Britain's Spectacular (and Sometimes Mysterious) Hill Figures

By Bulent Yusuf on at

It's become a popular pastime to dig up weird and wonderful topography using Google Maps. Shipwrecks, for example. Or massive airplane graveyards. But it can also be used to study a uniquely British tradition, the humble hill figure (or not so humble, if you're familiar with the Cerne Abbas Giant).

Hill figures, for those safely ensconced in their little London bubbles, are large visual representations created by cutting into a steep hillside and revealing the underlying geology, usually white chalk. It is a type of "geoglyph", or geographical art, designed to be seen from afar. Perfect, in other words, for viewing with something like Google Maps.

Join us, fellow armchair travellers, as we survey the finest examples of hill figure carvings in the British Isles. Some of them have their roots in pre-history. Others in the tragedies of war. All of them are amazing.

 

1.) Fovant Badges

A set of regimental badges cut into a chalk hill, located on the Fovant Down between Salisbury and Shaftesbury on the A30 road in the Nadder valley. The badges were first created in 1916 by soldiers garrisoned nearby during the First World War, while they waited to be sent to France. Of the original twenty, only eight remain visible, and have been duly recognised by the Imperial War Museum as war memorials.

View on Google Maps: 51.053832,-1.979041

 

2.) Bulford Kiwi

Another hill figure with its origins in the First World War, the Bulford Kiwi is a massive chalk carving on Beacon Hill that overlooks the town of Bulford on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It was created by soliders from New Zealand waiting to be repatriated following the end of the war.

View on Google Maps: 51.194117,-1.715026

 

3.) Cerne Abbas Giant

Perhaps the most famous hill figure in the UK is located near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. A turf-cut outline filled with chalk, it depicts a large, naked man with a giant club... and he's also wielding a stick. The origins of the giant are unclear, but is commonly believed to have some association with a pagan fertility cult. Because of this, amorous couples routinely attempt to have nookie on the site and have to be shooed away like the naughty teenagers they probably are.

View on Google Maps: 50.81369,-2.474756

 

4.) Compton Chamberlayne Australia Map

Another remnant from the Great War, though this one is no longer maintained and has been left to nature. It's a large map of Australia carved into the Downs above Compton Chamberlayne, where a large number of -- you guessed it -- Australian soldiers were garrisoned between 1914-1919.

View on Google Maps: 51.061796,-1.940053

 

5.) Long Man of Wilmington

This hill figure is located in Wilmington, East Sussex, on the steep slopes of Windover Hill, northwest of Eastbourne. The Long Man holds two "staves", and in a clever optical illusion, his figure is designed to look in proportion when viewed from below. It was believed to have originated in the Iron Age or even the neolithic period, but more recent studies have shown that the figure may have been created in the 16th or 17th century.

View on Google Maps: 50.810138,0.187969

 

6.) Newburgh Bear

A relative youngster on this list, the Newburgh Bear was created for a local festival in 1980. But its pedigree as a symbol -- the bear and the ragged staff -- dates back to the Arthurian legends when men were men and fought bears with trees. Located on Park hill, southeast of Lindores Abbey, it isn't constructed from chalk but from a shallow trench where the vegetation is regularly removed by burning.

View on Google Maps: 56.351401,-3.212428

 

7.) Osmington White Horse

Two important bits of trivia for the Osmington White Horse, a hill figure sculpted in 1808 into the limestone Osmington hill just north of Weymouth. First, the figure is of King George III, a regular visitor to Weymouth, riding on his horse. Secondly, the figure was "restored" for a broadcast of the TV show Challenge Anneka, although historians criticised her for vandalising it.

View on Google Maps: 50.657514,-2.404354

 

8.) Uffington White Horse

After regimental badges and giant phalluses, horses are by far the most popular motif with hill figures. The Uffington White Horse is distinctive because it's highly stylised, and its origins are thought to be prehistoric. Formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk, the figure is situated on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the civil parish of Uffington.

View on Google Maps: 51.57761,-1.566603

 

9.) Watlington White Mark

The reasons for the existence of this hill figure are somewhat strange; the Watlington White Mark was designed by local squire Edward Horne, who reckoned that the parish church of St. Leonard would be more impressive if it appeared to have a spire when viewed from his home. For no better reason, he had the mark cut into the chalk escarpment of Watlington Hill in 1764.

View on Google Maps: 51.639112,-0.990084

 

10.) Whipsnade White Lion

Located inside the grounds of Whipsnade Zoo, one of the largest wildlife conservation parks in Europe, prowls the Whipsnade White Lion. Built in the 1930s, the large hill figure is carved into the side of the Dunstable Downs (part of the Chiltern Hills) below the White Rhino enclosure. Rumours of giant gazelles grazing nearby are unfounded.

View on Google Maps: 51.84877,-0.554402