Yorkshireman’s vision for a northern horse

The Kilburn White Horse is a Yorkshire icon.
The Kilburn White Horse is a Yorkshire icon.

by Heather Elvidge

Hill figures are unique to England. Almost all are in the south, on chalk land — the latest was a white horse, cut in 2003 above the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone. Northern England has only one, and it owes its origin to the most intriguing of them all.

That’s the White Horse of Uffington, in Oxfordshire. This stylised image — just a few sweeping lines — was a tourist attraction in the 14th century. Yet who made it, or why, was a mystery. Popular opinion favoured the Celts, the Saxon warrior Hengist, or Alfred the Great.

The true answer wasn’t revealed until the 1990s. Excavations found that the Horse was formed from deep trenches filled with crushed chalk; silt taken from the bottom of one trench was dated to the late Bronze Age.

So the Uffington White Horse has occupied that hillside for around 3,000 years. And it wouldn’t have survived if someone hadn’t maintained it. To prevent the chalk from turning green, filling in and grassing over the Horse needed to be scraped, a job undertaken by generations of local people.

In 1857 a fair, with sideshows and games, accompanied the scouring of the Horse. The whole enterprise so impressed one visitor that he was determined to do something similar back home. Thomas Taylor was a buyer for a London merchant, but his home village was Kilburn in North Yorkshire.

Northern Horse

When he saw the site of the Uffington White Horse, Taylor must have thought instantly of home. Above the Uffington Horse is an ancient hill-fort; towering over Kilburn is Roulston Scar, now known to be an iron-age hill-fort.

So in November 1857, work began on the steep hillside. Kilburn schoolmaster John Hodgson and his pupils marked out the horse, while local volunteers set about removing the topsoil. Alas, the rock underneath wasn’t white chalk, but sandstone.

A buff horse didn’t match Taylor’s vision. His solution was to treat the sandstone with limewash, the same stuff used to whiten cottage walls. Later custodians kept adding layers of chalk chips, although in time the chalk threatened to spill over. A more modern solution was decided upon — the chips would be sprayed with white masonry paint.

As the Horse was sprayed at the end of June, this Yorkshire landmark is now dazzling. At 318 feet long, the Kilburn White Horse is visible from some distance. Take a closer look from the small car park below the horse, or park at the Sutton Bank Visitor Centre and enjoy a walk with stunning views.

July 5 is a red-letter day for Yorkshire — it’s the first day of the Tour de France’s Grand Depart. But never mind the cycling, there’s a chance to spot some contemporary land art.

The imaginative project is called Fields of Vision. Designs by farmers, artists, and local cyclists have been sown, cut, or weaved into fields along the race route.

Like the old White Horses, this land art is best seen from above. On Day 2 the peleton will puff up the south Pennine hills, where the TV crew filming from a helicopter should capture the works perfectly.