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The Wiltshire White Horses

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Wiltshire is the county for white horses. There are or were at least twenty-four of these hill figures in Britain, with no less than thirteen being in Wiltshire, and another white horse, the oldest of them all, being just over the border in Oxfordshire. Most of the white horses are chalk hill carvings, and the chalk downs of central Wiltshire make it an ideal place for such figures. Of the thirteen white horses known to have existed in Wiltshire, eight are still visible, and the others have either been lost completely, or are in a sense still there, under the turf, but have long since become grown over and are no longer visible. Contrary to popular belief, most white horses are not of great antiquity. Only the Uffington white horse is of certain prehistoric origin, being some three thousand years old. Most of the others date from the last three hundred years or so, though the hillside white horse can be a slippery creature, and the origins of some are impossible to establish with any certainty.

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    • More +
      09.03.2009 02:38
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      A visit to see the White Horses is time well spent

      There are a grand total of thirteen White chalk horses embedded in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside.
      Before we go on to take a closer look at each of the White horses maybe I will tell you just why I love them so much.
      When our children were young the Westbury White Horse was a very popular weekend visiting place, you could bundle the kids into the car, pack a picnic, have just enough petrol in the tank to get there and back and still be sure that it was going to be a good afternoon out. The entrance to the Westbury white horse is via a long, narrow and windy road. But the road does have a number of `passing points`. As the car reaches the brow of the hill there is grass as far as the eye can see.
      The Westbury White Horse was then the equivalent of a modern indoor play centre but it was filled with fresh air and cost little or nothing for an afternoons visit.
      Everywhere you looked there would be tartan blankets covering the grass, sandwich boxes and bottles of pop were then the order of the day. As parents in the 1970`s you had already realised that life was just one massive credit crunch and family entertainment had to be done on a shoestring.
      The one and only temptation that parked on the top of the hill was the Mr Whippy van, so the piggy bank was raided beforehand to raise enough for five ice creams.
      Budding George Bests dribbled their footballs everywhere, two cardigans marked the goal mouth and even the dog used to enjoy the game! We played Hide and Seek in the long grass, we basked in the afternoon sun and there wasn't a square foot of ground that wasn't occupied by some Sunday afternoon trippers.
      The climax of the day was the trek around the edge of the white chalk horse, it was a ritual.
      To reach the White horse you have to walk to the far side of the field and then you begin a steep descent, we must have resembled an elephants tail as we all clung to each other trying not to slip on the chalk. The journey around the edge of the horse was perilous fun and many times we only managed to walk around one of the legs!

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      But Westbury isn't the only place in Wiltshire to have the honour of having a chalk White Horse embedded in the hillside, in fact there are another twelve in the county but sadly only eight of them are still visible , the rest are there but have long since grown over.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Lets start off by talking about the Alton Barnes White horse.

      The white horse looks out over the Pewsey Vale and can be seen for miles around. The Alton Barnes White horse directly faces the new Pewsey White Horse.
      In 1812 Mr Robert Pile, who lived at the local farm paid Twenty pounds to John Thorne to design and cut out the horse. On reflection Twenty pounds was a considerable amount of money in the 1800`s but the work didn't go according to plan. John Thorne decided to design the horse himself and then draught in workers to excavate the shape of the horse. To cut a long story short Mr Thorne then decided to do a moonlight flit taking the Twenty pounds with him! Robert Pile had to pay out again and some time later John Thorne was hanged, but no one seems to know if he was hung because of the theft.
      The horse at Alton Barnes has been fairly well looked after , the Wiltshire Crop Circles Study Group removed the weeds and grass from the white surface and redefined some edging in 2002.
      The horse has also been lit up a few times in past year, a group of dedicated people placed hundreds of tea lights around the edge of the horse on the night of a Winter Solstice, by all accounts the event was a sight to behold.
      The Ordnance Survey Grid Reference for Alton Barnes is SU 106 637.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Now we move on to the Broad Town white Horse.
      The village of Broad Town is South of Wooton Bassett, on the Marlborough road, the horse itself sits in a dip to the North East of the village.
      Records state that the horse was on what used to be farmland. In 1864 the farmer William Simmonds cut the horse, fully intending to make it larger in future years. But William was forced to give up the farm and the horse remained the same size as when it was first cut.
      Up until 1991 the Broad Town horse had been left to its own devices and was rather unkempt until a local restoration team was formed. They worked hard to restore the horse to its former glory and it is still looking good today. Again this horse can be seen for miles around, so the restoration team must be proud of their efforts.
      The Ordnance Survey Grid Reference for the Broad Town White Horse is SU 098 783.


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Next stop is the Cherhill White Horse.
      This horse is on the Eastern side of the village of Cherhill, off of the A4 Calne to Marlborough road.
      They say that this horse is the second oldest of the thirteen.
      A Dr Christopher Alsop from Calne designed the horse and had it cut. Saying goes that he was a great friend of George Stubbs , who was famous for his paintings of horses and animals so maybe that was his inspiration. At one time the horse had a glass eye, or rather an upturned bottle that sufficed! But the glass was constantly being removed or smashed so the horse ended up with a concrete eye.
      In recent years the Cherhill White Horse Restoration Group raised a significant amount of money and had the outline re-cut and the entire horse was re-chalked.
      The Cherhill horse is very visible from the A4.
      The Ordnance Survey Grid Reference is SU 049 696.


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      The Devizes Old White Horse (The Snob Horse)
      Although Devizes has a new White Horse I think it is quite sad to think that the old one has been lost.
      This White horse sat to the North of Devizes on the edge of the Roundway Down.
      There is a lovely tale to this horse, it was cut mid 1800`s by a group of local shoemakers, the word `snob` was apparently a dialect word for shoemaker and it was always known as Snobs Horse.
      It wasn't looked after and eventually it was lost in grass and weeds.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 000 645


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Happy news! The new Devizes White Horse.
      The new Devizes White Horse was cut in 1999 by local people to welcome the new millennium. This horse is the only white Horse in Wiltshire that faces to the right. It is cut into the side of Roundway Hill and overlooks the village of Roundway.
      A local tenant farmer offered the land and permission was given from the Crown Estate Commissioners for the project to go ahead. The horse can be seen clearly from Roundway Village.
      But only eight years later the horse was barely recognisable and a community service group from the Probation Service were drafted in to clean the horse. The top of the horse is now in good shape.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 016 641


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      The Hackpen White Horse, also known as the Broad Hinton or the Winterbourne Bassett White Horse.
      The Hackpen White Horse lays on the edge of the Malborough downs and South East of Broad Hinton village. This horse was more than likely cut to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. It is thought that a parish clerk joined forces with the local pub landlord to cut the White Horse.
      In 2004 a gentleman called Bevan Pope set about weeding and cleaning up the horse, restoring it to its former glory.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 128 749


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Yet another sad tale...
      The Ham Hill White Horse, otherwise known as the Inkpen White horse.
      In the late Eighteen hundreds a nearby property owner called Mr Wright cut the Ham Hill horse, although the shape was dug out the horse was never filled in with chalk. Sadly as the years passed the new owners of the property showed little or no interest in maintaining the horse and it just disappeared into the undergrowth. Today there is nothing left to show that it ever existed.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 348 621


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      On to the Marlborough or Preschute White Horse.
      A small white horse that sits on the side of Granham Hill at the village of Preschute, West of the A345 Malborough to Pewsey road.
      The pupils of a nearby boys school cut the horse in 1804 and it was well looked after until the death of the owner of the school sometime in 1930. Since then it has alternated between being cared for and neglected. Early pictures of the horse show a sturdy figure but the horse seems rather spindly now. This White Horse cannot be seen clearly and it seems in need of some restoration work yet again.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 184 682



      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      The Old Pewsey White Horse.
      As you may have already guessed this White Horse was replaced by a new one in 1937.
      Robert Pile from Manor Farm instructed in the late 1700`s that the White Horse should be cut.
      The name Robert Pile has already appeared relating to the Alton Barnes White Horse but this may well have been his son seeing as all this happened over thirty years later.The horse was last scoured ( see bottom of the review ) in 1789 and from then on it was left to fend for itself and consequently vanished , covered in weeds and growth.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 171580


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Yet another new horse...
      The Pewsey New White Horse.
      The new Pewsey White Horse lays about a mile to the South of Pewsey towards the village of Everleigh. In fact it is fairly close to the old horse.
      They were looking for something to commemorate the Coronation of George V1 in 1937 and after plans were submitted on three separate occasions by George Marple, a hill carver, the idea was finally accepted. This horse was cut by volunteers form the Pewsey Fire Brigade and when it was initially cut the horse had the date carved above it. Today the date has long gone but the Pewsey 6X Club look after and maintain the White Horse.
      The horse looks out towards the horse at Alton Barnes.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 171 580


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      The Rockley White Horse.
      About four miles North West of Malborough some time during 1948 they were in the process of ploughing some land on Rockley Down when they discovered a huge patch of chalk that seemed to resemble a left facing horse.
      The existance of the horse is shrouded in mystery, no one knows why it was cut or who commissioned it. Since then the land has been ploughed and all signs of the horse have now gone, so it will always remain one of life's mysteries.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 153 733


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      Last one! The Tan Hill White Horse.
      Tan Hill sits in the Parish of All Cannings and author Kathleen Wiltshire had written about a `small donkey` that could still be seen on Tan Hill. They seem to think that the author was in fact possibly referring to another White Horse rather than a donkey, but many searches of the area failed to show any sign of it.
      But in time more local enquiries were made and the villagers were able to confirm that the Tan Hill White Horse had once existed.
      Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SU 080 644


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Although the White Horses may mean little to some I think that they form an important part of our heritage. Although they are not particularly beautiful or even useful, for the most part they all have a significant amount of history behind them., most of which is totally fascinating.
      I take my hat off to the hard working volunteers who help maintain the horses for future generations to admire.


      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      White Horse Scouring.
      I mentioned the term `scouring` during the review and asked that you take a look at the end of the review.
      Scouring is an old tradition, huge amounts of crushed chalk are brought in and laid on top of the figure of the horse, it creates a thick layer and restores the horse to its former glory.

      If you have managed to get to the end of the review without dropping off I will be pleasantly surprised!
      But all of this information reinforces the fact that we have some beautiful places in Great Britain.

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      • More +
        30.06.2007 12:44
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        Chalk etched hill carvings making an interesting addition to the landscape

        Scattered throughout the south of England are some 57 hill figures. They're also known as chalk carvings due to the fact that they've been cut into the hillside turf to expose the underlying chalk rock beneath. Of these 57 odd hill figures, Wiltshire seems to boast more hill figures than any other county in England, the most prolific of which being the white horse figures.

        My father often had sales calls to make in Wiltshire when I was a child, and I'd often go along for the ride just for the scenery. What with Silbury Hill, the mysterious stones at Avebury and Long Barrow (not to mention Stonehenge not so far away), Wiltshire is steeped in history. However, the thing that fascinated me most as a child were the chalk carvings in the hills throughout the county.

        The most famous of chalk carving of all is the White Horse of Uffington on the Berkshire downs. However there are another eight visible chalk etched white horses carved into the hills and dales of Wiltshire (and some "lost horses" which have sadly long since disappeared back into the ground). In addition to the white horse figures, Wiltshire also plays home to the military badges at Fovant Down, the now almost lost Laverstock Panda and the Bulford Kiwi.


        ~~ HOW DID THEY COME ABOUT? ~~

        No one really knows why the white horses were first carved into the hills. Some believe that the oldest horses (Uffington and Westbury) were perhaps religious or territorial markers designed and created by the Celts. However, most of the white horse carvings are not figures of great antiquity. They mostly date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, with a couple thrown in during the 20th century. I suspect that nowadays it wouldn't be quite so easy to get the necessary permissions to etch a carving into the landscape, whereas landowners in pre-planning and pre-council eras could more or less do as they liked. This is evidenced by the controversy surrounding the creation of Britain's newest white horse in Folkestone, Kent. The project fell foul of all sorts of issues from environmentalists and planners. What was supposed to be a millennium horse was eventually completed to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee.

        As to why there quite so many white horses carved into the hills of Wiltshire again remains a mystery. Personally, I think that a lot of them were simply down to local exuberance. What their neighbours had done in the past in one area of Wiltshire, they felt they could improve upon and produce a bigger and better horse in their village. Many of them were created to commemorate a big countrywide event such a coronation. I think that it's rather splendid that some of the locals of Wiltshire continued with the traditions of their fore-fathers and created Wiltshire's newest horse to commemorate the millennium.

        You can tell that some of the workers involved in creating some of the older horses had simply no idea of the amount of work and difficulty involved in producing a life-like image, as some of the resulting efforts are really not all that good! Digging out tons of earth to form a recognizable shape and then removing said earth - all on a steep slope - would have been incredibly hard work. I'm sure that a lot of individuals involved in one of these projects had no idea of the magnitude of the scheme they'd gotten themselves involved in....and possibly wished they hadn't perhaps started in the first place!


        ~~ THE ART OF LEUCIPPOTOMY (the art of cutting white horses) ~~

        The first step is to choose a steep slope on which to create the image so that it could be viewed from afar. Any hill figure needs to be a fairly large design otherwise it wouldn't stand out and be visible.

        The design then has to be marked out. Some projects (i.e. the Cherhill White Horse) chose to put teams of people on a hill with flags on poles and have someone below directing the operation with a megaphone. More modern methods (i.e. the Devizes Milennium Horse) have used proper plans and marked out a grid on the hill.

        Once the outline has been established, the hard work can begin. Trenches are cut out around the outline. If the planned figure is to be solid rather than an outline, then all the turf within the outline needs to be cut out as well in order to expose the chalk beneath. It's a big project whichever way you look at it, and it involves a lot of hard work.

        And the hard work doesn't end upon completion. These figures need regular scouring and maintenance in order to keep their chalk whiter than white and their edges trimmed in order to stop them disappearing from view. A freshly scoured horse shines like a beacon, but will need to be revisited a least every seven years to keep it that way. As an interesting footnote, all the horse carvings were covered up during the Second World War to prevent possible enemy recognition.


        ~~ THE TOUR ~~

        There used to be around 13 or so white horses carved into the hills of Wilshire. However, years of rain and being trampled on by cattle have eroded some of these horses from the landscape. Nowadays there are 8 visible white horses in Wiltshire itself, with the ninth (Uffington) located nearby in Oxfordshire.

        It's quite possible to make a day out of it and do a tour in your car to view all the horses in one day. I would estimate that the tour time would be four to five hours, adding an hour, of course, to stop off for a pub lunch enroute. The entire trip is around 80 miles (if you don't include the Uffington white horse in nearby Oxfordshire). However, the round trip to include this carving would only add another 20 miles or so to your journey, so it's well worth including it on your itinerary. If you're a keen cyclist then this tour can be undertaken on a mountain bike in two days. On foot, I would estimate it would take you around a week though!

        The old market town of Marlborough is a good base from which to start your tour, and just a very short way out the town that you will come across the first Wiltshire white horse. However, the tour does not have to be done in this order and I have included a link to an alternative route (with more technical information such as road numbers and ordnance survey references) at the end of the review.

        [1] Marlborough White Horse
        This is a rather unimpressive looking and forlorn nag I'm afraid, and possibly the worst example of a chalk horse you'll see on the tour. Don't let it put you off though, as things can only get better from now on in. It was cut in 1804 by some schoolboys from Mr Greasley's Academy under the direction of the schoolmaster no doubt. One gets the feeling that the boys were possibly not so keen on the task in hand, and would rather have been doing whatever it was that 19th century schoolboys did for kicks, rather than digging out huge piles of chalk from a hillside. The resultant horse has a huge neck and resembles more of a giraffe than a horse!

        [2] Milk Hill Horse (also known as the Alton Barnes Horse)
        This is a big horse near Alton Barnes with a rather strange long snout. It was first crafted in 1812, but not without hitches. The first contractor engaged for a £20 fee ran off with the proceeds before he'd started on the horse. He was later hanged for other crimes.

        [3] Pewsey Horse
        This horse was cut in 1937 by members of the local fire brigade to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. It replaces a nearby shadowy outline of a horse cut in 1785. It's really quite small and spindly, and easily missed if you don't look hard.

        [4] The Westbury White Horse [Dooyoo product photo]
        This horse is situated on Bratton Down, and is the oldest of the Wiltshire white horses, allegedly cut in the late 17th century. However, it is thought that it may well have replaced an original figure dating back to Saxon times or earlier. Some say the original horse was cut to commemorate Alfred the Great's victory over the Danes in 878 AD. In the 1950's a decision was made to cut down on the maintenance of this horse, so all the chalk was filled in with white painted concrete. It looks totally stunning from a distance, a very large white horse shape (see Dooyoo product photo). However, close up, it doesn't seem quite so authentic as the others, the concrete kind of spoils it. It's well worth a climb up to this one, as it is also the site of an Iron Age hill camp crowning the top of Bratton Hill. There's also a fantastic view at the top.

        [5] Devizes Millennium Horse
        The original white horse in this village was cut in 1845 by the local shoemakers and was given the nickname the Snobs Horse. It unfortunately disappeared through neglect, and was gone, but not forgotten. A new horse now sits proudly on the hill - a testament to a superb community project in which 200 locals created the new horse in 1999 to celebrate the Millennium. This horse is the newest addition to the stable of Wiltshire white horses, and seems to have more life to it than some of its older brothers and sisters. This horse is much more animated and appears to be galloping across the hill.

        [6] The Cherhill Charger (also known as the Oldbury White Horse)
        This was the very first white horse I ever spotted trotting across the hills near Calne, and it still remains a favourite. It's the second oldest of the white horses in the area, being able to trace its provenance back to 1780. The outline was "sketched" by a Dr Allsop using white flags. He then took himself down the hill and used a speaking tube to direct his workers above him until he was satisfied with the shape. I can imagine that he made himself rather unpopular with constant bellowing and orders! It's now owned by the National Trust, and can be reached via footpath from the road below.

        [7] Broad Hinton Horse on Hackpen Hill
        A rather spindly legged beast this one, and allegedly cut in 1838 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. This horse is not situated as high up as some of the other horses, and its therefore harder to view it properly.

        [8] Broad Town Horse
        This one dates from 1864 and had all but disappeared from view until 1992 when it was cleaned and rechalked by local residents. It's not the most horse like of creatures, but still worth including on your tour.

        [9] Uffington White Horse
        This is not, strictly speaking, located in Wiltshire, but it's well worth extending your tour over the border into Oxfordshire to see this magnificent beast. This is Britain's oldest and possibly most recognizable hill carving. The Ufffington carving is a rather splendid cavorting horse nearly 400 ft in length, and some have even likened it to a dragon. It's best viewed from a distance to appreciate its beauty. You can climb up to it, but it loses its majestic presence up close. Datewise, this horse has been subjected to much analysis, and experts have differing views. Some say it's more than 3,000 years old and can be dated back to the Bronze Age (several Iron Age coins bearing horse images very similar to the Uffington horse have been found). Others believe that (like the Westbury White Horse) it was created to commemorate Alfred the Great's victory over the Danes in 878 AD. Whatever it's age or provenance, it's still rather magnificant.

        ~~ A GRAND DAY OUT ~~

        I love doing this tour every five years or so. It's amazing how different the horses look if you manage to view them just after they've been freshly scoured. It really does make a pleasant day out if you enjoy a drive in the country with a break for lunch and a pint at a local inn. There's plenty of exercise to be had too, if you want to extend your tour a bit and hike up a couple of the hills to see some of the horses more closely.

        You may well think that a tour of this sort, may be a bit boring for children, but I would argue that point. I remember my brother and I eagerly wanting to be the first to spot the next white horse in the hillside, and keeping a tally of how many each of us had spotted first (my brother nearly always won, as I was invariably looking the wrong way..). Similarly, it's great fun to be the first to race up the hill to the horse. Although any chalk carving is much better viewed from a distance to appreciate its effect, it's still good fun to get up close and personal with a couple to see the amount of work and effort that has gone into creating these magnificent beasts. However, please note that the horses should not be walked up, as you are likely to damage the outline and well as dirty the underlying chalk. Many of these horses have now been enclosed in fencing to prevent such damage.

        Why do I like these chalk etchings so much? I have no idea really. I just find them fascinating. There's something mystical and almost magical about these hill carvings. Mostly carved to celebrate a victory or an occasion, they make a great talking point and a great theme for a fascinating day out. Old or new, realistic, amateurish or symbolic I hope they're here to stay as they make a stunning addition to the landscape. They are superb symbols of our heritage and I hope that they continue to grace the green hills of England for many a year to come.


        ~~ OTHER NOTABLE UK CHALK HILL FIGURES ~~

        ~ The Rude Man of Cerne Abbas (also known as The Giant or the Corfe Giant) ~
        Cerne Abbas is home to The Giant and can be found in Dorset. This is a huge 180ft outline of a naked man with an erect penis. His erection was allegedly extended when his navel became overgrown and was incorrectly identified as the tip of his penis! Arguments rage over the origins of this giant - some say it is pre-Roman and others believe it's a 17th century fake created to lampoon Oliver Cromwell. Whatever his age, he has become something of a fertility symbol, and women wishing to become pregnant often walk around his edges.... Local pagans are most upset by the painted image of Homer Simpson which has recently appeared alongside the giant. However, it should quickly disappear once we get a good downpour of rain.

        ~ The Long Man of Wilmington ~
        Located near Lewes, East Sussex. This carving is even bigger than the Cerne Abbas giant, being 231ft high. He is believed to be a Saxon warrior carved in the 7th century. However, he lacks the same detail as his Dorset cousin and has no facial or body details, just an outline. He's still worth a day out though, and it's a very pleasant climb up to the hill he stands on.

        ~ Cheriton Hill ~
        The most recent UK hill carving is located near the Channel Tunnel at Dover, and was completed in 2003. This is a modern looking outline of white horse. I haven't yet had the pleasure of viewing this creature, but from photos viewed it looks like a rather mystical beast.

        ~ The Osmington Horse ~
        This white horse near Weymouth in Dorset is unique in that it is the only white horse figure with a rider on its back. The rider is allegedly George III and was cut in 1808 to commemorate the king's visit to the area. I last viewed it on a rather cloudy day in 2003, and it was terribly difficult to spot as the chalk was so dark and overgrown. I believe it has been scoured since then, so it should be a bit easier to spot next time.

        ~ Regimental Badges ~
        Fovant Down in Wiltshire is home to 12 regimental badges, cut by different regiments in around 1916, often early in the morning before rifle practice. However, you need to be quick if you wish to view some of these, as they are no longer going to be regularly maintained and will be slowly fading away as time progresses.

        ~ Kilburn White Horse ~
        One of the biggest carvings of all can be found in the north of England, at Kilburn in North Yorkshire. I have not had the chance to view this one first hand, but I must say that from photos I have viewed of it, it's a rather odd looking horse!


        ~~ FURTHER INFORMATION ~~

        If you're interested to taking this tour yourself, a more comprehensive tour description with road numbers and ordnance survey references can be found at:-
        http://www.hows.org.uk/personal/hillfigs/wilt1.htm

        http://www.wiltshirewhitehorses.org.uk/ This website provides comprehensive information on the history and locations of the white horses of Wiltshire

        http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/chippenham/whitehorse/index.html - A website with more details on the white horses of Wiltshire with some excellent photos.

        http://www.hillfigures.co.uk/ Loads of information and photos of various chalk carvings scattered all over the world as well as in UK. There is also more technical information on how some of the more recent hill figures were created.

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