Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Westbury, Wiltshire


Layers of history (1)

The hillside figures of the chalk downs are some of England’s most memorable sights and testimony of the human need to make marks on the landscape on a large scale. This need has clearly existed for hundreds of years – though quite how many centuries no one really knows, as the origins of these figures are undocumented. There is a persistent story that this one near Westbury in Wiltshire was first cut to commemorate the Battle of Ethandun, the occasion when King Arthur defeated the Vikings in 878. The battle was probably fought near here at Edington, though the exact location is not certain. The chalk beast may originally have been a more stylized horse, like the wonderful one on the downs near Uffington. But the first written mentions of the Westbury horse are as recent as the 18th century – the creature is mentioned in 1742 and was recut in 1778 by George Gee, steward of Lord Abingdon.

The Westbury horse is in a dramatic hillside position and makes a stunning sight as one drives eastwards along the B3098 out of Westbury, the view I have tried to capture in my photograph by risking life and limb and standing in the middle of the road. This hillside is interesting for another reason – it forms the edge of an iron-age hill fort, the earthwork-bound Bratton Camp, which was occupied in the 250 years before the Romans invaded England. And this is a still more ancient site, because the hill also houses a Neolithic barrow some 2,000 years older than the hill fort.

So the horse at Westbury is an example of the tendency, common in England, to place structures or images of significance on or near ancient sites. This is hardly surprising when the ancients picked such good locations for their barrows and hill forts, of course. But it is interesting how often this historical layering of structures marks a continuity of occupation and significance going back over millennia.

Perhaps it only goes to emphasize the importance of the figure and its positioning that in he 1950s someone thought it right to replace the bare chalk with a layer of white concrete, eliminating the need for the figure to be constantly recut. Much as I’d like it to remain a true chalk figure, I’m also glad that, in its modified form, it is still there, reminding us of the past generations who lived on the hill and gave the area is enduring symbol.

9 comments:

bazza said...

Hello Philip. The layering of history is an interesting phenomenon.
Is it not the case that early churches were often built on the site of Roman temples and pagan places of worship. They are often at the intersection of ancient 'ley lines' if they can be said to exist!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: You've anticipated what will probably be my next post; stand by in a couple of days for more on churches on ancient sites.

ChrisP said...

Down here in Sussex and I imagine elsewhere the missionaries to the Saxons were specifically instructed to place churches on the sacred groves to eliminate them as place of pagan worship. It is why so many Sussex churches are a short walk outside the villages they serve.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Indeed. Although sometimes the distance between village and church is because the village has moved over the years (e.g. because a local landlord wanted the land, or because the new site was better in some way).

ChrisP said...

Absolutely - and sometimes a village just failed completely for some reason, leaving the church on its own. Every case is different, which is why history is so endlessly fascinating.

potok said...

One of the best things about learning history at Oxford was the emphasis on historic geography, it was the first thing you learned. I would go so far as to say that most sites - towns, castles, churches are layered. Why? - because the geography is right - in this case the aspect of the hill.

But it is more than that, the more we look at archaeology the more we realise the continuity of habitation - celt, roman, saxon, norman. In many places there is no break. And increasingly we realise there is no familial break either, the people who created the horse were possibly descendants of those who lived in the hillfort. Sometimes I wonder whether in building churches on pagan sites our ancestors were not eliminating the past but incorporating it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Indeed. Everything is layered, and your use of the word 'incorporating', with its bodily overtones, is very apt. People tend to mourn what is lost when they look at old buildings, but if we are alert we can also see much of what has been incorporated. I am also reminded of David Jones's resonant lines (from the Anathemata): 'The adaptations, the fusions / the transmogrifications / but always / the inward continuities / of the site / of place.'

Peter Ashley said...

What an interesting discussion. Also, see Ravilious's paintings of this White Horse, one from a train carriage, one from the hill with a train down in the vale. Bringing us to Larkin's Whitsun Weddings where he comments on the parallel idea of lives containing the same hour (or something like that.) And great contextural shot Wilko.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Those Ravilious pictures are terrific, as are the other pictures of chalk figures that he did.

Many thanks for your comment on my photograph. I did wonder about taking a shot through the car windscreen, but this would have been dangerous and anyway I'd have had to clean all the insects off the glass.