Monday, 28 March 2016

The Uffington White Horse

This post isn't just about the chalk-white prehistoric horse on the steep north face of the Wiltshire Downs. There's another, much more personal angle.

But let's begin with the second half of my recent adventure, a bid to see not only Wayland's Smithy (the subject of the last post) but its even more famous nearby companion, the Uffington White Horse, which seems to have inspired all the other white horses cut on grassy chalk hill faces everywhere - although this one, the original, is nothing like the later ones. Here are three aerial pictures of it, off the Internet, the third one showing Uffungton Castle hill fort:

The Horse (see is thought to be 2,500 to 3,000 years old - and therefore 2,000 years younger than Wayland's Smithy. The very abstracted design is really rather sophisticated. Although reduced to a set of thin disconnected lines, it's clearly a prancing or galloping animal, most obviously a horse, and to me it seems full of life and movement. I especially admire the curve of its neck, back and tail. The head is curiously unhorselike, with apparently a beak for mouthparts, but that's the only oddness. It was presumably made by landscaping the ground, digging into the turf to expose the white chalk rock beneath.

The builders must have had a definite plan to work to, in order to create this large but properly-proportioned hillside figure. I wonder how they managed it, because you can see the horse in all its glory only by getting up in the air. At ground level it entirely loses its overall shape because of foreshortening; and in any case you can only see a small part of the whole from any given spot. I approached the Horse on foot from the hill fort side, and this was my first view of it - part of the head:

If you didn't know it was the head, you'd be puzzled! I then walked downhill, along the neck to the tip of the tail. A National Trust ranger was cleaning-up the chalk parts (nobody else is allowed to tread on the chalk):

You can see how fiendishly hard it might have been to get the Horse looking right from a distance, while cutting the turf and exposing the chalk! The tail is really very thin, as the bottom shot shows - that's my trusty chestnut walking stick placed on the tail, to give an impression of scale. You can also see that the chalk isn't solid - it's rubble that can shift about and turn to powder. And yet it doesn't seem to become a white sludge when it rains.

So how did the builders do it? How did they check the realisation of their design without an overall view, just as we nowadays see it from the air? How was the Horse made to seem recognisable to the people coming from afar to visit the site? Nobody could get airborne. The slope here is gentle, and so the view from the vale below is very oblique. Still, a flat-topped hill close by, called Dragon Hill, may have been the Official Viewing Platform for any ceremonies connected with this chalk animal. Here is the hill, as seen from the Horse. I reckon that if the top of the hill is so visible, they must have been able to get a half-decent view of the horse from it:

Feeling puffed, I wasn't inclined to trek all the way down there and back to find out! Instead, I tried to get some good shots of the Horse's legs and the head. But this wasn't easy. They don't look like legs in these pictures, do they, although the head is perhaps easier to make out.

There are of course plenty of legends associated with the Horse. One quaint old rhyme goes as follows:

If any man on White Horse Hill 
Shows disrespect to the ancient beast,
That man shall know the horse's will
And he, anon, shall be deceased.
The horse will cry,
And he will die,
Struck by a thunderbolt from the sky.

Such are quaint folk rhymes! But then - would you believe it? - just as I set forth back to the car park, a piercing shriek like a neigh rent the air, and a fiery comet-like thing whizzed down from the boiling sky:

Crumbs! Someone must have dropped a crisp packet! Well, it just goes to show that you must tread carefully where these prehistoric monuments are concerned. I'm glad now that I didn't do anything chancy or liberty-taking at Wayland's Smithy - such as squatting to have a sneak pee - because (and it's clearly a definite risk) that might have provoked an angry response from whatever guardian spirit haunts these ancient places.

Back at Fiona, I got my boots off and slumped gratefully into the driving seat. It had turned cold and windy, my gouty toe was complaining, and I was feeling tired - as this photo shows:

Once home, and thinking about this post, I remembered that in 2007 I'd seen a picture of the Uffington White Horse in a public exhibition, but not in this country. It was in a place on the far side of the world. next to Lake Wanaka on South Island, New Zealand:

How very, very strange! In fact it was something of a homesickness-trigger. At that point, M--- and I had been campervanning around NZ for over three weeks, and were in fact only two days away from our first definitive conversation about how nice it would be to see all the familiar things in Sussex again. We were missing the English springtime - soft rain and bluebells, for instance - even though we were still enjoying sunny NZ as an exotic experience, and indeed had another month of it to come.

The exhibition was just outside the town of Wanaka, and was showing the ecological photographs of Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

The exhibition was the best thing to see in busy, touristy Wanaka. Nor was the lake all that wonderful.

However, M--- thought it worth plenty of shots. She's on the right in the hat, talking to a local woman with a dog:

We both agreed that nearby Lake Hawea, where we'd pitched the day before, was much more spectacularly photogenic:

That's our hired Maui campervan above, which was only a basic touring vehicle and lacked the comforts of our Elddis caravan back home (which I continue to use to this day for my caravanning holidays). We grew to dislike the Maui campervan rather heartily. Still, it got us to all sorts of memorable places!

Back to Yann Arthus-Bertrand's photos. They had been published in an expensive book called The Earth From The Air that I had seen new in bookshops, but didn't buy because the price (£42 in the mid-2000s) was far too much. But M--- tracked down a good-condition second-hand copy for my 60th birthday in 2012. It was a significant gift, but nevertheless an unexpected gesture to make, as by then we were estranged. And yet clearly M--- (although not indicating in any way that she wanted a rapprochement) had gone to a lot of trouble, writing and inserting a bitter-sweet poem for me, and in particular pasting in a dedication that spoke of Water Dragons and Wood Monkeys (our supposedly very-compatible signs in Chinese Astrology - and, as it happened, 2012 was actually The Year of the Dragon), with a beautifully-drawn picture of a Chinese Dragon:

I was impressed, although I didn't know what to make of it, considering that M--- and I were in a stand-off position. And have remained so, without any move whatever towards a workable truce. The book and its message (and all the other gifts M--- had already sent my way) remains a possible reason for friendlier contact in the future, although as time passes a reconciliation seems ever more unlikely to happen. Fate will no doubt take a hand at some point, as we do after all both live in the same village, even if we only very rarely glimpse each other.

You know, I think the sinuous dragon M--- drew somehow bears a passing resemblance to the galloping Uffington White Horse. Or am I being way too fanciful? It certainly reminds me of the dragon in the 1958 Rupert Bear annual! (M--- loved Rupert, and much admired the artwork of a famous past illustrator, Alfred Bestall)

Horses, thunderbolts, ecology, lakes, dragons, and Rupert Bear. I'm not good at keeping to one subject, am I?

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