White chalk horses carved into hills are a staple of the Wiltshire countryside. Many have been lost to time and poor maintenance, but several remain as prominent landmarks. In fact, so many have been made that in the mid-twentieth century, an author called Morris Marples created the term ‘leucippotomy’ to describe the process.
There are horses in many different parts of Wiltshire, most often from the 1700s to 1900s. Westbury, Cherhill, Marlborough, Alton Barnes, Hackpen, Broad Town, Pewsey and Devizes all feature chalk art, with Devizes being the most recent, built in 1999 to commemorate the millennium.
The Westbury horse was created in 1778, the second horse to be created on the site of Bratton Downs – the Uffington horse was the first. Many believe it is a memorial of the Battle of Ethandun in 878, said to have occurred near the area. However, others disagree, as many writers mentioned the Uffington horse in the eighteenth century, but not the Westbury one, thereby implying that it was not yet built. An illustration of the original Westbury Horse by Gough from 1772 depicts a distorted creature, whose strange appearance is likely due to foreshortening. However, as there is no evidence of foreshortening, one can assume that the illustration was based on a sketch made from an unfortunate vantage point. Six years after this sketch, in 1778, the first Westbury Horse was destroyed by a Mr Gee, who was a steward to Lord Abingdon. Gee decided to remodel the horse to his own liking, despite protests from the locals. Gee’s new horse faces the opposite way to the original – perhaps Gough’s horse was built into the main body of Gee’s. The horse then fell into disrepair, but was eventually restored in 1873, complete with an edging of stones to maintain its shape. Some more alterations included the fitting of gratings in 1903, to combat troubles caused by water flowing down the Horse in wet weather, and concrete in 1936 to hold the edging stones in place. However, this effort backfired when a small group tore up many edging stones and rolled them down the hill.
Maintaining white horses is a difficult job, especially for the owners. The Mormond White Horse in Scotland was reportedly made by an eccentric gentleman who died of exasperation when he was unable to make the horse look natural from every view! Foreshortening is often used to stop long slopes from distorting horses but achieving a natural shape from every angle is almost impossible. The Red Horse of Tysoe also caused trouble in the early 1900s when a landowner obliterated it to escape pestering from tourists.
White horses are not the only animals carved into hillsides. Salisbury Plain is the proud owner of the Bulford Kiwi, a white bird carved on a hillside. After World War One, New Zealand soldiers faced struggles getting home after the fighting had stopped. Demobilisation meant that over forty thousand troops across Europe needed to be sent home, and the organisation of this was worsened by workers’ strikes in the UK. The soldiers were put into Sling Camp in Salisbury Plain until other arrangements could be made for them. However, the conditions were poor. An influenza pandemic killed many, and there were riots. The men were kept busy with educational classes, but many just wanted to go home. In 1919, Brigadier-General Stewart decided that a kiwi should be carved into the hillside, as many New Zealand soldiers had trained at Sling Camp before heading to the Western Front. The kiwi was accepted by many New Zealanders as a cultural icon. Trevor Lloyd, a cartoonist at the New Zealand Herald, produced images of the bird fighting against deadly foes and winning. The chalk kiwi was completed in June 1919, on the same day that Germany and the principal Allied powers signed for peace.
Chalk art also does not have to be of creatures. There are white crosses in Whiteleaf and Bedlow, which could have been made by monks or as phallic symbols. Cerne has a giant, whose identity is debatable as Hercules or other folklore characters. Wilmington also has a giant, so huge that he is said to be the largest representation of a human figure in the world. Chalk art is not limited entirely to Wiltshire, but it boasts enough beautiful white horses for them to become a recognisable symbol of its landscape.
The books listed below are available to view at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre or to loan via Wiltshire Libraries.
BROWN, Colleen, 2018. The Bulford Kiwi. David Bateman Ltd.
MARPLES, Morris, 1981. White Horses and Other Hill Figures. 1981 edition, originally published 1949. Alan Sutton Publishing Inc, Wolfeboro Falls.
VISIT WILTSHIRE, 2022. ‘Wiltshire’s White Horses.’ Visit Wiltshire, 2022 [online] Wiltshire’s White Horses | Chalk Horse Wiltshire (visitwiltshire.co.uk) Accessed 25/10/2022.
WOLFE, Kerry, 2017. ‘England’s Centuries-Old Fascination with Carving Giant Horses into Hillsides.’ Atlas Obscura, 20 July 2017. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/leucippotomy-giant-hillside-horses-england Accessed 14/10/22.