I’d tell you a tale of a battle fought and won, a dragon slain near an old fortress, an ancient trackway and a magical metalworker that flies through the skies and will shoe your horse for a few coins. True, at first glance, what some may dismiss as a few arty scrapings on chalk downs, and several lumps in the grass, may not look that promising – but bear with me: the White Horse of Uffington is Britain’s oldest chalk figure, carved out of the hillside at least 3,000 years ago; and nearby Wayland’s Smithy is even older, built by people to honour their dead five and a half thousand years, give or take, before you were born. There is such a sense of history in this landscape, my imagination fair runs amok – and that’s one of the reasons I’m happy to confess to a love affair with England’s chalk downlands.
You can actually glimpse Uffington’s White Horse before you get to the small village that gives it its name. En passant, Uffington is a very old settlement indeed, whose more recent residents have included Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), and the poet Sir John Betjeman. Hughes was born here and the old village school, built in 1617 and mentioned in his famous book, is now the Tom Brown’s School Museum. Betjeman lived here with his family in the 1930s, and was warden of the 13th century village church, St Mary’s. Uffington’s most famous figure, however, is stabled on a hillside to the south, just above the little village of Woolstone. But, oh – you need a good camera lens and a steady hand to capture her, galloping gracefully across the downs on the other side of the valley. Unlike some chalk figures, which can seem a little clumsy and primitive, the White Horse of Uffington is simply beautiful, a stylised representation that could be modern – but isn’t. The angle of the slope and obstructions like trees mean that most people will not be able to fully appreciate her and I can’t help wondering whether our equine friend was really meant to be seen from the air – rather like the Nasca Lines in Peru (but smaller). I also can’t help wondering how on earth whoever designed this piece of public art – for that is what it is – set about creating it, marking out the ground and scaling the proportions – the horse is 360 feet (110 metres) long. I mean, it wouldn’t have been easy to erase if you made a mistake, would it?
Like any gracious lady, the age of the White Horse had long been kept secret and was only finally determined by archaeologists in the 1990s. Previously, some thought she had been carved to commemorate the victory of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in 871; but she is much, much older than that. This is a prehistoric monument, constructed in the early Iron Age, or perhaps the late Bronze Age, between 1740 and 210 BC – maybe around about the time horses arrived in Britain – and perhaps that’s what she is meant to celebrate. She is formed of trenches cut into the hillside to a depth of about 3 feet (1 metre) and filled with chalk. And she has only survived 3,000 years or so because local people have regularly maintained, or scoured, her, to prevent vegetation taking over. By the 18th century, this regular task had developed into something of a fair, with ever-popular events such as climbing the greasy pole, cheese rolling and backswording (a backsword is a single-edged sword) to keep people entertained. Our local source Thomas Hughes describes these festivities in his less well-known book, The Scouring of the White Horse, published in 1859. These days, the grubby business of scouring is handled more soberly by the much duller National Trust, using volunteers.
Most visitors to Uffington’s White Horse get there by leaving their chariots in a surprisingly (but only relatively) spacious NT pay and display car park off a steep, narrow, lane south of the B4507. Parking elsewhere is very limited, so unless you know the area or are walking from somewhere else, this really is your best bet. Sometimes, you’ll find a lone seller of guide books and other trinkets there; occasionally, an ice-cream van too. But just remember, as you walk onto the landscape known as White Horse Hill, that you’re entering an ancient world used by man since at least Neolithic times.
Through a gate from the car park, White Horse Hill rises gently in front of you. I was reminded of a sign from childhood – ‘Sheep are grazing to improve the sward’ – and strolled happily through grasses of varied hues waving gently in the summer breeze. Small, powder-blue, butterflies danced around and black birds – crows or the like – wheeled overhead. Off to the left, the north, far-reaching views over the Vale of the White Horse. Just below the White Horse is a curious flat-topped hill. It looks artificial, but apparently isn’t, and it’s called Dragon Hill. This, some say, is where George killed the dragon – because the horse isn’t a horse, but a dragon. To prove the point, on the flat top – which experts concede has been levelled by man (possibly the Dobunni tribe before the Romans got here) is a bare patch where nothing grows – because that is where the dragon’s blood gushed out, its poison efficacious to this very day. Others in bygone days believed that Cedric, Saxon leader of the West Saxons, slew Naud the Pendragon, with 5,000 of his men, there. In other tales, this is Uther Pendragon, father of the legendary Arthur. Apparently, it is not known what Dragon Hill was called before the 17th century.
There’s a fair view of the White Horse from Dragon Hill. The downs fall away quite steeply and the valley bottom is known as the Manger – where the horse descends to feed at night. Although she is obviously some kind of deity, she still needs to eat.
Above the White Horse, topping the hill, is an 8-acre hillfort, Uffington Castle, and the highest point in Oxfordshire. It was originally built in around 700 BC, a simple, but massive, ditch and bank affair, topped with chalk-filled timber ramparts. In about 300 BC, the timber was replaced with sarsen stones – a tough local sandstone used at many sites in southern England, including Stonehenge. The purpose of Uffington Castle is unknown. It is huge, but – and I’m no expert – it doesn’t have the complex defences of some other Iron Age forts – such as Maiden Castle, for example. There is evidence of domestic use, a large number of finds from the Roman period and it seems that Uffington Castle was the arena for many of the later ‘Scouring Fair’ activities. Perhaps it was primarily a gathering place of some sort, even a trading post. There are, in the vicinity of the hillfort, a number of Romano-British burials.
Behind Uffington Castle to the south you will find part of what is thought to be Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgway, one of the trackways that used to run along the dry higher ground in ancient times. The Ridgway, in its modern trail form, covers 87 miles from Avebury, Wiltshire, to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. In its original form, it stretched from the Dorset coast to the Wash. It would have meandered somewhat along the route 5,000 or more years ago, but it is a curious sensation to be following in the footsteps of countless people, migrating, droving, carrying messages, going to war – and so on – down through hundreds of centuries.
And the Ridgway is important to our story today, for along it lay my final destination – Wayland’s Smithy. And I think Wayland’s Smithy deserves its own article; so go on – treat yourself.