To those unfamiliar with the remaining rural landscapes of England, images of giant figures depicting man and beast emblazoned onto hillsides might elicit responses such as: “Wow, is this real?” Upon being informed that such hill figures exist all over Great Britain, some might even suspect the deceptive hand of Photoshop, or simply wonder why: why have people created these figures?
The answers are varied and often obscure, but we’ll try to dig up what’s behind each figure collected here. The works are created by stripping away the top layer of soil and turf to expose the chalk beneath, which contrasts strikingly with the green grass of the hillside. In some cases, trenches have been dug and material brighter than the bedrock placed inside. Designed to be seen from afar, the images are often discernible from great distances. Though they are frequently thought to date back from ancient times, most can be traced back to the last few centuries.
1. Long Man of Wilmington – 227 ft tall
Located in East Sussex, the Long Man of Wilmington’s origins remain unclear, though recent archaeological work indicates that the figure dates from the 16th or 17th century. An 18th-century drawing suggests that the original figure was a shadow or indentation in the grass with facial features, rather than just an outline, and the staves may once have been a rake and scythe. Today, the Long Man plays host to annual neo-pagan rituals.
Image: Iain Simpson
Staves in hand: The Long Man of Wilmington.
The art of carving gigantic human-shaped hill figures is called gigantotomy, with the Long Man one of England’s two surviving examples of such work. The other is further ahead…
Image: The History Blog
2. Cerne Abbas Giant – 180 ft tall
Also known as the Rude Man, the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset is carved into the side of a steep hill and formed by a 12-inch wide trench. The Giant with an erect penis wields a 120-ft knobbled club, and probably formerly held a cloak or animal skin in its left arm while standing over a disembodied head.
Image: Simon Garbutt
Too much detail? Detail of Cerne Abbas Giant’s phallus.
Though commonly held to have Celtic, Roman or even Early Medieval origins, its history cannot be traced back further than the 17th century. Perhaps a portrayal of Heracles, perhaps a work of political satire from the English Civil War, many stories surround this superbly detailed figure, which is often seen to symbolise, well, fertility.
3. Homer Simpson – 180 ft tall
Moving from the profane to the still more profane… whatever the genesis of the Cerne Abbas Giant, little mystery surrounds the next primal-looking hill figure to grace this list.
Mmmmm: Homer, doughnut in hand.
Conceived as a publicity stunt for the opening of The Simpsons Movie in July 2007, the giant representation of Homer Simpson brandishing a doughnut was outlined in water-based biodegradable paint to the left of the Cerne Abbas giant. This angered local neopagans, who pledged to perform rain magic to wash the figure away. The Giant has previously been used to promote products such as condoms and jeans.
4. Uffington White Horse – 374 ft long
Unlike the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Uffington White Horse is an indisputably ancient creation. Located in Oxfordshire, this highly stylised prehistoric hill figure is formed from deep trenches, 5–10 feet wide, filled with crushed white chalk.
Nice spot: Uffington White Horse with a couple sat having a picnic behind its ear.
The figure has been shown to date back some 3,000 years to the Bronze Age, and Iron Age coins have also been found that bear its image. Though it has long been debated whether the chalk figure is a horse or some other animal, it has had its equine moniker since at least the 11th century and is thought to represent a tribal symbol. No other white horse is longer.
Image: hans s
5. Westbury White Horse – 182 high
A hill figure on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain, the Westbury White Horse is the oldest of several such horses in Wiltshire. It was restored in 1788, an act that may have destroyed a previous chalk horse that occupied the same slope, though as yet there is no evidence of such a horse at Westbury before 1742.
On the horizon: The Westbury White Horse overlooks a panoramic view.
Another hill figure whose origins are obscure, the Westbury White Horse is boldly claimed to commemorate King Alfred’s victory at the Battle of Eðandun in 878, although there is no trace of such a legend before the 18th century. The current horse has a paved eye and can be seen well from afar.
6. Cherhill White Horse – 220 ft long
Another of Wiltshire’s white horses, the Cherhill White Horse dates back from the late 18th century, and is the third oldest of several such white horses to be found in Great Britain.
Image: David Norfolk
At a canter: Cherhill White Horse photographed over a rape field.
Possibly inspired by the Westbury White Horse, which had just been remodelled, this well-made take on the tradition was first cut in 1780 by Dr Christopher Alsop. Alsop is reported to have directed the making of the horse from a distance, shouting through a megaphone from below the steep slope on which it lies. Since then it has been scoured and resurfaced several times, and now has a stone-and-concrete eye.
7. Kilburn White Horse – 318 ft long
Moving away from Wiltshire to North Yorkshire, the Kilburn White Horse is said to be Britain’s largest in surface area and the most northerly in England. It was as created in 1857.
There’s something down there: Kilburn White Horse from the air.
Even with a hill figure this recent, there are differing accounts about its origins: some claim it was created by school master John Hodgson and his pupils alongside local volunteers; others give Uffington White Horse-inspired businessman Thomas Taylor credit as the main mover and director of the men who cut the figure and whitened the rock. The steep and unstable surface makes the horse hard to maintain.
8. Osmington White Horse – 323 ft high
The Osmington White Horse is a hill figure sculpted into the limestone of the Dorset Downs in 1808, just north of the seaside town of Weymouth. This horse differs from the others in that it carries a rider – a representation of King George III, whom it commemorates. The King regularly visited Weymouth, making it ‘the first resort’ and bringing much prosperity with him.
Image: Dave Skinner
Tally-ho! Wide shot of the man on a white horse at Osmington.
Like many of these hill figures, the Osmington White Horse can be viewed from miles around. Leucippotomy is the name given to the art of carving white horses in chalk upland areas, especially as practiced in southern England.
9. Folkstone White Horse – 267 feet long
The Folkstone White Horse in Kent overlooks the English terminal of the Channel Tunnel and was completed in June 2003. Based on the Uffington White Horse, it was designed by a local artist, Charlie Newington, who later directed the team of volunteers that built it from afar via radio.
Image: Sam Martin
Not to everyone’s taste: The Folkestone White Horse from the Channel Tunnel.
Dug into the topsoil in shallow trenches 12–24 inches wide that were filled with limestone slabs, the Folkstone White Horse was controversial. It was supported by the local council, who adopted it as their corporate logo, but many were opposed to it as the site is an environmentally protected area.
Image: Today is a good day
10. Whipsnade Zoo White Lion – 483 ft long
The Whipsnade Zoo White Lion can be found on a slope of the Dunstable Downs, just below the park it conspicuously advertises in Bedfordshire. Completed in 1933 from a design by R.B. Brooke-Greaves, it allows people to locate the zoo from miles to the north and is the largest all England’s hill figures. After first being cut in an outline only, it was later made into a solid figure. The Lion is said to be home to a colony of wallabies that can occasionally be seen on it.
Grrr: White Lion hill figure photographed from Ivinghoe Beacon.
Like the Folkstone White Horse and Cerne Abbas Homer Simpson, the Whipsnade Zoo White Lion is emblematic of the modern trend of hill figures being used to advertise brands.