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The Ridgeway can boast not just the oldest hill figure – Uffington chalk horse – but also the largest – Whipsnade Lion. The Lion was completed in 1933 as an advert to draw visitors to the new zoo and also to warn pilots not to frighten the animals by flying low! It is one of 8 chalk marks along the Trail, three of which are now faint traces in the landscape. Read on below to find out more….

Banner image credit Hedley Thorne.

Stretching 147m across the hillside, Whipsnade’s lion needs a lot of maintenance to stop it becoming overgrown and fading away, and volunteers were called for recently to help weed it as part of the King’s Coronation weekend celebrations. When it was first created, it took 18 months and thousands of man hours involving pick axes and Ivinghoe Beacon, along The Ridgeway, was used as a vantage point to check how it was shaping up. A few years later, it had to be concealed at the outbreak of World War II with brushwood, nets and manure so that German bombers couldn’t use it as a landmark to locate Luton and Dunstable.

According to Historic England, it is possible that giant icons were common features in the landscape in the past and originated in the Iron Age. The White Horse near Uffington in Oxfordshire is the oldest surviving figure in the country dating to the later Bronze Age or Iron Age, between 1740 and 210 BC. (The significance of the horse to prehistoric people is described in another Top 50 entry on horses.) Generations of people have maintained it by re-cutting the edges, weeding and importing chalk and it’s shape has changed – some say it was once a dragon. To draw in crowds of people to help and celebrate the ‘scouring’, festivals were held on the hill so that people could enjoy chasing cheeses rolling downhill, grinning matches, ‘jingling matches’, ‘racing after a pig with a soaped tail’, donkey racing and more!

As well as the famous horse at Uffington, there is the horse on Hackpen Hill near Swindon and there may also have been a horse at Pitstone near Tring, Hertfordshire. The Hackpen Horse was apparently created in 1838 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s coronation by a local parish clerk Henry Eatwell and is one of eight white horses in Wiltshire. It is kept bright with lime by the landowner and local volunteers, unlike Pitstone’s horse which cannot be seen at all. Its existence can only be traced in historic records which refer to ‘White horse waye’ in 1630 and a ‘Whight Horse’ in 1580/1 and appear to locate a horse on the south-west side of the hill, below Grim’s Ditch.

Other lost marks along The Ridgeway include two large figures on Foxhill, near Swindon – ‘The Spear Thrower’ and ‘The Horned Figure’. In 1970, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine reported that the pair were chanced upon by an archaeologist looking at aerial photos. The photos had been taken in 1966 to record a corridor of land that would be altered by the building of the M4 motorway and have since been analysed by modern methods. Located near the crossroads of The Ridgeway and the Roman Road called Ermin Street, the best vantage point would have been the long barrow on Liddington Hill but they would also have been visible from the eastern ramparts of Liddington Castle. The Spear Thrower was around 55m tall and in front of him was a prehistoric symbol of a pair of eyes beneath curved brows known as an oculus (see image gallery above).  The other figure was 60m tall and appeared to have horns sticking out of its head and a pole in each hand.

A chalk mark soon to be more visible to Ridgeway visitors is the Bledlow Cross near Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire. The Scheduled Monument currently hides in woodland on a hillside above The Ridgeway. The Chilterns Conservation Board intends to organise a restoration project with the landowner to clear away the undergrowth.

On the opposite hill to Bledlow Cross and again beside The Ridgeway, Whiteleaf Hill displays a cross with a triangular base known locally as ‘the globe’. A good distant view of Whiteleaf Cross can be enjoyed from Lodge Hill along The Ridgeway. It was first recorded in 1742 and, since it is not mentioned in earlier historic documents, there is doubt that it dates much earlier. In a similar way to Uffington’s White Horse, historic records show that scouring the cross had become a focus for festivities and Ridgeway visitors have the Chiltern Society to thank for keeping it in shape these days.

Last but not least is the Watlington ‘white mark’ above the market town of Watlington in Oxfordshire. It is a long triangle and was apparently created in 1764 by a local resident who wanted to add a spire to the local church which he could see from his window! This private view is now obscured by trees but the National Trust now maintain it as a landmark for everyone to appreciate.

Notes: More information about horses and also artists and photographers inspired by the Ridgeway’s chalk figures is available in other Top 50 entries.

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