One of the most striking things you can see as you drive through the English countryside is the great white shape of a hill figure cut into the landscape. There are many to see, at least fifty known figures, ranging from the very recent to the ancient. Some are famous the world over, like the White Horse at Uffington that dates back the best part of 3,000 years. Others are less well known, even in England.
Thousands of people must daily drive past the Whiteleaf Cross and never notice it. A large triangular base surmounted these days by a cross, cut into the chalk of a wooded hillside. The earliest known reference to the figure dates back only to 1742, but it shares the hillside with a far earlier Iron Age hillfort and barrows. Was there once a more ancient figure, later Christianised for ‘decency’?
Certainly, puritanical morality would have been offended by the Cerne Abbas Giant, whose erect phallus has been a symbol of fertility for centuries at least… the jury is out on his age and he is dated variously from 17thC to ancient history. The Giant stands some 180ft tall and has entered into the folk history of the area with a depth and scope that, to my mind, can only serve to confirm his antiquity, as does the name of the village, Cerne Abbas, named for Cernunnos, the Horned God.
There are still a good many I have not seen and there are many whose existence is now only half a memory in forgotten journals and research, or speculative, like the Gogmagog giants of T.C. Lethbridge. Most of the ones that remain are less than a few hundred years old. Some are very recent and include regimental badges and figures marking some major event or place… like the great lion of Whipsnade.
Yet others retain more than a little mystery. The great figures must be scoured every few years to keep them visible. Many are cut into the chalk itself, others have their outlines filled with compacted chalk. The grass encroaches and the figures fade unless they are maintained. Each scouring and recutting inevitably alters the original shape, either a little and by accident, or a lot and by design. It is known that several existing figures have been changed… records exist showing sketches or describing details no longer extant; modern archaeological investigation can find traces long hidden from view. So can a good dowser.
So it begs the question of how old some of these figures really are. There may be records dating back to, say, the 17thC that describe a monument… but just because the record doesn’t exist prior to that date, does it necessarily mean the figure was not there? Or was it just so much a part of the landscape that no-one thought to mention it? Beneath some of the centuries-old horses and figures, what lies forgotten? Is what we see today but a pale shadow of a former geoglyph that spoke of the dreams, lands and gods of our ancestors? And what lies hidden, lost now beneath our grassy hillsides, farmlands and timber plantations?
On our travels we have noticed a distinct feel to the landscapes in which the older figures are carved… a particular formation of hills and slopes where it feels as if there ‘should’ have been a figure. Very scientific, of course… going on instinct. Yet I remember we looked at one set of hills and earmarked it as a ‘should have’. Quite apart from the hillside itself, the ancient Ridgeway, Grim’s Dyke and the Icknield way converge on the spot… and researching this article, I found we were not the only ones to have thought so; the parish land records speak of fields named for such a figure, and a lane was named for it, though the figure is now lost to memory and description and no longer graces the hills. There is history beneath our every footstep, even though it can no longer be seen.