The Vale of Uffington lies within the chalk hills of Oxfordshire in the United Kingdom. The area has always been thought to have some connections with the legend of St George and the Dragon, but is most famous for the gigantic carving of a horse in chalk, carved out of the escarpment. The carving is the the oldest of its type in Britain, thought to date from 3000-2000 years ago during the Iron Age. The design of the horse is very different to more modern chalk carvings such as the Westbury White Horse, using long flowing lines and geometric shapes rather then large blocks of chalk which were favoured by more modern constructions.

The horse is sited on Whitehorse Hill, which lies in close proximity to the Ridgeway path, an ancient track linking Avebury to the Thames Valley and following a route that winds throughout many prehistoric sites along the top of the chalk downs. Also nearby is Uffington Castle, a Saxon hill fort, The Manger, a small valley where the white horse is thought to come and drink, and Dragon Hill, where St George is thought to have slain the ferocious dragon. These all really require write-ups of their own. The horse faces north-west, but is quite difficult to see from the ground as it is high up on the hillside. It is best seen from other hills on the vale, or from the air.

The Uffington white horse is the largest of it's type in Britain. The carving stretches for 374 feet, covering an area of some 3000 feet altogether. The lines of the carving have been reinforced with concrete in order to reduce the effects of erosion (though you would hardly notice), and are made up of ditches 5-10 feet wide by 2-3 feet deep. The horse is maintained by The National Trust, but English Heritage appear to be responsible for the the surrounding landscape. The horse is 'scoured' every seven years to renew the whiteness of the chalk. This tradition usually involved lots of drinking and morris dancing as well as the playing of lots of traditional English games like cheese rolling and watching a mystery play. The tradition ceased around 1900 and the horse was nearly overgrown, but has been rejuvenated by English Heritage over the past thirty years. The last scouring was in 2000 and appeared to be a great success!

As to the origins of the horse, there are several different interpretations ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous.

  • Some camps argue that the horse is not a horse at all, but a representation of the dragon that was slain by St. George. The horse predates this legend by at least a thousand years however.
  • A more reasonable explanation is that the horse represents Epona, a celtic goddess of fertility, and the site was a place of ritual worship. Images of a horse, very similar in shape and design to the Uffington white horse, appear in Iron Age jewellery and coinage of the same period, and horse worshipping is known to have occured in Iron Age times.
  • The horse is thought to be commemorative of either King Alfred's defeat of the Danes in AD 861, or of the standard carried by Hengist, an fifth century Anglo-Saxon king of Kent.
Of these different views, I find the Iron Age theory the most likely, as there is lots of evidence for horses of similar design in contemporary artwork of the time.

The Vale of Uffington is a great place to spend an afternoon, although it can be quite exposed on a cold day with a strong wind. Parking can be found at the foot of the hill, off a minor road from the B4507. There are several pubs and hotels nearby, including the White Horse Inn at Woolstone. There is no entrance fee to see the White horse, or any of the associated sites.

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See:
http://www.uffington.net/
http://www.wayland.demon.co.uk/whshow/whshow.htm For information about the last scouring.
http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/majorsites/uffington.html For photographs of the horse and surrounding sites.