Friday, 19 February 2016

Cantiaci Hillfigures

Hillfigures, a mostly English phenomenon, are indelibly associated with Wessex, thanks to the plethora of White Horses that gallop their way across the hills of Wiltshire. However, the counties of the South-East have their fair share of these historic landmarks, mostly scattered across the chalky swathes of the North and South Downs.

indeed, Kent can proudly display the youngest addition to the list with the construction of a millennial horse at Folkestone. The area cannot boast of anything as old and mysterious as the Uffington Horse, but it can be proud of its Long Man, its hillfigure war memorials and its unique Wye Crown. there are also 'lost' figures, which will receive an honourable mention.

As well as historic journeys, visits to what I term the 'Cantiaci Hillfigures' are visits to some of the loveliest areas of SE England. For the adventurous, I have included directions...

Folkestone Horse

To start with the youngest. Kent, despite having an ivory horse as its county symbol, never had its own equine hillfigure until recently. This strange omission has now been rectified, thanks to an idea first mooted in 1998 as a Millennium project. Designed by the artist Charles Newington, the Horse galloped into trouble from the start.

The hillside upon which it stands is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so English Nature immediately objected to the idea. Even the EU vetoed its construction. However, the Government firmly stated that no laws were being broken and so, after a few years of legal wrangling, construction finally began in 2003.

The Horse was built by Ghurkas stationed in the area. Trenches were dug, and slabs of chalk and limestone pinned into the trenches to create a durable outline. Building work took about two weeks. The figure is a hundred yards long, and can best be seen from the Tesco car park off the M20 Junction 12.

Lenham Cross

The Cross can be seen from the A20, about nine miles ENE of Maidstone. It was designed as a memorial to forty-two men of Lenham who died during the Great War, and was proposed by Mr C Groom, headmaster of the village school. Completed in 1922, it stands one hundred and eighty-nine feet tall.

The memorial stone placed near the Cross was used for Remembrance Day services until 1960, when several incidents of inclement weather forced the parish to move the stone - and the services - to the comfort of the local church.

Wye Crown

Best seen from the country road heading east from the village of Wye, or - farther back - from the Ashford to Canterbury road. The figure is unique, for there exist no other chalky Crowns in the country. Associated with, and maintained by, the students of Wye College, it was created in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII.

Its design was ingeniously simple. The outline of an 1887 florin was traced onto a piece of paper, which was then attached to the lens of a theodolite. The theodolite was aimed at the hill, and workers with flags marked the outline as seen through the lens.

On the night of August 9th 1902, the day of Edward's coronation, the Crown was illuminated by fifteen hundred fairy lights. This has become a tradition, repeated at every subsequent coronation.

Shoreham Cross

'When I went down to Shoreham
some time another year,
I found a cross for sorrow
and pain for men to bear,
for lads I knew aforetime
were sleeping otherwhere.'
- A Kentish Lad, George A Vallins

Like its companion at Lenham, the Shoreham Cross was erected as a war memorial. The land upon which it stands, towering over the village, was donated to the parish on a 999-year lease by the Right Honourable FB Mildmay MP in 1920. It was created by volunteers during the same year, and unveiled on Empire Day. The Cross stands a hundred feet high and overlooks an attractive stretch of the Darent Valley, only a few miles from the historically-important villages of Eynsford and Lullingstone.

Long Man Of Wilmington

Other chalky figures exist in Kent, although the status of 'hillfigure' is dubious where they are concerned. A large white propellor decorates a field to commemorate the Battle of Britain,and the outline of a small aeroplane in the woods behind Dover Castle marks the first cross-Channel flight. However, these are set on flat ground rather than slopes and, while visible from the air, do not make very good landmarks for those on terra firma. A lost figure, the Buffs Badge at Canterbury, was carved into the bullet bank at the end of a firing range in 1922. A fifty-five feet high dragon, it was unfortunately allowed to grass over when the Regiment merged with another in 1958.

So we follow the broad, verdant sweep of the South Downs into Sussex, where we find a hillfigure that is not only the undisputed lord of all the Cantiaci figures, but is also one of the most celebrated in England.

The Long Man can best be viewed from the Priory car park at Wilmington. It stands on the north face of Windover Hill, and is surrounded by remnants of the past: a quarry, directly to its right; ancient flint mines pocking the crest above; prehistoric barrows, crowning the peak of the Hill. He stands seventy metres high and his staves are slightly taller.

His age and origins are a mystery, which has doubtless added to his popularity. The first documented mention is in a manuscript of 1779 which shows him with facial features, and carrying farming implements. Various theories have been put forward regarding who he represents, some of them bizarre. They include King Harold, Mercury, Baldur, Thor, Wotan, Beowulf, the Hindu god Varuna (this suggestion came, surprisingly, from the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie ), Mohammed, St Paul, and Apollo. One particularly attractive theory has him carved by the monks of Wilmington Priory, a chalk pilgrim advertising room and board for the night to weary travellers on the Pilgrims' Way across the South Downs.

No less a respected archaeologist than Barry Cunliffe inspected examples taken from the Man and suggested that Roman materials had been used in his construction. Resistivity tests have proved that, at various points in his history, he did indeed carry rakes, scythes, and even a plumed cap. A figure much resembling him was found on a Saxon coin discovered elsewhere in the Weald.

A legend of warring giants has sprung from his position on the Hill. Apparently, two giants once lived in the area - one on Windover Hill, the other at Firle Beacon. They had a set-to and started throwing rocks at each other. The Windover Giant was struck and now lies on the side of the Hill where he fell...

From the breezy peak of this aptly-named Windover Hill, it is possible - on a clear day - to look south and discern a pale smudge on the Downs a few miles away...

Litlington Horse

A relatively small addition to the canon of equine hillfigures, the Horse is slightly less than twenty-five metres long. He can be viewed from several points along the road heading south from Wilmington, although the best views are available on foot from the South Downs Way.

It is the second Horse on the site. The first stood slightly NW of the present figure. Cut in 1838 to commemorate Victoria's coronation (local legend claiming that it was constructed in a single day), it had overgrown and vanished completely by 1920.

Another legend claims that the figure is a memorial to a girl killed when the horse she was riding threw her after bolting down the hill. The present Horse was cut in 1024 by a Mr John Ade, whose grandfather had helped with the cutting of the original Horse. He was assisted by two friends and, for obscure reasons, cut it by moonlight.

West Clandon Dragon

The Dragon, visible from the A246 east of Guildford, was created in 1977 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II.  Although it grassed over by 1990, it was recently restored. It is the only hillfigure in Surrey, the county better known for stockbroker belts and theme parks. A White Horse once existed in Surrey, at Hindhead, but it disappeared early in the 20th century.

The Dragon reflects a local legend, recorded as early as 1776. The village of West Clandon was terrorised by a dragon, and the villagers told a passing army deserter that, if he disposed of the beast, they would grant him a pardon. The dragon was subsequently attacked by the soldier's dog, who wore it down so that the triumphant soldier could strike a fatal blow.

Whitehawk Hawk

And finally...

Located in the Sheepcote Valley on the eastern fringes of Brighton, the Hawk was created in the Summer of 2001 by a group of local artists called SameSky. Its inauguration ceremony saw it lit up like a beacon. Plans to hold annual festivities on the Hawk on the anniversary of its creation include maintenance work to prevent its weathering.


  1. Love the modern hawk and horse.

  2. And the modern designs follow the clean abstract lines of the Uffington Horse. I love the fact that these 'modern' hillfigures have all chosen the example of the oldest hillfigure of all.