Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Bones of the Earth

I returned on a recent afternoon to White Horse Hill on the Berkshire Downs, although the hill is now in Oxfordshire, thanks to the reorganisation of the old county boundaries in 1974. I taught at the village in the valley below for five years, but had not been back for two or three years since then.
This is an ancient managed landscape, which preserves the monuments created at the end of the Bronze Age in Britain, about three thousand years ago, in approximately 800BC. The rippled walls of the dry valley known as The Manger are offset against the level floor, carved into terraces along the looping sides of the valley. Nearby rises the artificially flattened cone of a natural outcrop, to which has accreted one of the many legends of the surrounding landscape. Now called Dragon Hill, it is reputedly the spot where St George slew his dragon - a patch of chalk, where grass refuses to grow, still marks the place where the dragon's blood fell. Beyond this lies the Vale of the White Horse, its parish boundaries still adhering to the pattern of ditches which marked the territories of those ancient communities of 800BC.
Even more enigmatic than Dragon Hill, however, is the chalk-carved figure of the horse itself. Dated to the same period, this stylised figure has its own canon of tales and associations. Long thought to have been carved to mark the victory of King Alfred over the Danes at the nearby Battle of Ashdown in 871CE, the figure was already ancient by this time. Among many other stories and traditions the best known is that which says that a person standing in the eye of the Horse will have a wish granted. It doesn't stop here. Above the figure of the Horse, on the brow of the hill, the highest point for miles around has the remains of a ditched fort, the earthworks now moulded to gentle curves by the passage of time.
Over everything is the sheep-bitten turf, the occasional crow, and, on this afternoon, a hawk, flying low in the wind.

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