English Chalk Figures

Thursday, 16th August 2007 by

Along with the more modern pastime of making crop circles, etching chalk figures into the side of hills seems to be a peculiarly English obsession.

The Uffington White Horse is the confirmed oldest of the many chalk figures in England, dating all the way back to the Bronze Age.1 There are many different theories as to why the 110 metre-long horse looks so odd, with some people even claiming it’s actually supposed to be a dragon2.

You can freely walk about on white horse hill (as I did last week), but the shape makes very little sense when viewed close up – I imagine it was very difficult for the Bronze age artists to know exactly how it would turn out.

The Long Man of Wilmington is etched into Windover Hill, Sussex, and probably dates from the 16th or 17th century AD. He’s around 69 metres tall, which would have made him an excellent navigational aid for Nazi pilots during WWII, if he hadn’t been painted green to prevent them doing exactly that.

These days he’s been restored to his original colour but – as with all chalk figures – the Long Man of Wilmington has eroded over the centuries, and it’s quite possible that he actually looks very different today than he would have done originally. Some historians believe he might have once held a scythe and rake, or perhaps even been as fortunately endowed as that other famous chalk-man, the Cerne Abbas Giant.

Of course there’s always a chance that he was originally baking a couple of primitive doughnuts!

There are many more real chalk figures to be seen on English hills, which you can explore with Felippo’s White Horse Collection, the Hill figure page, or Wikipedia’s pages on Hill figures, the Long Man of Wilmington and the Uffington White Horse.

Thanks to Anthony Houghton, Dee & others.

  1. The replica in Mexico isn’t nearly as old. 

  2. These people believe that the nearby Dragon Hill (Wikipedia page) is where St George slew the dragon, spilling its blood on the hilltop and “leaving forever a bare white patch where no grass can grow”.