Wednesday, 30 July 2014

And The White Horse Looked On

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

...about three thousand years ago, according to radiocarbon dating, making it the oldest known hillfigure in the country. Its abstract, curving lines are typical of Celtic artwork, and it may be associated with the tribe that used the Uffington Castle hillfort close by. It rests high on the scarp, not easily seen in its entirety unless from the air or from the railway line that snakes through the Vale on its way to the West. It is the most famous of our chalky White Horses.

Assuming, of course, that it is a horse.

And here we are again, in this familiar place, Team Vulpine today consisting of my sons, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend - the latter on his first visit to the site. I seem to make my way to this hallowed spot every couple of years, and wandering this landscape of shadow and legend, it always feels like that first time two decades ago.

Polite National Trust signage asks visitors not to stand on the Horse, to lessen the dangers of erosion. On our bellies we writhe like earthworms, shuffling abdominally toward the stark ivory outline, reaching forth tentatively to touch an ear, caress a curve, lay featherlight fingers upon the tip of an ancient tail. Its single eye gazes impassively across the broad Vale, taking in the expanse of Oxfordshire, the Chilterns smouldering in the haze to the East, the Cotswolds rising on the Northern horizon, the doomed cooling towers of Didcot scarring part of the view like a pustule on the landscape. In a few weeks they will be gone, brought down in a flash of explosive, a rising cloud of dust and a rumble of destruction, and the Horse will once more keep watch over Arcadian purity.

(c) Emily McManus

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Bees and butterflies whirl above the figure, crows and kites ride the thermals. Below the Horse, in the sheep-speckled undulating slopes known as The Manger, a small hill sits squatly, looking like a miniature Silbury. Its crown gleams white, the feet of thousands having scoured it down to the chalk. This is Dragon Hill, according to local legend the spot where St George slew his serpentine foe. Unlikely, I muse, that our patron saint walked these hills. Or killed a flying, pyromaniacal, maiden-devouring dinosaur. Or existed. It is, however, fuel for the posited notion that the Horse, equine lines obscured by its abstraction, is actually a dragon.

Dragon Hill

On previous visits we have clambered down the slope to stand upon the Dragon Hill, but that is not the route we desire this afternoon. Above the Horse lies the hillfort Uffington Castle, a pre-Roman stronghold with an impressive ditch and rampart, and we will venture into its interior on our way to the timeworn trackway that crosses the peak of the Downs, the popular footpath known as the Ridgeway, linking the hills beyond Dunstable to the great stone circles of Avebury.

In the grass of the great enclosure that predates Jesus, is a curious attempt at Christianisation; someone has poured a cruciform shape onto a patch of short verdure, a cross formed of cremated remains. Someone must have loved this place a great deal to have their ashes deposited here. The shape will likely not last, blown by the winds of the high Downs and disturbed by the bumbling passage of sheep and tourists, and all that will remain is a human spirit, adding to the ghosts that haunt and protect the Horse.

We have arrived in the late afternoon and most visitors are wandering away from the site. The Ridgeway is quiet and warm, a dusty route along which we strike west.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

Fields of ripening wheat surround us, the sun illuminates and heats our old green track, an owl twits unseen from a canopy of tall trees. If we walk and walk, we will pass the great Iron Age enclosure of Liddington Castle* and strike south to the mighty prehistoric landscape around Avebury... but we have no intention of going so far. Our destination, after a slog of about twenty-five minutes, is another monument of legend. It lies, slumbering in a glade, to the right of the track.

Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow is a Neolithic burial chamber of the group known as 'Cotswold-Severn', which also includes such popular sites such as West Kennet in Wiltshire and Belas Knap in Gloucestershire. They are trapezoidal in shape and represent a fairly localised form of prehistoric funerary architecture. Like its colossal sibling at West Kennet, the Smithy has chambers which have been vacated by their long-skeletal inhabitants and are now accessible to all. It is at its best on a Summer day such as this, the June trees bathing it in dappled light, abandoned by the public and, at this moment, belonging entirely to us. Its atmosphere, thoughtful and peceful, is amost tangible. Such stuff as legends are built on, and the legend of Wayland's Smithy is a doozy.

Youngest son explores a monument

Previous visitors have left votice offerings on the baked stones that protect the cool chambers, offerings of copper pennies. They too, know the legend of Wayland the Smith. He was an Anglo-Norse deity, and it was probably those settlers back in the Dark Ages that gave the monument its enduring name. The legend tells that a horse, if deposited at the Smithy with a small coin as payment (probably a groat, although clearly modern visitors have taken inflation into account), the horse would be mysteriously shod by the unseen god. Some of our great writers have included this legend in their works, Sir Walter Scott in Kenilworth and Rudyard Kipling in Puck Of Pook's Hill


The sun continues its descent, and we undertake the return stroll to White Horse Hill. The unseen owl continues to whistle down from the trees that line the track. Insects hum and bustle in the Summer breeze that accompanies us. A concealed pheasant barks out its raspy cough from a neighbouring field.

"There," my daughter helpfully gestures towards a shape trying to hide itself in the stubble. I gaze appraisingly at the prospective fowl.

"Hmm," I muse, "Looks more like a hare to me."

As the words leave my lips, the magnificent creature springs to life, tearing across the field away from us and as we stare admiringly at its sprinting form we finally notice the others, scattered across the field, at least half a dozen hares browsing the stubble. My daughter's boyfriend stares entranced; this is the first time he has seen one of these superb animals.

(c)Emily McManus

Our walk ends back at the car, and off we go. Leaving a land of legend and natural beauty behind us, we drive down into the Vale and strike east. Our tents await us near Watlington, England's smallest town, where we have camped below the Chilterns and in the shadow of another hillfigure, the pyramidal Watlington White Mark. We will sleep below the wheeling red kites and the starry Oxfordshire skies, and the sun will bid adieu as shadows fall across the Vale. And the White Horse, as always, will look on.

 For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
                                  GK Chesterton, Ballad Of The White Horse (1911)

* Liddington Castle was discussed in more detail in my previous article, In The Footsteps Of Arthur: Badon Hill

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