Near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire, England, one can find a most miraculous symbol, the oldest of the English hill figures. Some 3000 years old, the Uffington White Horse is a stick figure-style horse nearly the size of a football field and visible from 20 miles away.
It is roughly 365 feet (111 m) long and 120 feet (37 m) high. It was created in the late Bronze Age, when horses were revered. “Chalking Day” is conducted by the National Trust. The event is also referred to as “Scouring of the White Horse.” It is a cleaning ritual that has been written about since 1736 when Francis Wise described it, but it has occurred since around 1200 B.C.
The practice has been called the “world’s largest coloring between the lines.” The vegetation around the “horse” is weeded and edged to keep the shape’s distinct lines. Then, chalk is smashed into a paste and painstakingly added by hand to keep the shape true to the original. Inch by inch, the stony pathways in the grass are whitened.
In the past, thousands of people would have come for the scouring, holding a fair in the circle of a prehistoric fort nearby. It occurred every seven years and was a time of great celebration and merrymaking. Feasts occurred, and the hill itself hosted games of all kinds, as did the Manger, a deep valley scooped out of the hillside beneath the horse. The fair is no longer part of the ritual, but it is no less a grand experience. Without the scouring, the area would have long ago become overgrown, and a bit of history would have been lost.
These days it’s a quieter event.
“National Trust ranger Andy Foley hands out hammers. ‘It must have happened in this way since it was put on the hillside,” he says. “If people didn’t look after it the horse would be gone within 20 to 30 years; overgrown and eroded. We’re following in the footsteps of the ancients, doing exactly what they did 3,000 years ago.’ The trenches would have been dug out using antler picks and wooden spades: tough, labor-intensive work. How the builders planned and executed such a large figure when the full effect can only be taken in from several miles away is still a mystery.” (Smithsonian Magazine)