Against All Odds, England’s Massive Chalk Horse Has Survived 3,000 Years

Cleaning up the Uffington Horse is the neigh-borly thing to do.

Smithsonian Magazine– Emily Cleaver

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If you stand in the valley near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire, England, and look up at the high curve of chalk grassland above you, one thing dominates the view. Across the flank of the hill runs an enormous white, abstract stick figure horse cut from the chalk itself. It has a thin, sweeping body, stubby legs, a curiously long tail and a round eye set in a square head.

This is the Uffington White Horse, the oldest of the English hill figures. It’s a 3,000-year-old pictogram the size of a football field and visible from 20 miles away. On this July morning black specks dot the lower slopes as small groups of people trudge slowly upwards. They’re coming to clean the horse.  

It’s chalking day, a cleaning ritual that has happened here regularly for three millennia. Hammers, buckets of chalk and kneepads are handed out and everyone is allocated an area. The chalkers kneel and smash the chalk to a paste, whitening the stony pathways in the grass inch by inch. “It’s the world’s largest coloring between the lines,” says George Buce, one of the participants.

Chalking or “scouring” the horse was already an ancient custom when antiquarian Francis Wise wrote about it in 1736. “The ceremony of scouring the Horse, from time immemorial, has been solemnized by a numerous concourse of people from all the villages roundabout,” he wrote.

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