The Uffington white horse
Ordnance Survey grid reference: SU 302 866
The Uffington white horse, one of only four that face to the right, is high on an escarpment of the Berkshire Downs below Whitehorse Hill, a mile and a half south of the village of Uffington, and it looks out over the Vale of the White Horse. Though on the Berkshire Downs, it has been in Oxfordshire since county boundary alterations in the 1970s. It is cut, not on the steepest slope of the hill, but on the much shallower slope near the top, and can only really be viewed well from afar or from above.
This is by far the oldest of all the white horses, and is of an entirely different design to the others. Unlike the solid and more or less naturalistic figures of the other horses, the Uffington white horse is formed from stylized curving lines some ten feet or less wide, and its length of around 365 feet makes it over twice as long as the longest of the Wiltshire horses. Whether it is indeed intended to represent a horse, or some other creature instead, has been debated, but it has certainly been called a horse since at least medieval times. A cartulary of the Abbey of Abingdon from between 1072 and 1084 refers to "the place commonly known as the White Horse Hill" ("locum qui vulgo mons albi equi nuncupatur").
Until 1995 the Uffington white horse was thought to date from the Iron Age. However, in the nineteen-nineties, a new dating technique was developed. This technique, optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL), can show how long soil has been hidden from sunlight. The lines of the horse consist of trenches dug in the hillside, then filled with chalk. OSL testing of soil from between the lower layers of that chalk shows that it has been buried since between 1400 BC and 600 BC, and probably between 1200 BC and 800 BC, and thus the horse is of Bronze Age origin.
The original purpose of this horse is unknown. It may have been the emblem of a local tribe, and have been cut as a totem or badge marking their land, or it may have had a religious purpose or significance. The horse-goddess Epona was worshipped by the Celts in Gaul, and she had a counterpart in Britain, Rhiannon, so the Uffington white horse may have been cut by adherents of a cult of the horse-goddess.
Alternatively, the horse could have been cut by worshippers of the sun god Belinos or Belenus, who was associated with horses. He was sometimes depicted on horseback, and Bronze and Iron Age sun chariots were shown as being drawn by horses. Conceivably, if this suggestion is correct, the horse could have been cut on the shallower slope at the top of the hill in order to be seen from above by the god himself.
The young readers' historical novel "Sun Horse, Moon Horse" by Rosemary Sutcliff, though fiction, is a fascinating speculation on the cutting of the Uffington horse by a member of the Iceni tribe, and paints a vivid picture of what life in the Bronze Age might have been like.
The Uffington white horse can be seen from up to twenty miles away in good conditions. It can be seen close up from the top of nearby Dragon Hill, but is perhaps best viewed from three or four miles away, being on the very top of the escarpment where the slope is less steep. In July 2004 I was told that the horse is looking clean, and that English Heritage are to erect a fence around it.
OS 1:50 000 map
This site was last updated on 17 March 2018