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The Rude Man of Cerne Abbas (Dorset)

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An ancient hill carving etched into the hillside at Cerne Abbas in Dorset.

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      29.04.2012 10:32
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      An unusual and interesting figure carved into the hillside in Dorset - age unknown

      "Here come I, Beelzebub, And over my shoulders I carry my club" Christmas Mummers' Play

      In England we are lucky enough to have nearly 60 chalk etched hill figures. The majority of these are in the south of England, as the underlying rock is chalk and it shows up nicely from a distance. Most of these hill figures can be found in Wiltshire (home to at least eight white horse carvings, half a dozen regimental badges, a panda and a kiwi). Second in line is the county of Dorset, which has a couple of hill carvings too - the most famous being the Rude Man of Cerne Abbas, near Dorchester.

      You may well not recognise the name, but you are likely to be familiar with his image...as he does indeed have a rather distinctive feature. The Rude Man of Cerne Abbas is somewhat of a controversial chalk figure; I say controversial, but really he's perhaps better described as comical to some and shocking to others, for the Rude Man is the chalk etched outline of a huge naked man sporting a rather large erect phallus.


      The figure can be found on a steep hillside overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. He's a rather tall being some 180 feet from head to foot, and in his hand he wields a massive knobbly club of some 120ft. The figure is mostly known as the Rude Man of Cerne Abbas, but politer society refers to him as the Giant or the Corfe Giant.

      The Rude Man has clearly defined facial features, ribs and nipples as well as a 20ft long erect penis. Historians claim that he was not always so well endowed and his formidable erection was allegedly extended when his navel became overgrown and was incorrectly identified as the tip of his penis! The Rude Man of Cerne Abbas is often compared to the Long Man of Wilmington, another man-shaped chalk figure in East Sussex, but the Long Man is rather grey and featureless in comparison to his more colourful Dorset cousin.

      As with most of the older English chalk figures, no one knows exactly how long he's been around. The earliest mention of him in literature did not occur until 1751 and the author of that guide tells of locals claiming the figure had been carved in the 16th century. Some believe he is truly ancient - a depiction of either the Roman God Hercules, or the Celtic God Nodens. Others believe he was etched to lampoon Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century....which gives a whole new meaning to the term "Roundhead" in this case :o)

      ~~ RUDE BOY ~~

      The Rude Man still has a role to play in modern history. Due to the nature of his appendage, he is, of course, believed to be an ancient fertility symbol. This is backed up by the fact that on May Day (the traditional time for fertility rites to be performed) his phallus points directly to the rising sun. Walking around the Giant and then spending the night on his penis is allegedly a sure fire way to get pregnant. Local legend claims woman who sleep on the figure will be "blessed with fecundity", and couples with infertility problems may find that having sex on top of the phallus leads to pregnancy. This is borne out by the Marquis of Bath and his wife, who claim that spending time with the Giant helped them conceive their first child in 1958!

      Nowadays The Rude Man is contained by a fence and the National Trust (who maintain him) request that no one gets inside the fence, or walks on the figure. However, local birth rates have soared in that area (North Dorset has one of the highest birth rates in the country), so I'm rather guessing there are ways and means to get up and close and personal with him if you so desire. At dawn every May Day (Beltaine), local Morris dancers gather and dance on him, but you shouldn't let that put you off visiting him if you are determined to conceive - I'm sure they won't mind :o)

      The Rude Man has been used in numerous advertising campaigns in the last few years. He's been used to promote both condoms and jeans, by drawing on the necessary adjustments to his "attire". More famously he was used to promote The Simpsons Movie in 2007 when a giant Homer Simpson, brandishing a doughnut, was painted onto the ground next to the Rude Man. Local Neo-Pagans were rather upset by this modern day defacement of their sacrilegious site, but Homer did wash away after the first few good rain showers. After Rihanna's latest antics during the filming of her latest video in Northern Ireland, I'm rather surprised her team didn't think of having her cavort around on the Rude Man whilst singing "Rude Boy". Afterall if she'd spouted the lyrics to him "Come here, rude boy, boy; can you get it up? Come here rude boy, boy; is you big enough?" I think the answer would be that he has no problems at all in that department. They missed a trick there.

      ~~ STAYING POWER ~~

      Sadly the Rude Man is one of only two remaining examples of Gigantotomy (chalk carvings in the shape of human figures) in the UK, the other being the Long Man in East Sussex. Giant figures did used to exist in Cambridge and Oxford, and there were a pair of giant twins once upon a time in Plymouth. Unfortunately none of these are any longer visible, as the chalk has long grown over. However, there are plenty of surviving examples of Leucippotomy (chalk carvings of horses) on our UK landscape, especially in Wiltshire, if you fancy seeing what can be achieved and maintained in a fairly compact area.

      Like all chalk carvings the Rude Man was traditionally created by digging out enough soil and turf to reveal the chalk underneath, in this case trenches some 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep cut through the grass and soil to expose the underlying chalk. The chalk in any hill figure has to be regularly scoured in order to keep the shapes visible from a distance as without regular scouring, they tend to disappear from view. As the Rude Man is now owned and maintained by The National Trust he remains very visible to this day. He receives regular grass trimming and he is re-chalked every 25 years. The only time he went into hiding was during World War II when he went into disguise to prevent Johnny Foreigner from using him as an aerial landmark.

      ~~ I DON'T MEAN TO BE RUDE, BUT....~~

      Unless you have an aeroplane or helicopter, the Rude Man is best seen from the lay-by and parking area on the east side of the A352 between Dorchester and Sherborne. The Rude Man is located 7 miles from Dorchester and 11 miles from Sherborne in the small village of Cerne Abbas. You can climb up to the Rude Man via the Giant Hill footpath from the church. It's a fairly steep climb, but it shouldn't take more than 10 to 15 minutes for the average walker. As I explained earlier, the Rude Man is fenced off to prevent erosion or damage to the figure, but you can walk around the figure and get a good look at him from all angles. As with many chalk carvings, the Rude Man is hard to make out from close up - they're always better viewed from a distance. However, the climb up the hill is worth it for the magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. You can also appreciate the work that goes into any hill figure if you get up close and personal with them and here you can see the deep trenches in the ground created to outline this giant shape. The Rude Man is free to visit and makes a most pleasant day out. You'll get plenty of fresh air, some delightful views and a nice spot of hill climbing for your daily exercise. As an added bonus, the village of Cerne Abbas is rather pleasant to wander around too, as it has a lovely 14th-century church and some abbey ruins to look at.

      As you've probably guessed by now, viewing Britain's chalk figures is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I've managed to see most of the ones located in the south of England over the years. Sometimes, you see a hill figure in the flesh, so to speak, and you think "is that it?". The reality is often a lot smaller or a lot less magnificent than you were expecting. You've seen the photos, but the reality is nowhere near as good. And that can certainly be said for a couple of the white horse figures in Wiltshire - what you see is small and doesn't much resemble any horse you've ever seen before. However, The Rude Man does not disappoint. He's just as large as life in the flesh as he is in any postcard you've ever seen of him. He's loud, proud and unashamed - and so he should be :o)



      ~ The Osmington Horse ~
      Seventeen miles away in Weymouth is another chalk caved figure known as the Osmington Horse. This is a rather unique white horse figure as it's the only one that has a rider on its back. The rider is purported to be George III and it was etched in 1808 to commemorate the King's visit to the area. Weymouth was a very popular Regency resort, but legend has it that the King was offended by the depiction of himself riding away from Weymouth rather than towards it, and he never returned! That seems like a load of old poppycock to me - it was more likely that he never returned to Weymouth because his courtiers confined him to barracks in London due to his ever increasing signs of madness brought on by his illness.

      ~ Dorchester ~
      Seven miles from the Rude Man is the well known town of Dorchester, best known as being the home of Thomas Hardy and the place that features in two of his best known novels "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" and "The Mayor of Casterbridge". You can visit both his childhood home and the town house where he wrote many of his books. If you're not a Hardy fan, then there is still plenty to admire in the town with lots of quaint Georgian buildings and a plethora of interesting museums (The Dinosaur Museum, the Dorset Teddy Bear Museum and the Tutankhamen Exhibition to name but a few).


      To my mind, the best chalk carvings are definitely in Wiltshire, but there are quite a few of them scattered around Britain in other counties. Below is a very brief rundown of the best and the worst examples of hill figures in my opinion.

      * HITS *

      ~ Uffington White Horse - Uffington, Oxfordshire ~
      Surely the most famous hill carving in the UK with its instantly recognisable image of clever white lines and shapes to form the shape of a horse. The Ufffington carving is a rather splendid cavorting horse which measures nearly 400 ft in length, and is purportedly Britain's oldest hill carving. You can climb up to it, but he's best viewed from a distance, as up close the white lines don't form much of a shape. The jury is out on his actual age - some believe he's close to 3,000 years old and can be dated back to the Bronze Age (several Iron Age coins bearing similar horse images have been found). Others believe that he was created to commemorate Alfred the Great's victory over the Danes in 878 AD.

      ~The Cherhill Charger - Calne, Wiltshire ~
      As a young girl this was the very first white horse I ever spotted on the hill whilst my father was filling his Cortina up with petrol in the 70's, and it's still my favourite. It's said to be the third oldest of the white horse the UK and was created in 1780. The outline was "sketched" by Dr Allsop using white flags. He then stood at the bottom of the hill and used the Regency version of a loudspeaker to direct labourers on the hill. It's a rather charming, prancing horse and modern day ownership by the National Trust means it's well maintained. It can be reached via footpath from the road below.


      ~ Marlborough White Horse - Marlborough, Wiltshire ~
      This is a rather dreadful attempt at a horse - a sadly unimpressive and forlorn looking nag I'm afraid. This has to be the worst example of a chalk horse you are ever likely to see. In its defence it was cut by some schoolboys from Mr Greasley's Academy in 1804. The end result show the obvious lack of enthusiasm the school boys felt towards the task in hand with the resultant horse having a huge neck and stick like figure. It does indeed resemble a giraffe rather than a horse :o(

      ~ Kilburn White Horse - Kilburn, North Yorkshire ~
      This is one of the biggest UK carvings of a horse, and one of the few to be found in the north of England. It was created in 1857, and said to be inspired by the Uffington White Horse. The resultant horse is sadly lacking and is a rather sorry looking beast. It's huge but decidedly oddly shaped and amateurish looking. The tail itself is strangely short, almost as if they'd run out of steam or enthusiasm over their creation.


      There are a couple of websites that will give you more information on the Rude Man as well as chalk figures in general. The best website is at http://www.hillfigures.co.uk/ and has plenty of good photos as well as facts and figures. There's also a good summary of Hill Figures at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_figure

      If you are interested in reading up about chalk hill figures in more detail, I can recommend a couple of books which I own: "Discovering Hill Figures" by Kate Bergamar is quite an easy read and more geared to the casual reader. "White Horses and other Hill Figures" by Morris Marples is quite hard going but more in depth. If you're interested in reading the various debates on the origins and ages of any of the hill figures then the Marples book will give you all the detail you require (and possibly some you didn't...).

      Finally, I can direct you to a couple of my older reviews on UK hill figures. The White Horses of Wiltshire feature in my review at
      http://members.dooyoo.co.uk/sightseeing-national/ the-wiltshire-white-horses/1055905/ and The Long Man of Wilmington has his own spot at
      http://members.dooyoo.co.uk/sightseeing-national/ the-long-man-of-wilmington-east-sussex/1603064/


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