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Uffington White Horse

Uffington, Oxfordshire (Berkshire prior to 1970's)

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Uffington is the oldest and best known white horse. 374 feet (110m) from end to end. The location is the highest point in Oxfordshire and you have excellent views.

Except for 2 aerial photographs =

The best views of the horse without an aircraft are from 3 or 4 miles away, some suggest obtained from directly across the Vale, particularly around the villages of Great Coxwell, Longcot and Fernham, but these are too great a distance to photograph well. It can be seen in good weather for around 25 miles.

It was constructed by in-filling with chalk a series of trenches cut to shape into the hillside, so having a depth, where others are surface scrapes. This has meant that its shape now is the same as it was when first developed, while with most others the shape drifts or is altered over time. It is also far bigger than others, 374 foot long compared to the largest Wiltshire one at Westbury which is 170ft.

It is around 3,000 years old, developed in the late Bronze age. Its unusual shape has been featured on coins as long ago as the Iron age.

The original purpose of this horse is unknown. It may have been the emblem of a local tribe, and have been cut as a totem or badge marking their land. Some think it had a religious purpose or significance.

The most likely explanation would appear to be connected with the horse-goddess Epona who was worshipped by the Celts in Gaul and throughout the Celtic world. Her cult would later spread to Britannia (Britain). The Romans adopted the Gallic goddess as the patron-goddess of cavalrymen, and was the only Celtic deity to be worshipped in Rome; annual festival in Epona's honour on December 18. She can be found in arts in both Celtic and Roman world.

The goddess Epona, had a role of protecting horses, as well as to represent fertility, healing and death. Similar horses feature in Celtic jewellery and there is also evidence for horse worship in the Iron Age.

Epona was also called Bubona. She had a counterpart in Britain, mostly in Wales as Rhiannon, and the Irish goddess Macha. Rhiannon was also associated with a Romano-Celtic goddess Rigantona ("Great Goddess"). So the Uffington white horse may have been cut by adherents of a cult of the horse-goddess, or as one of a number of special places for pilgrimages, which fits into some theories connected with Avebury and Stonehenge, all linked by the Ridgeway, but none visible directly from the Ridgeway.

Epona  is not completely forgotten in our time, she is still represented by the horses that feature in the Beltane celebrations, as the hobby horses in May Day 'Obby Oss Festival' in Padstow, Cornwall, and similar event in Minehead Somerset. The 'Osses sometimes capture young women beneath the skirt of the hobby horse; often they emerge smeared with black.  In both cases The Horses' visits are (and were) believed to bring good luck (or fertility). 'Obby 'Oss traditions also exist in Barnstaple and Coombe Martin. There is documentary evidence of an 'Oss' at Penzance in the late 19th century, made with a caped stick and skull, similar to the Mari Lwyd in Wales. There are some similarities between this festival and the Lajkonik hobby-horse festival in Kraków, Poland. In particular the idea that young women my be captured or struck with a stick in order to bring them "luck" or fertility suggests a pagan, or at least medieval origin. Lajkonik is 700 years old. Rather more recent is the Banbury Hobby-Horse festival, which started in 2000. You also regularly still find hobby horses with Morris Dancers.

The scouring of the horse is believed to have been a religious festival in later times, giving more creditability to the figure being of religious origin.

Extract from Celtic Myth and Legend by Mike-Dixon-Kennedy

'The Great Mare', the goddess of a horse cult who is most likely to be identified with the Irish édáin echraidhe or macha and the welsh Rhiannon. As goddess of horses, she was of great importance within a horse-based culture such as that of the Celts. Her image appears on over 300 stones in Gaul, although rarely in Britain, and she is usually depicted riding side-saddle. In Romano-Celtic imagery she is constantly associated with corn, fruit and, strangely, serpents  - strangely because serpents are natural enemies of the horses. These associations led her also being considered a goddess of fertility and nourishment.

As there is often a link in Celtic tales and similar between the natural forces, serpents and dragons, and this perhaps is the basis that developed into the story of  slaying of dragons, being a modification from a feminine controlling it to the Roman Christianisation of Celtic beliefs having to have a male to kill the dragon.

Another theory about the horse derives from its strange 'beak'. Some Celtic coins show horses and birds with a similar beak. In Taliesin's medieval poems the horses of Ceridwen are sometimes referred to as 'hen-headed steeds'. Ceridwen is said to have assumed the form of a white mare, and was also known as the 'high crested hen'. Some suggest the Uffington horse could be a representation of Ceridwen. Although to Wiccans this theory may appeal, I have difficulty with it as these legends involve individuals or events later than the date the horse was created.

Another possibility is that the horse could have been cut by worshippers of the sun god Belinos or Belenus, who was associated with horses. He was sometimes shown on horseback, and Bronze and Iron Age sun chariots were shown as being drawn by horses. With no rider depicted I feel this is less likely. It also looks away from the sun for the majority of the day.

The horse has survived by being regularly cleaned (scoured) by local villagers. The Lord of the Manor was obliged to provide food and entertainment for 'scourers' and this developed into the 'Pastimes'. These were huge two day events with thousands of people attending, with food and drink stalls, sideshows, musicians all provided and games took place for which people would travel from neighbouring counties. A lot of the games took place within the castle (fort on top of the hill) and the cheese rolling down the steep hill in front of the horse. This took place every 7 years up to 1857. It may just be chance that they settled on 7 years but there was the belief that the body was renewed every 7 years, after two rentals (age 14) the male had the title master and three (21) Mr and became an adult. 7 years also appears twice as major features in the legend of the Celtic goddess Rhiannon.

Similar games seem to have occurred in other places, and we have images and poems connected with one taking place in the Cotswolds in 1636, under the title 'Olimpick', and was on the summit of the hill, a castle structure has guns firing to start events, and there are representations of the different activities - dancing, backswords, coursing, throwing the sledge hammer, spurning the barre, pike drill, tumbling and shin-kicking.  This was a long time before the current 'commercial' Olympic Games was created, although in the bid for the London 2012, it was said that the 'Cotswold Olimpicks' was the direct descendent of what turned into the Olympic movement, and started in 1612, making it 400 years before the 2012. The Cotswold  'Olimpick' is an annual event and takes place on Dover's Hill, near Chipping Campden, the 2012 event is taking place on 1st June. About 40 years ago the Uffington White Horse Show started, lasting two days in August each year, this is a county show with many attractions.


Many of the older white horses have legends giving their reason for the first designs being a celebration of King Alfred's victory over the Danes in 871, but dating of material from the bottom of a trench put through a section of the horse showed it to be far older, making it around 3,000 years old.

The white horse, said to be a Mare and have an invisible foal that sits beside her, they go together to Woolstone wells at midnight to drink.

Below the white horse is Dragon Hill, a very unusual small roundish hill with a flattened top. This is said to be the site where St. George, England's patron saint, slew the dragon. The blood from the dying dragon so poisoned the ground beneath that grass never grows there leaving the chalk scar we see today. Some say that what we know as the white horse is a dragon.

You can image dragon hill as the base for a higher hill, perhaps like Silbury Hill near Avebury, and some suggest it may have been larger and collapsed and eroded away over time, with the debris wasted or blown away.

Some say as the horse can best be viewed from the air in a time before flight it was a sign to extraterrestrial visitors, and some say that dragon hill is the landing site. Similar stories exist about Silbury Hill being used for the same purpose.

Below the horse the ground slopes away sharply in folds, forming a bowl in the hill, called The Manger. On this spot in centuries past the villagers held Cheese Rolls, a wild race whereby a round of cheese was rolled down the hilll and participants chased after it. It is said that due to a combination of the steep terrain and probable consumption of large amounts of alcohol on such occasions, broken limbs were not uncommon! Cheese rolling takes place annually at several other nearby places. These events today are equally dangerous, but there are very few injuries and no broken limbs as far as I know.

The Manger, a valley that appears to have been man made but many say its natural, except for some platforms towards the bottom, also makes a very effective amphitheatre and sound is said to travel well through this from the slope.

What some others have written in the past

Exploring the Ridgeway by Alan Charles

'... The cleaning of the horse (the scouring) was an important part of the open-air festivals that took place on the hill at intervals of seven years or so until 1857. These were great occasions for games, competitions, dancing, singing and drinking. It was reported that 30,000 people atened the festival in the year 1780. A local saying tells us that 'while men sleep, the Horse climbs up the Hill'. This is not as outrageous as it sounds, for as the soil falls away from the upper edges and exposes more of the chalk, and the lower edges silt up and become colonized by grass, so the horse does indeed climb the hill!

The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 87, No. 1. (Jan. - Jun., 1957), pp. 105-114.

"But it is believed that if you make a wish standing on the Horse's eye and turning round three times, your wish will come true. I was told of this by local inhabitants forty years ago."

The scouring ceremony is first mentioned by Aubrey and the best early record dates from 1677 when Baskerville wrote;-

"Some that dwell hereabouts have an obligation upon their hands to repair and cleanse this Lande marke, or else in time it may turn green like the rest of the hill and be forgotten"
The Uffington White Horse sired nearly every other 18th century chalk horse in the district!

He holds within his image, the beautiful celtic curvilinear design to be found on the horse furnishings around this area, he can be called a Saxon horse because of association with King Alfred and white horses, and of course he belongs to St. George and his dragon. His various mythical and magical guises link him to gods and harvest ceremonies....

According to L V Grinsell in his book White Horse Hill and surrounding country:

''Between Uffington Castle and the White Horse is an oblong mound which was opened in 1857 by Mr E Martin ATkins, when forty-six skeletons were found in forty-two graves nearly all of which were placed east/west. Five of the skeletons had small bronze coins placed in their mouths, and these were evidently Roman or Romano-British burials, the coins being placed in the mouths of the deceased, after the well known Roman custom, for the purpose of paying the Charon for ferrying them across the River Styx to the next world. The ages of the people represented by the skeletons varied between 1 and 70 or more, and they were of both sexes. Four of the skeletons were headless. One of them was accompanied by a vase of red ware, probably Roman, which is now in the Roman Room at the British Museum. In the centre of this mound there was a coarse urn with two handle like bosses, filled with burnt bones and arched over with sarsens. This find rather suggests the possibility that the mound may originally have been a round barrow which was later altered in shape to contain the forty-six Roman or Romano-British Skeletons.'

The mound site was re-excavated in 1993 and from the findings it is accepted as originally a Neolithic burial site.

In another place I saw (but forgot to note the book):-

In 1931, Stuart Piggot developed the Iron Age theory further by noting additional similarities between the Uffington Horse and the Roman ‘Silchester Horse’ (the handle of a lost drinking vessel) and other stylised horses on Iron Age buckets from Aylesford and Marlborough. He concluded that the Uffington figure was constructed around the 1st century bc; and, by 1967, Ann Ross was suggesting some connection with the Celtic Horse goddesses: Macha, Epona and Rhiannon. In fact, considering the solar wheels on Iron Age horse coins and the wheel and cheese rolling games at the Uffington festivities, it seems most likely that the hill-figure represents the horse of the Celtic Sun-God, Beli. He was seen as the devil by Christian missionaries and was thus defeated by St. Michael or his earthly counterpart, St. George of local tradition. The Christianised scouring festival is, no doubt, a remnant of his worship and Dragon Hill, perhaps, his temple.

Further information Grid


Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire

Ceremonial County: Oxfordshire

Grid Reference:


Map Link:

Ordnance Survey SU302866

Aerial photo:




Best Times to Visit:





National Trust

Other useful websites:



Nearby Locations:

Uffington Castle   (hill fort)

Blowing Stone

Waylands Smithy  
(a multi chamber open long borrow)

Ridgeway Path (long distance historic path)

Other Relevant pages:

Introduction to hillside figures

How to photograph hillside figures

Listing of hillside figures



Planning Grid


Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire

Grid Reference:


Getting there:

South of Uffington, off the B4507 going east from Ashbury.


Across fields from car parks


National Trust Pay and display car park (signposted) plus a second car park for the elderly and those with disabilities (also signposted)



Things To Do, See and Photograph:

White horse, view and hill fort very near, Ridgeway Path   the other side of the fort and Waylands Smithy,   an open multi chambered long barrow is along the Ridgeway less than 1.5 miles to the west, there is route back to the car park from the Ridgeway.

What to take:

A variety of lenses, polorizers or grads for the sky

Nature highlights:

There is  lot of wildlife in this area of the Ridgeway, we saw a very wide variety, from a red kite and various large hovering birds, to many ground birds, rabbits and hares and much more.







Opening times:

Open at all times


None except pay and display car park

Photo Restrictions:


Other Restrictions: None, except that you should not walk on the white horse itself
Special Needs Access: Difficult
Special Needs Facilities: None, except for car park, also Disabled parking in National Trust pay and display car park
Children Facilities: Ideal for children
Dogs Allowed: On a lead, there are sheep in the access field.

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.


By: Keith Park Section: White Horse & Hillside Features Key:
Page Ref: Uffington Topic: White Horses Last Updated: 01/2012


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