Monday, 2 September 2013

Off to Uffington White Horse

The last day of the summer holidays and it was off along the M4 eastbound to help Daughter the Younger move house - the third move this year (so far) - followed by a late lunch in the George and Dragon Hotel in West Wycombe.  And then, because it was a lovely sunny day and there were still several hours of daylight left, we returned home via the scenic route.
Like the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, it's very difficult to get a good photo of the Uffington Horse unless you're airborne, which makes me wonder whether prehistoric woman (or man, of course) had mastered the mysteries of flight long before Wilbur and Orville.

In his quartet of books for young adults featuring Tiffany Aching, Terry Pratchett provides us with a beautifully realised portrait of the chalk downs of this part of southern England.

'There were odd carvings in the chalk, too, which the shepherds sometimes weeded when they were out on the downs with the flocks and there was not a lot to do.  The chalk was only a few inches under the turf.  Hoofprints could last a season, but the carvings had lasted for thousands of years.  They were pcitures of horses and giants, but the strange thing was that you couldn't see them properly from anywhere on the ground.  They looked as if they'd been made for views in the sky.' (From 'The Wee Free Men'.)

Next best thing is to climb up White Horse Hill to get a closer look.

First, though, a shufti at Dragon Hill, which is a natural hill with an artificial flat top.  Legend has it that Saint George slew the dragon here (now there's a coincidence!) despite the fact he was a Greek born in Palestine and executed in Turkey without ever setting foot on English chalk.  (I'm not so sure the dragon was local either.)  But there is proof! cry the believers.  That patch of chalk, where no grass grows, is where the dragon's blood was spilt. So it must be true.

'There was a flat place at the top where nothing ever grew, and Tiffany knew there was a story that a hero had once fought a dragon up there and its blood had burned the ground where it fell.  There was another story that said there was a heap of treasure under the hill, defended by the dragon, and another story that said a king was buried there in armour of solid gold.  There were lots of stories about the hill; it was surprising it hadn't sunk under the weight of them.' (From 'The Wee Free Men' again.)

Unlike the Wiltshire White Horses, which originated during the last 300 years, Uffington White Horse is dated to 1400BC - 600BC.  Additionally, it's not naturalistic, but composed of stylised flowing lines, which gives it an abstract, strangely modern appearance.

Indeed, there has been some debate as to whether it's a horse at all (though to my eye there's no doubt).  Certainly documents from the 11th century speak of a place 'commonly known as White Horse Hill', and the shape of it is very similar to horses found on Iron Age coins.   I think Granny Aching gets it right:  'Taint what a horse looks like, it's what a horse be' (From 'A Hatful of Sky')

And here's his manger, with the Vale of White Horse beyond ... 
We watched a kestrel surf the thermals below us. He probably had a far better view of the whole of the horse than we did, although I'd liked seeing bits of it at odd angles and trying to puzzle out which part was which.

Up close there was scabious and harebells.  
It was beginning to get dusky so we left the horse and went for a wander around the raised perimeter of the Iron Age hill fort known as Uffington Castle.  

It's hard to leave a place where magic is so close to the surface of everything, but after a week when autumn started to bite and the world lost its greatest living poet, at least we were going with new memories like balm for the heart.

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