Westbury White Horse

White Horse on Westbury Hill. Bratton Camp hillfort is on the hilltop behind the horse.

Date

31 May 2011
Location

Westbury, Wiltshire

ST 89853 51642; 51.26383°N, 2.14681°W

Information

From the White Horse information board:

This famous landmark was probably cut into the chalk about 400 years ago, but its appearance has changed over time.

Local records from 1742 suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 1600s, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Bratton Camp in AD 878.

In the 17th century, it had become popular to commemorate these supposed Saxon battle victories over the pagan Danes with white horses, in celebration of the belief that the Saxons had brought Christianity to Britain.

The tradition probably derived from the mistaken belief that the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire had been created in Saxon times to celebrate such a victory.

Cut into the chalk, the horse originally had to be scoured regularly to keep it white. The last recorded scouring took place in 1853. In the late 1950s, the horse was preserved by covering it in white-painted concrete.

The earthwork defences of an Iron Age fort over 2,000 years old — Bratton Camp — are still visible on the hilltop above the horse.

These earthworks protected a settlement, containing round houses, granaries, stores and workshops. The double banks and ditches may have symbolised the dominance and power of the hillfort community and would have been formidable obstacles to enemies.

Excavations within the fort in the 18th century by Jeffrey Whitaker, a local schoolmaster, uncovered quern stones, pottery, and Roman and Saxon coins. Also found were nearly a cartload of large pebbles, probably sling stones kept ready on the ramparts to throw at attackers.

3,000 years before, a Neolithic long barrow had been built on this hill. Still visible within the hillfort, it was preserved by the later occupants. Excavations into the barrow revealed human skeletons and cremations.

Bratton Down is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This extensive area of chalk grassland supports herb and grass species that provide a habitat for a diverse assemblage of insects, including the rare Adonis Blue butterfly and the scarce forester moth.

The outline of the earth banks with the barrow in their midst can best be seen in the Google Maps satellite image.

The horse's eye

Westbury White Horse

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5 thoughts on “Westbury White Horse

  1. The fact that a long barrow has been found in association with this site suggests to me that it may originally have been a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, later occupied and reused in the Iron Age. I think a lot of these ‘hill forts’ were probably originally sacred sites in the New Stone Age.

  2. I wonder who had the bright idea of concreting the horse, reducing it from something organic, needing the continued desire of the community to perpetuate, to a far more permanent uglier imposition on the site. Lol…it was probably the locals…

    Super photos, Graham!

    • hope to gosh there are no plans to do the same at Uffington – the scouring of that hill figure is a tradition which goes back 3000 years. It may be the oldest extant tradition in the British Isles!

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