The highly stylized Uffington White Horse has galloped across a steep hill overlooking the Vale of the White Horse southwest of Oxford for at least 3,000 years. What does it mean? How was it made? Where can you see it and is it really a horse? All good questions. Read on for the answers and for our complete guide to the Uffington White Horse.
Over the years, various theories were put forward about the origins of the White Horse. Unlike other, more realistic chalk horses inscribed on England's hillsides (yes there are several), the Uffington figure appears to be in motion, almost flying over the hill. Theorists originally though it was of Anglo Saxon origin, but eventually concluded that it was from the Iron Age (from about 800 BC) because the stylized horse symbol has been found on coins from the period.
But it wasn't until an 1990s Oxford University survey, that used advanced scientific dating, that researchers could definitively place the figure in the Bronze Age (3000 to 1200 BC), making it at between 3,000 and 5,000 years old.
The survey also uncovered how it was made. At on time it was thought to have been carved into the underlying chalk of the North Berkshire Downs, where it is located. But there is no surface chalk on these hills. In fact, it was created by digging trenches up to a meter deep and packing them with crushed chalk.
The horse has remained visible over the millennia because, since time immemorial as they say, local villagers scoured and re-chalked the horse at a festival every seven years. The National Trust, which now owns the horse, maintains the 3,000-year-old tradition by inviting volunteers to re-chalk the horse, on special weekends in July or August, every year. Watch the events page on the White Horse Hill website to find out when.
Without this regular maintenance, the figure would quickly be overgrown with grass and weeds. During WWII it was actually covered with soil and sod to prevent German bombers from using it for navigation.It is impossible to actually see the full outline shape of the horse when you are on White Horse Hill. Other than via an aerial view (and before you think of it, drones flying over it are banned ), the horse can only be seen in full from vantage points many miles away. So no one really knows how it was inscribed on the landscape. Speculation as to why points to it being a symbol of a local, Bronze Age tribe marking its territory.
The Shape of the White Horse
Although the lines of its body and legs suggest a horse in full gallop, the head of the white horse is peculiarly primitive looking and it seems to have a beak. So it is really a horse? Well, since the 11th century, everything written about it has referred to it as a horse. And the recent seismic studies and aerial photography suggest the contours of a more realistic horse hidden underneath it. Scientists speculate that over the centuries, natural land slippage, reinforced by the periodic scouring of the figure distorted what was originally clearly a horse.
To make the story even more intriguing, the recent seismic studies have discovered the outline of a duck, similarly made of trenches dug in the hill but but buried under turf, close to the horse. Scientists speculate this was the symbol of a nearby, competing tribe. Eventually, the National Trust hopes to uncover and rechalk that figure as well.
How to See The Uffington White Horse
The horse is located beside the Ridgeway, an ancient long distance footpath that runs along the top of the North Berkshire Downs in Oxfordshire. You can access White Horse Hill from a National Trust pay and display parking lot nearby. The parking is signposted off A420 Swindon to Oxford road and is 9 miles from on the M4 motorway. It's about 25 miles southwest of Oxford and 80 miles west of London.
It's free and it's open from dawn to dusk. Once you get to the parking, however, it's a steep, long walk to the horse and it is always very windy up there. And here's the catch: once you climb that hill, there are beautiful views of the surrounding countryside but you can't actually see the horse when you're on it.
The best way to view the horse is from a distance. There are good viewpoints from across the Vale of the White Horse in the villages of Great Coxwll, Longcot and Fernham, about 3 or 4 miles away. You can also see the horse if you drive north of it on the B4507 but, as there is no place to pull over and park you'll only be able to see it in passing.
See the Horse From the Air
Without a doubt, the best way to see the horse is from a plane or helicopter. And, if you are keen to take your own picture of it, it's really the only way to get a good look. Stonehenge Helicopter Tours charge £115 per person (in 2019) for flights over Stonehenge that can include the Uffington White Horse as well. They fly from London, Salisbury and Bath between April and October.