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Kilburn White Horse (North Yorkshire)

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Kilburn / North Yorkshire / England

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      01.01.2009 11:49
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      A white horse carved into the Yorkshire hills

      For many years my brother lived in Wiltshire under the shadow of a white horse carved into the limestone hillside above Westbury. I was always fascinated by this figure so when I discovered that there was a similar white horse in North Yorkshire within a day trip of where I live it became a place that I wanted to see.

      There are many examples of figures of horses cut into the landscape in England but in northern England they are quite rare and the one at Kilburn in North Yorkshire is the most northerly such example in Britain. The practice of carving white horses and occasionally other figures into the landscape dates back to prehistoric times, the reasons behind their creation vary but many have religious origins. There is even an official name for the creation and study of these horses called "leucippotomy".

      The Kilburn Whitehorse lies below a flat grassy plateau that was once the site of an ancient Bronze Age settlement so when I first discovered its existence I assumed that its origin would be steeped in history. I therefore felt somewhat cheated to learn that this particular figure dated only from 1857.

      Local folklore says that the schoolmaster, John Hodgson created the Kilburn White Horse with the help of his pupils but credit is usually given to a local man called Thomas Taylor and a plaque erected in 1925 verifies this with an inscription that reads:

      "This figure was cut in 1857 on the initiative of Thomas Taylor, a native of Kilburn. In 1925 a restoration fund was subscribed by the readers of the Yorkshire Evening Post and the residue of £100 was invested to provide for the triennial grooming of the figure."

      Despite the shocking revelation that this was a modern man made figure I was still intrigued enough to want to pay it a visit and I was not alone as it is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. It is visible from many miles away but if you want to get up close it is best viewed from the A19 York to Thirsk road. It faces south west and on a clear day is visible from Julian's Bower in North Lincolnshire 45 miles (72 Km) away.

      Visitors now find a visitor centre, a car park, a viewing platform and for those that are able there is a footpath that climbs up the hillside to another viewing platform. All along this footpath there are wooden benches to rest and although a visit here would probably warrant only about 30 minutes to one hour, rather than a full day, it is a great place to get some fresh air and take in the beauty of the North York Moors.

      I was curious to discover why such a figure was created and the answer to this question can of course be found in the visitor centre. During the 16th and 17th centuries this area had a strong tradition with horse racing and the naturally flat land that forms the Hambleton Plateau was second only to Newmarket in terms of horse racing popularity. Its remote location however meant that is was difficult to get to and the horse racing events that took place on the plateau were eventually moved to York and Ripon. The local people however remained fiercely proud of these horse racing traditions and they felt that they wanted something to celebrate this tradition. The idea of the white horse was probably inspired by the Uffington White Horse on the Berkshire Downs, which Thomas Taylor had visited in 1857. This visit probably inspired the creation of this figure at Kilburn and Taylor, a wealthy merchant put forward a sum of money. It is plausible that there is some truth in the story that the school children helped to create the horse as it would have been a huge local project at the time.

      The Kilburn White Horse was created by cutting away the top layer of soil from the hillside and exposing the white limestone rock beneath. Over six tonnes of lime was then added to whiten the exposed rock. The final result was a figure measuring 97 metres long and standing 67 metres high, covering an area of over one and a half acres.

      There is no denying that the sight of this figure is pretty amazing. During my visit I discovered that during the Second World War it was covered up to prevent it being used as a navigation aid for enemy aircraft.

      I did walk to up to the higher viewing platform but personally I thought that it looked better from a distance. The steep gradient of the hillside has caused some of the soil to slip and supporting struts have been hammered into the ground to retain the original shape of the horse and prevent further erosion. From the car park these are barely visible but from the other platform they are quite prominent and a little bit unsightly. I also visited a rather miserable wet and misty day so I failed to see it at its best but I am still glad that I came to pay it a visit and if I am in the area again I will probably stop off at have another look.

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    • Product Details

      A hill figure in the form of a horse; it is 318 feet long by 220 ft high and covers about 1.6 acres.