Dotted across England’s countryside is a curious feature that often takes tourists by surprise: huge horses dragged up chalk hills, up to hundreds of feet long.
Officially known as “geoliphs”, these mysterious historical monuments offer an impressive spectacle for miles around.
The oldest of them all, the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, just east of Swindon, is believed to be a whopping 3,000 years old.
Experts recently revealed that the Uffington horse is in decline, raising fears that it could be lost without urgent conservation work.
MailOnline takes a closer look at these often overlooked national treasures and why they were originally carved into the landscape.
The oldest white horse in England, found just south of the Oxfordshire village of Uffington, dates to the Bronze Age or Iron Age, between 1740 BC and 210 BC.
Experts recently revealed that the Uffington horse is in decline, raising fears that it could be lost without urgent conservation work. Close-up of the Uffington White Horse in 2022
Today, none of England’s white horses are as old or as well preserved as the Uffington Horse, which dates back 3,000 years and is 360 feet long.
The austere monument dates from the late Bronze or Iron Age, between 1740 B.C. C. and 210 a. c.
It’s part of a site steeped in history, from an ancient hill fort just to the southwest of Horse, to burial mounds dating to the Neolithic period, and a rolling geological feature known as “The Manger.”
Adrian Cox, a regional archaeologist for the National Trust, said the horse may have originally been drawn as a “territorial marker or land ownership mark”.
“We know that it was the late Bronze Age and that it was a time when there was already a lot of activity at that particular site,” he told MailOnline.
“This was a significant hillside before the horse crossed it, so it was a special place and a place where people in the late Bronze Age felt they had to mark in some way.
“It’s visible from miles away, so it’s a good territorial marker.”
The Oxfordshire site is steeped in history, including the old hillfort just to the southwest of the horse (what remains of the hillfort is pictured)
The Bronze Age refers to a period when bronze replaced stone as the preferred material for making tools and weapons. A funeral party in the Bronze Age is represented.
The oldest white horses in England.
Uffington White Horse (Oxfordshire) – 1000 BC
Westbury White Horse (Wiltshire) – 1600
Cherhill White Horse (Wiltshire) – 1780
Marlborough White Horse (Wiltshire) – 1804
Osmington White Horse (Dorset) – 1808
Alton Barnes White Horse (Wiltshire) – 1812
Hackpen White Horse (Wiltshire) – 1838
Woolbury White Horse (Hampshire) – before 1846
It may have had a “ritual function,” Cox said, perhaps as a symbol to show that people were buried there and indicate “what is special about the place.”
It could also have acted as a warning, telling rival communities to stay away, or even simply as an early form of artistic expression.
According to Cox, “these are all just theories” and the true purpose of the Uffington horse will likely remain a mystery forever.
As for why Bronze Age people specifically opted for a horse, he said the animal was revered thousands of years ago and was possibly a symbol of power.
“Although we are very familiar with horses today, in the Bronze Age they were a fairly recent introduction to the British Isles,” he said.
‘People who had horses had a certain amount of power; horses were very important in communications, quickly occupying a place, and in warfare.
“So if you had many horses, you would have had great power on earth.”
Today, the Uffington White Horse is not only a must-see for history buffs, but also a pilgrimage for music aficionados.
She was the cover of XTC’s 1982 album ‘English Settlement’, and three years later she appeared in the video for Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ single.
But it could be gone “within 10 to 20 years” due to overgrowth of grass and moss, were it not for conservation efforts, Cox said, which are overseen by the National Trust, along with Historic England and English Heritage.
Each year, volunteers and staff clean the geoliph to remove moss and dirt, and replenish it with new chalk to keep it bright white.
The Uffington horse is particularly vulnerable to disappearing into the undergrowth due to its slenderness.
Pictured is a geological feature in Uffington called The Manger, formed at the end of the last Ice Age and lying at the foot of the escarpment below the White Horse.
Pictured is Adrian Cox, Regional Archaeologist for the National Trust, during archaeological work on the Uffington White Horse.
The National Trust recently caused consternation among fans by saying that the Uffington White Horse has been in decline for several decades.
Ironically, part of the reason for this is probably because the National Trust has been very careful not to make it bigger by replenishing the chalk, Cox said.
There have been at least 20 Chalk Hill horse figurines in England, most of which are in Wiltshire, although it is likely that many more existed before being lost due to lack of conservation efforts.
Most of those still found are not old and were created from the 19th century onwards, probably as a tribute to the Uffington original.
Some were made to commemorate the reign of George III (1760-1820), who had an interest in horses, Cox said, including the Osmington White Horse in Dorset, which actually depicts the king riding it.
The second oldest still in existence is the Westbury White Horse on Salisbury Plain in Wilshire, the location of the famous Stonehenge, also known for its mysterious and much-debated origin.
The second oldest still in existence is the Westbury White Horse (pictured) on Salisbury Plain in Wilshire, the location of the world famous Stonehenge.
According to English Heritage, local records suggest that the Woolbury White Horse was originally cut down in the late 17th century, probably to commemorate a battle believed to have taken place at Bratton Camp in AD 878.
Another 160 foot long white horse at Alton Barnes in Wilshire was cut down in 1812 to the commission of local farmer Robert Pile.
In 2019, Alton Barnes’ horse was trampled and “defaced” by Extinction Rebellion, just weeks after it was restored by local schoolchildren.
Fury as Extinction Rebellion ‘defaces’ a famous White Horse monument with its hourglass logo just weeks after schoolchildren helped restore it
In October 2019, neighbors of a famous White Horse accused Extinction Rebellion of “defacing” the monument by covering it in their logo just weeks after schoolchildren helped restore it.
The activists used dark fabric to create their hourglass symbol on top of the White Horse at Alton Barnes in Wiltshire, which was cut down in 1812.
This angered the locals who had re-marked the precious site in August, using 46 tonnes of pristine rock dropped from an RAF Chinook helicopter.
Activists used dark fabric to create the hourglass symbol on top of the White Horse at Alton Barnes in Wiltshire, which was cut down in 1812.
Rob Sutherland, whose 11-year-old daughter Molly was part of the restoration team, said: “All the children are aware of the issues around the weather and want to make it better.”
‘But they cannot understand why the white horse was chosen for this. Hundreds of people helped highlight it in August.
“This is not a good way for Extinction Rebellion to publicize their cause.”
Another local, Graham Newland, criticized the activists as “cheap anarchists” and said: “This is senseless vandalism.”