Of the thirteen white horses to have existed in Wiltshire – cut from the country’s iconic chalk hillsides – only eight are still visible. The oldest of these undoubtedly is the Westbury White Horse, which dates to at least 1742. (Some say it was originally cut in the late 1600s, but others believe it might be even older than that, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that.)
Over the years, Westbury White Horse has undergone numerous renovations. It is now actually made from concrete and painted white, rather than chalk-cut, but is no less of an iconic figure on the rolling hills of Wiltshire. And the most recent of these renovations have just been completed – after locals complained it had become a ‘grey mare‘ – restoring the hill figure to its former glory.
Funded by English Heritage, this was no easy task. Due to the steepness of the hill, workers had to abseil down to clean, repaint and repair the Westbury White Horse. First, a build of algae and dirt had to be washed off, before the joints were repaired and then multiple coats of white paint were applied. Work on this Wiltshire landmark took place throughout the summer, but it now looks gleaming!
If you want to visit Westbury White Horse in all its glory head up to the Iron Age hillfort at Bratton Camp (built over 2000 years ago) on Bratton Road. There are plenty of places to park, while the area itself offers some stunning views and wonderful walks. It should take about an hour to get to if you’re driving from Bristol.
What mysteries surround Westbury White Horse?
As Ralph Whitlock writes in The Folklore of Wiltshire (1976), “Tradition is inclined to give it an early date; a favourite tale is that it was carved to commemorate Alfred’s victory over the Danes in 878.” Suggesting the hilltop was actually the site of the Battle of Ethandun. There is something to it, as a white horse war standard was often associated with the Saxons.
The first mention of the horse was not made until 1742 when Rev. F. Wise wrote that it had been “wrought within the memory of persons now living or but lately dead.” However, the first carving of the Westbury Horse was not recorded until 1778. A surviving drawing of a very different-looking Westbury White Horse also shows how the current figure likely absorbed a much older design.
Whitlock describes it as such:
The figure had a long drooping body, very short legs and goggle eyes, On the tip of its tail was poised a crescent moon, horns upwards. Like the Uffington Horse in Berkshire and unlike the present Westbury Horse, it faced right.
Some argue that Wise was mistaken; that this older White Horse dated back to King Alfred’s time, before being covered by the newer design. But whether it is a thousand years old, or just a couple of hundred, it’s an icon of Wiltshire’s landscape that we hope can be maintained for hundreds if not thousands more.
We’ll leave you with our favourite tale about the Westbury White Horse (which is definitely not true but we love it anyway): When the Bratton Church clock strikes midnight, it is said the white horse leaves the hill to drink from the Bridewell Springs below.