White Horse Trail
Start: Wiltshire, England
End: Wiltshire, England
Distance: 144 km
Time: 8-9 days
They are scattered right across Great Britain – 57 figures (gigantotomy) and horses (leucippotomy) – carved into chalk and limestone hills in areas where their exposed ‘whiteness’ contrasts well with darker soil or grassy surrounds. There were once many more. Most were created over the last three or four hundred years, not as ancient as their graceful Celtic-like forms might suggest, although Oxfordshire’s Uffington White Horse, a masterpiece of minimalist art, dates to the Iron Age or late Bronze Age and was itself the inspiration for other white horse carvings – including the eight examples you can now see as you make your way along Wiltshire’s White Horse Trail.
When it comes to white horses, Wiltshire is without doubt the ‘county of counties’. Its oldest and largest, set on the site of an even more ancient carving which it completely covers, is Westbury White Horse, cut in 1778 on the boundary of Bratton Downs above the Vale of Pewsey. Westbury White Horse was restored in 1853 and again in 1872, and in 1873 a line of edging stones was added to help keep the chalk in place. Pewsey White Horse, cut on Pewsey Hill in 1937 close to an earlier example dating from the late 1700s which scholars think may have included a rider, was designed and cut to honor the coronation of George VI. The Alton Barnes White Horse on Milk Hill appeared in 1812, and in 1804 students at a school in Preshute designed the ‘tiny’ (19 m nose to tail) Preshute, or Marlborough, White Horse. The Winterbourne Bassett White Horse was likely cut in 1838 by Henry Eatwell, the Parish Clerk of Broad Hinton, most likely to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. Broad Town White Horse, visible from the village of Broad Town, probably dates to 1863/64 when it was cut by a local farmer, William Simmonds, or could be older if the claims of a curator at the Imperial War Museum that he scoured it with a friend in 1813 are to be believed. Cherhill White Horse, Wiltshire’s second oldest (1780) and second largest (43 m ear to hoof), sits below the Iron Age ruins of Oldbury Castle. The county’s youngest figure, the Devizes White Horse just north of the town of Devizes on Roundway Hill, cut in 1999 to usher in the new millennium, was based on the design of the now barely visible Snob’s White Horse (1845), a figure that has defied several attempts to have it re-cut and is therefore not counted in the list of horses the trail aids you in discovering.
The White Horse Trail takes you to each horse in turn through the lovely rolling hills of central Wiltshire’s chalk downs, and while you are certainly welcome to walk the trail in its entirety, each horse has its own approach trail so it is possible to pick and choose which particular horses you’d most like to see. Driving to each horse and walking the trails to their individual viewing points is of course an option, but for those who have a week or more to spare and plan to walk the trail in its entirety, a good starting point is the car park above the Westbury White Horse that skirts a firing range on Salisbury Plain. From Westbury, metaled roads, bridleways, farm tracks, bogs, sleeper bridges and rutted tracks can then get you the 38 km or so via Redhorn Hill to Pewsey, but Westbury’s remoteness from the remaining white horses makes this the one section you’re probably going to want to drive.
The 18 km from Pewsey WhiteHorse to Marlborough White Horse outside Preshute begins with a lovely walk through uncultivated fields into Posey and briefly along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath. From there continue on to the Mid-Wilts Way(MWW), a lovely rural walk in its own right that runs for 109 km from Ham near Inkpen to Mere, not far from Warminster. join the Wansdyke Path (more on this wonderful path shortly) on the edge of West Woods, pass through Short Oak Copse and make for Preshute House in Marlborough College, where the Marlborough White Horse can be seen behind the college’s tennis courts, sittingin its shallow slope on Graf ham Hill.
Just 10 km away is Winterbourne Bassett White Horse, reached via Totterdown Wood and along the Ridgeway, long considered Britain’s oldest road. The 10-km trail to Broad Town and the Broad Town White Horse begins on the Ridgeway, takes a route through the grounds of Bincknoll Castle and neighboring Bincknoll Wood, and ends with a trail through brambles, thistles and nettles that may or may not be open to the public thanks to landslips and the path being overgrown, though the alternative approach via Horns Lane and Chapel Lane into Broad Town is easy enough.
The 12.5 km to Cherhill White Horse starts with the crossing of a succession of .fields and farm gates until you reach the hamlets of Relevancy and Highway, beyond which you’ll have your first sighting of Cherhill’s Lansdowne Monument, a 38-m-high obelisk erected by the 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne to commemorate his ancestor William Petty – scientist, philosopher, and charter member of the Royal Society. The Cherhill White Horse is a ten-minute walk from the monument on the hillside below, on a slope so steep that after it was cut children from Cherhill would slide down the figure on sacks and trays. A mayor renovation was conducted in 2002 which involved re-cutting the horse’s outline and resurfacing it with more than 160 tons of fresh chalk.
From Cherhill it is 15 km to Alton Barnes White Horse, an historic treasure-trove of a walk that has you briefly treading an old Roman road before joining up again with the Wansdyke Path, which here follows as best it can a long ditch and embankment dating to the Dark Ages (400 to 700 CE). Constructed by persons unknown on an east-west alignment, the Wansdyke ditch is one of the UK’s largest (and least-known) linear earthworks.
Passing more farm tracks, kissing gates and barns you leave the Wansdyke Path and enter Pewsey Downs Nature Reserve, famous not only for the Alton Barnes White Horse which now lies before you on Milk Hill, but also as a Special Area of Conservation in what is a classic chalk down habitat with its early gentians and an orchid-rich grassland that includes 3 proliferation of burnt-tip and frog orchids that help support the reserve s impressive butterfly population. The Alton Barnes White Horse underwent a significant restoration in 2010 when 150 tons of fresh chalk was helicoptered to the site where volunteers then got to work on giving the figure a much needed facelift.
The 19-km walk to Devizes starts with a visit to Adam’s Grave, a Neolithic long barrow on the summit of Walker’s Hill that was opened in 1860 by ethnologist and archaeologist John Thurnam who found several incomplete skeletons and a leaf-shaped spearhead inside. A delightful 11-km walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath through the villages of All Cannings and Horton leads to the gorgeous tree-lined avenue of Quakers Walk before a series of hedges,
tarmac roads and a wooden kissing gate brings you to the Devizes Millennium White Horse. Designed in 1999 by a former pupil of Devizes Grammar School, Peter Greed, and the only white horse in Wiltshire to face to the right, it was executed by more than 200 enthusiastic locals and now forms the logo of the Devizes Nursteed Primary School.
Sadly, not all of Wiltshire’s white horses have survived. The Rockley White Horse, discovered on Rockley Down in 1948 when the ground above it was ploughed, was lost when the chalk was dispersed, while a horse at Ham Hill cut in the 1860s was lost long ago as it was just an excavated shape with no chalk infill.
The White Horse Trail is an undemanding, gentle walk through a peaceful part of southern England that is filled with history and mysticism. It gets you close to prehistoric Avebury and Silbury Hill, part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage Site, and includes tantalizing glimpses on to some fabulous trails including the Wansdyke, the Ridgeway, and sections of the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath.