Historical Wiltshire


"As from the Dorset shore I travell'd home, I saw the charger of the Wiltshire wold; A far-seen figure, stately to behold, Whose groom the shepherd is, the hoe his comb."

Wiltshire is without doubt the county of counties when it comes to white horses, with no less than nine laying within its boundaries, although only seven of these are now visible. The vast expanse of chalk downs, with their smooth, steep sides provide a number of ideal sites to exercise the art of turf cutting.

Five of the horses lay close to one another within a five mile radius of Avebury which lies in the very centre of the Wiltshire Downs; three further horses lie a short distance further away. All may be visited by road or via track-ways, the old lines of communication in this area.

Westbury White Horse

Westbury White Horse

The history of the white horses is an issue of some debate, in particular with regard to Westbury which is the oldest of Wiltshire's horses. The site is known to have been restored in 1778 but the date of the original work remains largely a matter of conjecture. Many believe the initial carving was made to commemorate Alfred's victory over the Danes at the battle of Ethandune in 878. However, historians can not even agree whether this battle took place in the immediate vicinity; although some associate Ethandune with the nearby village of Edington.

The white horses to be found in Wiltshire are:

There is discussion within the county of a new horse being carved as part of the millennium celebrations. This has caused 'healthy' debate with some strongly opposed to the idea and others welcoming the potential addition to Wiltshire's very special family of white horses.

The Other Hill Figures In Wiltshire

The majority of these were dug by military forces during their stay in the area, however the panda just appeared overnight and was said to represent the Union for Conservation of Nature and Wildlife and the initials UNCW appear below the figure although it is now believed to have been constructed by students from Bangor University Wales whose symbol is a panda.

The Rest of England

Wiltshire isn`t the only place to exhibit chalk figures. In all there are seventeen chalk horses, and many other giants crosses and figures. In total there are nearly fifty figures including the horses and regimental badges of Wiltshire, although there are only two chalk figures in Scotland.

The term used for cutting the chalk horses is leucippotomy and the term for that of the giant figures is gigantotomy.

Of the giants only two of these survive, the Cerne giant and the Long Man of Wilmington. Originally there were others at Oxford, Cambridge, and two on Plymouth Hoe. It is one of the Plymouth men that is the earliest documented figure with reports dating from around 1486. It is not just men and horses there are several giant beasts as well, The Mormond Stag, the Whipsnade Lion as well as the Bulford Kiwi mentioned above.