Interlude ~ Horse Whispers

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White Horse of Uffington

It seems such a long time ago that I wrote  about our not being able to leave for the Scottish weekend, right at the last minute. Stuart hopped on a train and came down here instead. While the Pictish weekend went ahead without us in the far north, we marked time and twiddled our thumbs, waiting for scans and answers. Now, the problem was that this was not only supposed to be a workshop weekend, it was also supposed to be our second and, as it turned out,  wholly unsuccessful attempt to get a holiday of some sort this year… albeit just a few days on the road.  So when even that was denied us, I was determined that we should do something with what time we had to make our ‘holiday’ memorable.

We had already driven out to Rollright a couple of days earlier. It had taken a lot out of me, but as I had managed, I reckoned I could manage a bit further too. We had missed the June workshop thanks to Covid, during which we were supposed to be exploring some of the lesser-known features of the great megalithic circle and sites around Avebury. It is a place we love and, really, is not too far away from my home.

Marlborough White Horse

So, off we set… heading past the White Horse at Uffington, the enigmatic figure cut thousands of years earlier into a strangely shaped ‘horse’ of debatably draconine ancestry. It is the eldest of all the White Horses… first cut, three feet deep and back-filled with chalk, at least three thousand years ago. And yet, like so many other ‘earth-mystery sites’ worldwide, it is only clearly visible from the air…

Like the Nazca lines, there are far too many questions for reasonable answers at this place… but it is a site that is also very special to us, having been part of our story since we, all unknowingly, began our adventures here, one misty, magical morning. So touching base, even if only a nod and a wave on the way past, always feels good.

As we drove on, heading into Wiltshire, we looked out for other White Horses that we would pass. None of the other visible White Horses seem to share the antiquity of The White Horse. Most were cut within the last three centuries to honour people and events of national importance.

Cherhill White Horse

I find it quite telling that the ancient image of the White Horse… who may represent Epona, the Horse Goddess or the Dragon energies that run through the land… should be that echoed to make  celebratory mark. How deep do these symbols run in our blood? Does their true meaning linger at some subconscious level, deep beyond the logic of normal mentation? And, if they are speaking to us across millennia… just what are they whispering to us?

Looking at the history of the currently visible White Horses, they all seem to share a common trait in that they were all set up by men, yet if they hark back to Epona, they would represent a goddess, a female and nurturing divinity that would be anathema within the later Christian landscape. Moreover, many of the later figures have a military connection and, while it is true that war bands with cavalry had a distinct advantage, I have to wonder at what point in our history violence took precedence over the nurturing of the tribe?

Uffington White Horse from Dragon Hill
Uffington White Horse from Dragon Hill

While no records remain in anything we would recognise as ‘written language’ from the time when the great White Horse of Uffington was cut, we do have hints and history that have been passed down via the folk record and eventually captured by the ink of the scribes. Such stories are, by that point, possibly thousands of years away from their source and will have passed through the great machine of Christianisation, where the central characters of a story… who might once have been god, fey or elemental, have been sanitised or condemned by the imposition of sainthood and the pointed finger of demonic accusation.

There is so much to see and learn, so much to wonder about and ponder, even on the simplest of drives from ‘here’ to ‘there’.  No matter where we live in the world, or for how many centuries mankind has left his footprints in the dust upon which we walk, the earth beneath our feet is ancient and full of stories ready to be explored.

We cannot go far without a sense of wonder… so far it has carried us across thousands of years of human evolution and now outwards towards the stars. Perhaps that is the what the ancient White Horse whispers to the winds…

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Hackpen Hill

Ghosts of the past

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Friday dawned. Sort of. Instead of the brilliant sunshine of the previous day, the morning managed to do little more than open a rheumy eye before retreating back into a mist of tears. Still, we were not about to let that put a damper on the day. Duly fortified with bacon and eggs, we readied ourselves for our trip south-westwards for the Silent Eye’s Mountains of the Sun weekend. Failing to be my usual Virgoan self, I hadn’t even packed, but managed to cram at least half of the absolute essentials into the weekend bag. I may prefer to travel relatively light, but a spare pair of trousers and shoes would have been useful. The Mountains of the Sun were wet.

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The planned weekend would not officially begin until we all converged upon a village in Wiltshire, but everyone was ready so, not wanting to waste the day, we had left earlier than intended, choosing instead to visit Uffington… a first for two of our number. For Stuart and I, this was something of a special place on a personal, as well as a historical level… it was here that our adventures together had really begun; a journey that had given life to our books and which had deepened a long love affair with this land. That day we had arrived to mist, buzzards and skylarks.

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We had not returned together since that day, though we had passed and paid our respects as we glanced at the distant hills. I had been back once, with dear friends, on a day of blazing sun when a magnificent sunset marked our parting for another year. But it seemed as if the land itself was preparing to repeat our first experience. The fine rain was not as heavy as our morning mist, but overhead a buzzard soared, corvids and pipts were everywhere and it was as if all the skylarks in the world had joined together to greet the day with song. We had seen the small, white scar on the hillside from a distance, knowing what it was that our eyes sought as we drove through the narrow village lanes. The undulations of the landscape are unmistakeable once you have seen them and their shadows capture the eye and lead it to the strange marking on the hillside known as the White Horse.

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First, however, we walked up to the gateway that cuts through the embankment of Uffington Castle, a huge earthern enclosure of ditch and bank set high on the hilltop. It is a strange place. The air sparkles and time has no meaning there. The enclosure covers an area of some 35,000 square yards… and was built around the same time as the Horse was cut. Yet there is almost no evidence of occupation from that time. What few fragments have been found date most activity to the Roman period, when a shrine seems to have been built there and two burial mounds close by.

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You have to wonder what the occupants were doing there. To my mind it was, perhaps, not a permanent settlement… more a gathering place for whatever festival was celebrated around the Horse. Perhaps a small group resided there, serving the figure and the divinity it represented. Perhaps tending travellers who walked the Ridgeway… that ancient High Way that has run along the hills, passing beneath the shadow of the grassy banks of the Castle for at least five thousand years.

We turned and looked back, following this path with our eyes towards the trees where Wayland’s Smithy is hidden… wondering how many feet have passed this way over the millennia and wondering too if it is the echo of their passing that makes this old track so easy to walk as we too pass like ghosts into history.

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