21 May 2017

Sussex: The Long Man and the White Horse

No visit to my friend Jill in Sussex is complete without a drive past at least one of the enigmatic and incredibly large figures, inscribed on the local hills.

The origins of the Long Man of Wilmington have even the experts baffled. At around 230 feet tall, it was once thought to be the largest representation of the human form in the world. Some people speculate that it was carved out of the hillside by prehistoric man to scare away wolves, others that it was created by the monks of nearby Wilmington Priory. Perhaps he’s a figure from some ancient and primitive fertility cult, though the fact that he lacks any reproductive organs would seem to rule out that theory.

The sign on the hill overlooking the figure says that, during the Victorian period, ‘the shape was marked out with yellow bricks’, though those have since been replaced with concrete blocks. The intriguing thing to me is that whoever first marked out the shape was aware of the distortion created by the sloping angle of the hillside and compensated for it: the true shape of the Long Man is elongated so as to appear more normal from a distance.

The White Horse at Litlington is a true chalk figure, cut into the steep side of a hill in the Cuckmere Valley, and one of several large horse figures that adorn the hills of England, some ancient, some very modern. The origins of this particular figure are better documented: according to the National Trust, it was first cut into the downs by four men in 1836 and then re-carved in 1924 by a grandson of one of those men.

The horse is regularly restored by the National Trust, most recently in April this year, when volunteers first weeded the figure, then spread six tonnes of chalk over it to spruce it up. You can see the difference in its appearance in the two photographs below, one taken on a rather grey day in August 2014 and the other just last week.

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