kind of flag for the tribe in occupation of the castle at that time - perhaps used as an advertising sign declaring the sale and trade of horses there.
Given the extraordinary age of the Uffington White Horse, it is now calculated to date back to 1000B.C.) it is a wonder that such a creation has survived some 3,000 years into the 21st Century. It would take less than a decade of neglect for the Horse to become overgrown and ultimately lost to the landscape. This demonstrates just how important the Uffington geoglyph was - not only to its creators, but also to the countless future generations left guardianship over the design. It is on record that up until the late 19th century, the Horse was manicured every seven or so years as part of a local fair that was held on this very hill. These festivals, which would have been funded by the local Lords of the area, were known to have lasted up to three days at a time and, although undoubtedly originally founded as a religious event, soon became excuses for general merry-making. Games would be held within the enclosed banks of Uffington Castle, but these often stretched out onto the neighbouring land. The 'Cheese Rolling' competitions, for instance, where a large roll of cheese was sent tumbling down the hill - given chase to by countless, and often very drunk, villagers, was held on the steep sided valley known as 'The Manger' On moonlit nights, this very location - so fable would have us believe, would also double as the feeding ground for the White Horse.Thomas Hughes wrote a novel (The Scouring) based on the celebrations surrounding the cleaning of the White Horse, describing musicians and circus acts entertaining the throngs as they milled around the flower bedecked stalls upon which all kinds of sweet food, toys and nicknacks were put for sale. As well as the cheese rolling races, vistors to the Great Fair would also be enticed to take part in greasy pole climbing, sack races and even smoking competitions. To prevent the revelries from getting too out of hand, the local constabulary would be on hand, housed for the occasion within a large white tent pitched amongst the stalls and other amusements. The dates for these scouring fairs were not constant and would fall intermittantly on Midsummer Solstices, Whitsun and Michaelmas - as well as other times decided upon by the local Lord.
With the cessasion of these scouring fairs, the Uffington White Horse fell into quite a bad state of disrepair - a newspaper report in 1922 noting that the famous geoglyph could now "scarce be seen." During the Second World War, the Horse was deliberately and completely hidden from view as a precaution against enemy bombers using it as a navigation marker and it was not until English Heritage and The National Trust took over the upkeep of the figure that the Horse returned to anywhere near its former glory.Other Notes of Interest Concerning the Uffington White Horse:Wayland's Smithy, the megalithic mortuary located on the Berkshire Downs near the Uffington White Horse, is noted for being the scene of an ancient Iron Age massacre, revealing this period to be a particularly violent era in human history. The place is also haunted by the ghost of a smithy who, folklore tells, will reshod any horse left on the site overnight (so long as the animal is accompanied with a few coins as payment, naturally).In 2002, supporters of the cruel so-called sport of fox hunting defaced the Uffington White Horse by adding the form of hounds around the Horse's feet and the shape of a rider on the Horse's back. Fortunately, members of the local White Horse Association were able to repair most of the damaged caused.The iconic design of the Uffington White Horse has been featured on the cover of the XTC album 'English Settlement' and on the rear of Nirvana's 'In Utero' CD. The legendary Kate Bush also used White Horse Hill for the location for the video for her 'Cloudbusting' single.