The Fascinating & Ancient Hill Figures of Southern England

Phoebe James
August Schwerdfeger CC BY 4.0

It’s the late 1700s and King George III of Great Britain has become a regular visitor to his favorite royal seaside town on the south coast of England.

His summer jaunts not only encouraged the upper classes to view sea bathing as a healthy and worthwhile pastime, they also made the port of Weymouth, in the rural county of Dorset, into a popular coastal resort.

One year, the townspeople decided to make a grand gesture to show how much they loved their monarch. So they made it 280 feet (85 m) long and 323 feet (98 m) high.

Osmington White Horse, hill figure of George III sculpted into limestone hill, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, southern England, UK

The likeness of King George sitting atop his horse was carved into the chalk hillside of Osmington Hill, just north of the town and overlooking the road that approached from London.

Unfortunately the plan backfired. Instead of being pleased by the devotion of his subjects, the king took great offence because he was depicted riding away from Weymouth – he left and never returned to the town again.

At least, that’s the local urban legend. In truth this monument to King George was created three years after his last visit to the town.

From pre-history to the modern day, people have been making their mark on the landscape by creating patterns and pictures in the ground known as geoglyphs, a type of geographical artwork intended to be viewed from a distance.

Hill figures like the Osmington White Horse are an interesting type of geoglyph that can be seen right across the chalk downlands of southern England.

There are at least 24 white horses adorning England’s rolling hills, though only the one at Osmington has a rider.

Dave Price CC BY-SA 2.0

By far the oldest hill figure is the Uffington Horse, in the Berkshire Downs. This stylistic figure is steeped in legend, including an association with the stories of King Arthur (of sword-in-the-stone fame).

Some people insist that the horse is actually a dragon and that one day it will rise up and dance on the nearby Dragon Hill. We can only hope that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Much more likely is the theory that the Uffington Horse represents the pagan horse goddess Epona.

It dates back to between 1200 BC and 800 BC, which is the era when the people of ancient Britain began riding horses. It follows that they would choose to worship the spirit protector of their beasts.

Sattelite view of the Uffington White Horse

What we do know for sure is that human hands have tended to this hill figure for around 3,000 years. Without regular maintenance, chalk figures become overgrown and slowly fade away.

When they are well preserved, the bright white chalk contrasts starkly with the surrounding turf.

As well as horses, hill figures come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Not far from Stonehenge, on a hill above the military town of Bulford, is a 420 feet (130 m) tall very un-British hill figure.

The Bulford Kiwi was created in 1919 by New Zealand soldiers who were waiting to be repatriated after the First World War. It serves as a lasting reminder of the valor of the New Zealanders who trained and fought side-by-side with their British allies.

Bulford Kiwi. Jonathanjosh1 CC BY-SA 4.0

The kiwi has protected status as a scheduled historic monument and is cared for by Historic England.

Back in Dorset is another famous figure that prominently stands up, as it were, on a hillside not far from the county town of Dorchester.

To quote Terry Pratchett, the Cerne Giant is “definitely a figure of a man without trousers”. He is very clearly a giant of a man.The Cerne Giant, unsurprisingly, is associated with a fertility cult that adopted him as an image of the god Priapus.

One enduring superstition suggests that if a woman rolls across his phallus then it guarantees her marriage will be blessed with children.

It is not unknown for ‘courting couples’ to make an illicit visit to the hillside and to sometimes take the idea a little too far.

PeteHarlow CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking aside from his obvious endowment, it’s clear this guy is buff. His boldly marked six-pack could be the reason the ancient Romans appropriated him as a depiction of Hercules during their occupation of England.

There are numerous modern chalk hill figures, such as the Folkestone White Horse which was completed in June 2003. It took eight months to cut by hand using traditional methods on a hill overlooking the Channel Tunnel terminal.

The Folkestone White Horse

In 1933, Whipsnade wildlife park created a unique hill figure billboard: a 483 feet (147 m) long lion.

However the best of British modern era hill figures has to be a teapot and teacup that were cut in 2009.

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Located beside the M4 near Swansea, Wales, they were created as a gimmick by the manager of Pont Abraham motorway rest area to boost the chances of winning a National Tea Council “Best Cup of Tea” competition.