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Britain's Giant Hillside Chalk Figures

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The Westbury White Horse carved on the hillside near Westbury in Wiltshire, England. Photo credit: tipwarm/Shutterstock.com

A large portion of Southern England is made up of chalk. This white limestone are the shells of tiny marine organisms that lived and died in the seas that once covered much of Britain some 90 million years ago. As time progressed, layers of calcium carbonate built up and got compacted into a solid layer of rock. Later, tectonic movements lifted the sea floor out of the sea and these became the magnificent downland in south of England.

Much of this chalk is hidden by a thin layer of soil and vegetation, except on the edges where the chalk is exposed to the sea, leading to such dramatic headlands as the white cliffs of Dover, Beachy Head and The Needles. For centuries people have been scratching away the topsoil to reveal the whitish layer of chalk to create gigantic works of art on the countryside. When the bedrock is not made of chalk, people have dug trenches and filled them with chalk brought from elsewhere. The artworks are usually made on the hillside so that they are visible from the distance. This is important, because often the chalk figures are so large they can only be appreciated from far away.

According to historian Dr. Mark Hows, who studies Britain’s hill figures, there are presently 57 hill figures scattered across the southern countryside. In the past there probably were hundreds, but many became destroyed or overgrown with vegetation.

Horses

The oldest of these figures is the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire county, created by digging a deep trench on the hillside, about 3 feet deep, and filling it with crushed white chalk. The figure is believed to have been carved by Iron Age people in 1000 BC. Since then, this prehistoric monument has been cared for by an unbroken chain of people. Even today, volunteers would periodically gather with hammers and buckets of chalk, smash the chalk to a paste and whiten the paths cut in the grass.

Depiction of horses are fairly common with at least two dozen across Britain, although some can no longer be seen. It’s safe to say that most of them, if not all, were influenced by the original Uffington White Horse.

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Uffington White Horse

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Uffington White Horse. Photo credit: Garry S/Flickr

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Uffington White Horse. Photo credit: Garry S/Flickr

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The Osmington White Horse is the only horse figure with a rider. It was carved in 1808 in honour of King George III, who was a regular visitor to nearby Weymouth. Photo credit: SusaZoom/Shutterstock.com

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Westbury White Horse believed to have been carved to commemorate King Alfred's victory at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Photo credit: Hugh Llewelyn/Flickr

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The Cherhill White Horse, dating from the late 18th century, is the third oldest of several such white horses in Great Britain, with only the Uffington White Horse and the Westbury White Horse being older. Photo credit: Alan Jeffery/Shutterstock.com

Cerne Abbas Giant

Human figures also appear in these artwork, the most famous and perplexing being the Cerne Abbas Giant which depicts a naked man with an inappropriately erect phallus, wielding a primitive club in his right hand. It is one of England's best known hill figures.

The Giant’s origin is of mystery, even though it’s not that old—it started appearing on historical documents only after the 17th century. Some antiquarians linked him with the Anglo-Saxon deity Helis, while others believe he is the classical hero Hercules. Still others believe he was carved during the English Civil War as a parody of Oliver Cromwell.

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The Cerne Abbas Giant. Photo credit: Dun.can/Flickr

Regardless of its age, the Cerne Abbas Giant has become an important part of local culture and folklore, which often associates it with fertility. Local women who wanted to conceive would spend a night alone on the hillside, particularly within the confines of his giant phallus, and young couples would make love on the giant to ensure conception. Locals would erect a maypole on the earthwork, around which childless couples would dance to promote fertility. Sleeping on the giant was also thought to be a good way to ensure a future wedding for unmarried women.

Long Man of Wilmington

Another famous hill figure depicting a human is the Long Man of Wilmington. Before 1874, the Long Man's outline was only visible in certain light conditions or after a light fall of snow. In that year an antiquarian marked out the outline with yellow bricks to make the figure more prominent.

The origin of the Long Man is also of mystery. Some believe it was created by monks from nearby Wilmington Priory between the 11th and 15th centuries. Other believe the figure dates back to Roman times.

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Long Man of Wilmington. Photo credit: David Dennis/Shutterstock.com

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Long Man of Wilmington. Notice the man standing on the lower left corner of the figure, for scale. Photo credit: Kit Logan/Flickr

Bulford Kiwi

Some hill figures were created because people had nothing better to do.

In 1919, following the end of World War One, the soldiers at a base camp near Bulford were growing restless waiting for the ships that would take them home to New Zealand. To distract the men and keep them out of trouble, the commanding officer directed the men to carve an enormous Kiwi into the chalk of the hill.

The white bird immediately became a landmark and could be seen from miles around. For a while the Kiwi was maintained by the Kiwi Polish Company because of its advertising value. In the 70s and 80s, the Kiwi lay neglected and was nearly lost, but was restored in 1986. The Bulford Kiwi is currently maintained by the British Army.

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Photo credit: Jonathanjosh1/Wikimedia

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A 1919 postcard depicting the Bulford Kiwi.

Fovant Badges

Nearby, near Fovant, in southwest Wiltshire, are a set of regimental badges cut into a chalk hill by soldiers garrisoned nearby and waiting to go to France during the First World War. Originally, twenty badges were craved, but only nine remain today.

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Fovant Badges, Wiltshire, England. Photo credit: Lilly Trott/Shutterstock.com

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Photo credit: Marchibald.fly/Wikimedia

Whipsnade White Lion

England’s largest hill figure is located Bedfordshire. It’s a giant lion, 483 feet long, craved in 1933 to indicate the location of Whipsnade wildlife park. The figure was nearly forgotten until it was uncovered and restored in 2005. It is now visible for several miles across the Dunstable Downs.

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Whipsnade White Lion. Photo credit: David Jones/Flickr

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