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Exploring England's enigmatic hill carvings — chalk hill figures

hugh llewelyn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Exploring England's enigmatic hill carvings — chalk hill figures

Hiking Collection by Kit P

10

Tours

29:09 h

65.3 mi

5,825 ft

There are few things more surprising than hiking through a field, glancing upwards, and seeing an enormous white horse carved into a hillside. Or taking a wrong turn from Dorchester only to discover a well-endowed giant standing out bright white against a vivid green backdrop. England’s hill figure carvings are truly incredible and their origins lie between the 10th century to the year 2000 – a one-thousand-year history of cutting characters into chalk.

In this Collection, I take you from the horses of ancient Salisbury Plain to the lonely stallion of Yorkshire’s Kilburn. I lead you from the Long Man of Wilmington in the eastern reaches of the South Downs National Park to the naked giant lying atop a Dorset hill. Not all hill carvings have survived, with at least several lost to antiquity, only found through carbon analysis. Some in this Collection date back a thousand years, potentially far more, whilst others sprung up in the 18th century, cut by communities in celebration.

Each of these Tours takes you to an English hill figure but as several are quick and easy to reach, I’ve created full hikes in their beautiful surroundings for you to enjoy as part of the experience. All the figures lie in stunning scenery and are great features to base wider explorations around. In some cases, you’ll discover hillforts, tumuli (burial mounds) and long barrows in the vicinity. Thanks to the hilly prerequisite for hill figures, you’re assured excellent views on clear days but without any particularly challenging ascents, as the hills are often gentle.

I’ve selected 10 figures so if you’re inspired, you can seek out the rest once you’ve exhausted these. There are further chalk horses waiting to be found on Salisbury Plain and there’s even a long-distance hiking route linking them up: the White Horse Trail.

Most of these Tours are in the South of England, largely in Wiltshire and Dorset. The chalk hills can be steep in sections but have largely gentle ascents. You’ll find trackways, footpaths, byways and even Roman roads underfoot. Mixed woodlands hug hills, sheep graze on the slopes and old villages with welcoming cafes are never far away.

Each Tour either starts from a car park or near one. Some places, such as the Westbury Horse, have train stations nearby too. You can hike these routes throughout the year with dry, sunny trails in the warmer months and sometimes muddy trails in the colder. As all are on hillsides and quite exposed, check the forecast before your hike and take waterproofs and sturdy boots. To prevent erosion, most of the hill figures have fences around them, indicating how close you can get. Each is cared for and periodically maintained, cleaned and even re-chalked so it’s important to be respectful and never touch the figures.

Enjoy hiking through tremendous landscapes, seeking out these enigmatic carvings; they certainly know a thing or two about glorious views!

On The Map

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Tours & Highlights

  • Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors
    Intermediate
    02:44
    6.14 mi
    2.2 mph
    525 ft
    525 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    One of the largest white horses in Wiltshire, this magnificent hill carving was cut in 1812 and commissioned by a local farmer. The horse is 180 feet (55 m) high and 160 feet (49 m) long, lying above the village of Alton Barnes and the Vale of Pewsey in the North Wessex Downs. This carving is fairly easy to see …

  • Intermediate
    03:08
    7.11 mi
    2.3 mph
    600 ft
    600 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The Devizes White Horse is the youngest in the country, having been cut in celebration of the Millennium and finished in 1999. It’s a new version of an old horse nearby, Snob’s Horse. It’s close to other white horses, including the Alton Barnes white horse to the east and can be seen from Bratton Down, home to the Westbury white …

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  • Intermediate
    02:47
    5.84 mi
    2.1 mph
    650 ft
    675 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    Cut into quite a steep slope, the Cherhill White Horse is easy to see from the north, and sits just outside of Cherhill village, not far from Avebury and its ancient stone circle. The horse is on the older side of Wiltshire’s hill figures – dating from the 18th century. It’s just below Oldbury Castle hillfort and near numerous other …

  • Intermediate
    03:03
    6.55 mi
    2.1 mph
    875 ft
    875 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    Supposedly inspired by the beautiful Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, the Kilburn horse was cut in the 1800s, likely commissioned and created by locals. The horse is enormous, covering 1.6 acres (6,475.0 m2) and shines bright white against the green grass and woodland surrounding it. It lies just above the village of Kilburn, on the very edge of the North …

  • Intermediate
    02:32
    5.87 mi
    2.3 mph
    350 ft
    350 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Quite possibly the most charming of all England’s hill carvings, the Bulford Kiwi was cut by New Zealand soldiers waiting to return home after the First World War. Impatience and unrest were brewing in the military base below Bulford Down and so the men’s commanding officers had them cut a giant kiwi into the hillside.

    Begin at the Kiwi viewing …

  • Intermediate
    03:51
    8.82 mi
    2.3 mph
    625 ft
    625 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    One of the most beautiful and certainly the most artistic of all the country’s hill carvings, the Uffington White Horse is a true icon. This magnificent horse is the oldest of any carving in the country, dating back to the Bronze ages. The horse is well-cared for, with frequent maintenance to keep it bright. Find it in the Oxfordshire countryside, …

  • Intermediate
    02:00
    4.51 mi
    2.3 mph
    375 ft
    375 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Great for any fitness level. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    The Osmington White Horse lies near the Dorset coastline just east of Weymouth and is unique in that it features a rider. Not just any rider, but King George III who loved the area and helped turn Weymouth into the country’s first resort. Cut in 1808, the horse is easily seen and underwent significant renovation ahead of the London 2021 …

  • Intermediate
    03:16
    7.29 mi
    2.2 mph
    700 ft
    700 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    In the far eastern reaches of the South Downs National Park lies the Long Man of Wilmington, one of England’s oldest hill carvings. At 235 feet (72 m) tall and holding two poles, this fascinating figure is quite arresting. Once thought to be prehistoric, analysis suggests the Long Man dates back to the 16th century. A few miles south west …

  • Easy
    01:56
    4.32 mi
    2.2 mph
    425 ft
    425 ft
    Easy hike. Great for any fitness level. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Perhaps the most iconic of all England’s chalk hill figures is the Cerne Abbas Giant, largely because of its enormous, erect phallus. Created for unknown regions, likely around the 10th century, it’s now under the care – like many hill figures – of the National Trust who work to maintain the chalk outline. Below, on the outskirts of the village …

  • Intermediate
    03:52
    8.83 mi
    2.3 mph
    675 ft
    675 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    The oldest of Salisbury Plain’s white horses, the Westbury horse is one of the most famous. Cut in 1772, potentially on the site of an older cutting, the horse lies on a hillside just outside the town of Westbury and immediately below an ancient hillfort – Bratton Camp. This horse is particularly easy to see and to reach, thanks to …

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
    10
  • Distance
    65.3 mi
  • Duration
    29:09 h
  • Elevation
    5,825 ft

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Exploring England's enigmatic hill carvings — chalk hill figures

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