And did those feet…: The Litlington White Horse

Imogen Lycett Green on ancient Sussex: #3 The Litlington White Horse

A Sussex Walk along the Cuckmere River to the Litlington White Horse (detail) © alej ez art
an original ink drawing, available as a limited-edition digital print on fine art paper using archival inks
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As far as chalk horses go, the Litlington White Horse isn’t much. It does not possess the ancient history of the Uffington White Horse, England’s oldest and most familiar chalk monument, nor does it have the grace of Westbury White Horse, in Wiltshire. But of the 16 white horses carved into chalk across Britain, it is at least ours

Huff and puff up Hindover hill, and you’ll be king or queen for a moment of the ravishing Cuckmere valley, spread out in a green carpet below. You can smell the sea and from up here, trace the meander of the Cuckmere river from the spire of Alfriston’s St. Andrew’s Church, the ‘cathedral in the Downs’, all the way to the beach. A chalk landscape gives us short, springy grass, harebells, cowslips, lark song, the sticky quality of chalk mud in winter, the perilous slide of rain on dry chalk in summer, the openness and light, the comforting rolling undulating hills and always, forever, the bright white chalk tracks, stretching far into the unknown. While it may not be high art, the position of this white horse is unbeatable.

What is it about white horses? St. George who killed the dragon rode one; in Hindu mythology, Kalki, the Punjabi world saviour rode one; Pegasus the winged horse in Greek mythology was white; in the Mabinogion, Welsh enchantress Rhiannon rode one. In mythologies from Hungary to Iran to Korea, white horses are invested with magical properties and mythical strength. Perhaps in the ancient world they were rare and therefore more precious. They are still rare in most horse populations – the odd one out. How often is something that is hard to find – like gold – given the highest value. Perhaps a chalk horse signals territorial boundaries. Or were they made to evoke reverence for the ancient horse goddess Epona? Chalk is a pure white limestone formed from the remains of tiny marine organisms that lived, died and fell to the seabed in warm seas that covered much of Britain around 70 to 100 million years ago. All those tiny creatures. Is the idea of a rock being formed from tiny creatures any less strange than a horse cut into grass? Not knowing is sometimes more powerful than knowing.

O God, how long ago. GK Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (1911) is a re-telling of the myth of King Alfred, set in Oxfordshire’s Vale of the White Horse, named for the Uffington horse. Cut into the green grass off the 5,000-yearold Ridgeway track which runs from Dorset to Norfolk, connecting the English Channel to the North Sea (though only 40 miles of the old road is extant now), the Uffington White Horse can be seen from over twenty miles away. Like an ancient oak, it has witnessed battles, storms, invasions, buildings evolving and collapsing in the valley below, people passing this way for hundreds if not thousands of years. With each new story, its power grows.

Before the gods that made the gods

Had seen their sunrise pass,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods

Had drunk at dawn their fill,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,

Aeons on aeons gone,

Was peace and war in western hills,

And the White Horse looked on.

For the White Horse knew England

When there was none to know;

He saw the first oar break or bend,

He saw heaven fall and the world end, O God, how long ago.

The myth of Sussex’s Litlington White Horse is still in the making. The chalk was cut – possibly – by James Pagden of Frog Firle Farm, near Alfriston, along with his two brothers, and cousin William Ade, who thought to scratch a horse in chalk to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. But the makers of the horse might also have been John Ade, a certain Mr. Bovis, and Eric Hobbis, cutting it under the full moon of 20 February 1924. Another story is that it was cut as a memorial to a local girl whose horse bolted along the brow of Hindover Hill, throwing her down the hill to her death. And yet another suggests the white horse originally depicted a dog, cut by a farm boy to mark the grave of his dog drowned in the Cuckmere river below. It was covered up in the Second World War so as not to alert the Luftewaffe, and has been cut and recut, cleared and re-defined ever since.

It is this re-cutting and re-defining that keeps it alive, on the hill and in literature and in all our imaginations. Archaeologists believe there may have been many more chalk ‘geolyphs’ across the Downs, for if they are not looked after, they are soon overgrown. The Litlington White Horse speaks to that other, more well-known Sussex landmark, the Long Man of Wilmington, carved into the grass across the valley. Both chalk monuments remind us of the geographical and mythical echoes we have inherited from those who have stood on this ground, walked these tracks before us, and by connecting to them, we connect to the old ways, and step forward with the past – whether wholesome or destructive, whether more, or less understood – informing all our futures.