Travels With Bean: The White Horse of Uffington

Today we packed up Bean and headed south on the M5 to Oxfordshire. Our goal: the White Horse of Uffington, one of Britain’s most unusual Neolithic monuments. It is a white stylized horse (or possibly dog, but historically a horse), made sometime between 1400 – 600 B.C. by cutting trenches in the turf and packing them with chalk dug from deep under the soil. This process is known as leucippotomy— but only when you’re cutting a horse. If it’s a person’s image you’re creating (the Long Man of Wilmington, for instance) it’s gigantotomy.

bean and dad

"This is nice and all, but where's the ice cream truck?"

Uffington’s White Horse is not the only such figure– there are other white horses all over Wiltshire, for instance– but it is definitely the oldest and most unusual in terms of its design. It is tucked in among the hills on the edges of the Berkshire Downs, and the whole design is about 360 feet long, and only fully visible from the air. Why these pre-historic people would have wanted to make something so big is a mystery– to archaeologists, anyway. Anyone who makes art knows of at least two good reasons why they’d have made it so big: because they could, or to impress the ladies.

Some hill figures have vanished from neglect: they become overgrown, or erosion covers them up and fills them in.  The White Horse has been maintained by villagers in the past (a “Scouring”, complete with fairs and a festival), falling into neglect in the early part of the 20th Century. It was actually covered over during the Second World War, to prevent German bombers using it as a reference for navigation. Nowadays, it is maintained by the good folks of the National Trust, who weed it and reinforce the trenches with concrete now and then.

White Horse Vale is reachable only by small back roads. And we recommend you visit a cash point before you go there. We initially arrived about 11:40 am, and found that the car park, maintained by the National Trust, has a pay-and-display policy, but nobody to provide cash. And unless you’re lucky enough to roll up on a day when the ice-cream guy is doing a brisk trade, like today, there’s nobody to provide change, either. We had moths in our wallets, so had to backtrack three miles to a village with a bank.

Then we walked. There’s a 4.5-mile circular route that goes up along the north edge of White Horse Hill, taking you along part of the Ridgeway, an ancient road about 90 miles in length. It is believed to be Britain’s oldest road, used by prehistoric people, various invading forces, and now by cyclists, horse riders, and farmers.

You then go down the scarp, which was carved into steps by retreating glaciers during the last ice age, skirting the Manger– the valley just below the horse where he is said to feed. Then you pass through some pleasant little forests and emerge in the village of Woolstone, with its thatched roofs, before returning to the car park.

Oh. And along the way, you pass Uffington Castle, the remains of a Bronze Age/Iron Age hillfort, and Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic barrow dating from 6,000 years ago. If that sort of thing interests you. (We didn’t take time to visit Wayland’s Smithy today).

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It was beautiful and sunny, and just cool enough to make the walk pleasant. The Bean rode on Dad’s shoulders. People were out in force on the paths, on the hillsides, and in the sky– we saw gliders, hang gliders, and hot air balloons throughout the day. This is a place we’ll go back to; it would be glorious in Autumn. Come visit.

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