The best of Dorset in words and pictures

An Uphill Challenge

Does the Osmington white horse face a bright future? Jill Dunning finds out

The White Horse at Osmington

The white horse at Osmington is the second largest figure of its kind in the country. Its huge scale becomes apparent when one realises that the small white blobs at the bottom of the photograph are actually sheep!

As hill figures go, the white horse at Osmington can sometimes look a bit grey, but its sheer size and subject matter mean it is nonetheless majestic. The second largest figure of its kind in the country and the only one to feature a rider, there are various theories and myths about how and when it was cut and whom it depicts.

Weymouth & Portland Borough Council suggests that it was carved by 1807 and that the rider was added as late as 1815. Other records say it was created in 1808. There is also a tale that it was done by a lone soldier; however, the scale of the figure makes it hard to believe it was the work of just one person. Another story says it was carved by a group of engineers when there was a threat of a Napoleonic invasion – a theory given credence by a reference to the horse in Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet Major, where it is referred to as commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar. Some sources claim it represented the Duke of Wellington, although it is widely accepted that it portrays King George III, who visited nearby Weymouth on a number of occasions during the latter part of the 18th century and early years of the 19th.

Even when you accept the royal link, folklore and myths still abound. It was rumoured that the king was so displeased that the figure was pointing away from Weymouth – indicating he was not welcome – that he never returned. However, considering the monarch suffered the start of his final and irreversible bout of ‘madness’ in 1809 and that his last visit to the town was in 1805, this seems unlikely.

More recently, and perhaps controversially, historian Martin Ball reportedly said the figure was never meant to be white as it depicted the king on his favourite grey horse, and that Republicans objecting to royal interference designed it to point away from the town as a snub to royalty.
And while mystery surrounds much of landmark’s history, its future is equally uncertain. It is designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument by English Heritage but the body has no responsibility for its upkeep. Unlike the Cerne Abbas giant a few miles away, which had a much-publicised makeover last summer, the Osmington figure is not administered by the National Trust. It would doubtless benefit from a similar revamp; its outline is succumbing to the forces of nature and a topping – added during a restoration project by the television programme ‘Challenge Anneka’ in 1989 – turns grey when wet.

Dorset Countryside Ranger staff, The White Horse at Osmington

Work on restoring the horse’s outline is a priority. In June 2007, this team of Dorset Countryside Ranger staff and Dorset Countryside Volunteers was working on its hind legs – the tail can be glimpsed on the left

However, Dorset CC West Dorset & Portland coastal officer John Hayes, who has been involved with maintaining the white horse for eighteen years both voluntarily and through his work, is determined to return it to its former glory. He has worked with the landowner, local builder Paul Critchell, and volunteer teams to carry out much-needed maintenance. John says the landowner has been ‘very supportive’. After buying it around ten years ago, he has worked hard to remove the gorse that was encroaching on the carving, clear pathways and find animals to graze the site.

‘No one really has responsibility for its year-on-year upkeep – there’s this big gap,’ explains John. ‘The ranger service tries to fill that gap and we sometimes get grants for materials, but there is no budget. The white horse is important to the local area. It is a major landmark and it is part of our heritage, but we can’t be sure whether it was meant to last for 200 years. After all, chalk does degrade. When they cut the Winchester bypass section of the M3 the hills were white. Now they’re a grey-yellow colour.’

It is obvious John would love it to be a gleaming white, but his priority is restoring the outline. Over the years the horse’s legs have narrowed and the reins have almost disappeared. But he faces an uphill struggle – quite literally. Getting permission from English Heritage appears straightforward enough but the hill’s gradient makes work a very slow process.

He acknowledges that the Anneka Rice-led initiative inadvertently added to the figure’s woes. When the sort-it-out superwoman helped whiten the horse, her team did so by covering it with 140 tons of limestone scalping. However, these chippings are giving way to gravity and falling down the hill making the horse’s legs look like they are dripping, and the scalping turns grey when damp.
‘The programme came out not long before I started here and it has come in for a lot of stick,’ says John. ‘But there could have been more criticism over the state of the figure today if it hadn’t been done. We’ve managed to get rid of several tons of scalping already and there are plans to clear more but it is quite an undertaking. The degree of the incline makes it unsuitable for vehicles, so in the past we have used a ground anchor and a trolley system.’

The fact that the figure is a solid carving – not just an outline like the Cerne Abbas giant – creates another challenge in the size of the area that has to be maintained. The giant measures 180ft from head to toe, is 45ft across his shoulders, while his club is 120ft. The Osmington horse is around 320ft tall and 280ft wide.

‘The National Trust re-chalks the Cerne Abbas giant every seven to ten years,’ explains John. ‘I’ve helped out in the past to get a feel of what they do and how we can emulate it, but the giant covers a fraction of the area compared to the horse.’

The Trust also gets funding. Enquiries have been made about securing lottery cash to restore the Osmington figure, but John says this is not possible because it is privately owned. Instead, maintenance work depends on volunteers. In the past, the Territorial Army has helped out and last summer staff from BAE Systems at Dorchester took part in a clear-up. Afterwards, a spokesman expressed the company’s commitment to continuing the partnership with the rangers to spruce up the figure in time for the 2012 Olympics. There’s also ray of hope that the horse can benefit from the Portland Gas pipeline, which is due to run near to the site.

‘If chalk excavated for the pipeline is suitable we can use that, but we don’t know whether it will be, whether it will have the right flint content, how it will be tamped down or whether it is physically possible,’ says John.

Despite the challenges, you can’t help but feel that with the backing of volunteers and the landowner, John’s determination means the horse has a secure future. ‘I guess I’ve got a stubborn streak,’ he says. ‘Otherwise I’d have given up years ago.’

The White Horse at Osmington

The steepness of White Horse Hill is very apparent in this photograph – hence the winch and trolley system to remove the stone chippings that had accumulated beneath the horse’s legs

Dorset Directory