Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

White Horse Hill

BOUT miles W.N.W. of Reading is the famous and remarkable White Horse Hill, a bold eminence of the chalk hills of Berkshire. From its summit, which is a tableland of twelve to fourteen acres in extent, it is said that eleven counties can be seen. On this summit are the remains of a Roman camp, with gates, ditch, and mound still visible. But the chief interest of the hill is the carved figure of a white horse on it, 374 feet long, and said to have been cut in the turf by the army of Alfred the Great in commemoration of his complete victory over the Danes at Ashdown. Alfred felt that gaining this battle was the crowning mercy of his life, and thus recorded it on the very earth he had freed from the heathen invader. The white horse was the standard of the Saxons; it was appropriately stamped on the soil of the land they had won and saved.

"Right below the White Horse," says Mr. Hughes, "is a curious broad and deep gulley called the Manger, into which the hills fall with a series of the most lovely sweeping curves, known as the 'Giant's Stairs.' They are not a bit like stairs, but I never saw anything like them anywhere else, with their short green turf and tender bluebells and gossamer and thistledown gleaming in the sun, and the sheep paths running along their sides like ruled lines."

The other side of the "Manger" is formed by the Dragon's Hill, a curious little round projection from the main range of hills. On this hill, the country people say St. George killed a dragon. The track where the monster's blood ran down is still pointed out, with the assertion that no grass will grow on it; but the fact is the turf is worn off by the feet of visitors who mount the hill by this path. The figure of the horse can be seen at a great distance in dry weather, but in wet it is occasionally obscured by mud and weeds, and needs "scouring," as it is called.

The ceremony of scouring the White Horse has been solemnised from time immemorial by a concourse of people from all the villages in the neighbourhood. The horse is in the manor of Uffington, yet other towns claim, by ancient custom, a share in the duty. On these occasions the scourers are entertained by the lord of the manor; and by pick, shovel, and broom, their united labours keep the White Horse a distinct and glorious memorial of our patriot king.

Passing along the Ridgeway, a great road made by the Romans, to the west for about a mile, we come to a huge flat stone raised on seven or eight others. A path bordered by large single stones leads up to it, and this is traditionally said to be Wayland Smith's Cave - the Wayland Smith of Kenilworth! It stands on slightly raised ground, and is a very lonely spot with wind-stricken trees round it.

In a note to "Kenilworth," Sir Walter Scott tells us that popular belief still retains a memory of the wild legend that, connected as it is with the site of a Danish sepulchre (for such is the cave), may have arisen from some legend concerning the northern Duergar, who resided in rocks and were cunning workers in steel and iron. It was believed that Wayland Smith's fee was sixpence, and that he was offended if more were offered - rather differing in this respect from ordinary workmen!


"The owld White Horse wants zettin' to rights;
And the squire hev promised good cheer,
Zo we'll gee un a scrape to kip 'un in shape,
And a'll last for many a year.

A was made a long, long time ago,
Wi' a dale o' labour and pains,
By King Alfred the Great when he spwiled their consate,
And caddled 1 thay wosberds 2  the Danes.

The Bleawin Stwun, in days gone by,
Wur King Arthur's bugle harn,
And the tharnin tree you med plainly zee,
As is called King Alfred's tharn.

There'll be backsword play and climmin the powl,
And a race for a pig and a cheese;
And us thinks as hisn's a dummel 3 sowl
As dwoan't care for zich spwoarts as these."

The battle of Ashdown was fought, as we have seen, on this now hallowed ground; and had not Alfred there broken the Danish power, England might not have been a Christian nation for another hundred years. It was a grand contest. The Danes had marched up and seized Reading, and, having secured the town, began to scour the surrounding country for plunder. But the men of Wessex, brave and numerous, were not likely long to submit to the invaders. Their alderman (or chief), Ethelwolf, assembled at once as many men as he could, fought the heathen Danes at Englefield, and defeated them with great loss. Before three days were over, King Ethelred and his brother Alfred came up from the west, each leading a strong band of Anglo-Saxons, and joined the trusty alderman.

On the fourth day they attacked the Danes at Reading, but after a terrific combat were compelled to fall back along the line of chalk-hills to the neighbourhood of what is now called White Horse Hill. At length, however, their forces being augmented by fresh bands of men, the king turned at bay at Ashdown, and there encountered the whole army of the Danes, under the shadow of the famous hill. It was arranged that Ethelred should attack the two Danish kings, while Alfred fought against the two great sea-earls who commanded under them.

But Ethelred remained a long time in prayer, and hearing mass, though the Pagans were coming up quickly. "He would not," he said, "leave till the priest had done, nor abandon the protection of God for that of man."

"Then Alfred," continues the chronicler, "though holding a lower authority, as I have been told by those who were there, and who would not lie, could no longer support the troops of the enemy unless he retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother, so he marched out promptly with his men and gave battle. The Pagans occupied the upper ground, and the Christians came up from below. There was also in that place a single stunted thorn tree, which I myself have seen with my own eyes. Around this tree the opposing hosts came together with loud shouts from all sides. In the midst of the fight, and when Alfred was hard pressed, the king came up with his fresh forces, and when both hosts had fought long and bravely, at last the Pagans, by God's judgment, could no longer bear the attack of the Christians, and having lost a great part of their men took to a disgraceful flight, and continued that flight, not only through all the dead hours of the night, but during the following day, until they reached the stronghold which they had left on such a fruitless mission. The Christians followed, slaying all that they could reach, until it became dark. The flower of the Pagan youth were there slain, so that neither before nor since was ever such destruction known since the Saxons first gained Britain by their arms."

Such is the glorious memory preserved by the image of the White Horse.

* * * * * *

1. worried.
2. woe-birds.
3. dull.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004