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The Flight of the White Horse

Poems by Giles Watson

The Uffington White Horse is a chalk hill-figure in the disputed territory between Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire. It is part of an ancient sacred landscape which incorporates White Horse Hill itself, the artificially levelled Dragon Hill beneath it, the fluted combe caused by glaciations and known as the Manger or the Devil's Step-Ladder (one of two rival sources of the local River Ock), the Iron Age Hillfort of Uffington Castle on the top of the downs, and the Ridgeway which connects these sites with the neolithic chambered tomb, Wayland's Smithy, a string of other hill-forts, and ultimately with the Sanctuary, which is part of the Avebury complex, incorporating Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long-Barrow, the Avebury stones and ditches and Windmill Hill, the cradle of Neolithic culture in these islands. The White Horse has recently been silt-dated to the Bronze Age, and has therefore been recognised as by far the oldest surviving hillfigure in Britain. It has been maintained through a process of periodic 'scouring', in which inhabitants of neighbouring villages, such as Woolstone, Kingston Lisle, and Uffington itself, keep the chalk exposed by removing any encroaching grass. Legend insists that the Uffington White Horse comes to life at night, and drinks at the springs at the base of the Manger. If so, it must surely be tempted to visit other landmarks along the Ridgeway (which is in itself an ancient monument), and perhaps some of the other chalk hill-figures beyond. These poems make that assumption. My illustrations for this little collection were made with chalk pastels, gouache, watercolour, wax-crayon and Ridgeway chalk on paper. Giles Watson, 2012

All poems and pictures Giles Watson, 2012.

The White Horse and the Milky Way

Bored of grass, the White Horse strays onto the Milky Way. Trodden stars clag his shoes like Ridgeway chalk in rain. Across interstellar voids he trails their detritus. Beneath his hooves nebulae are disturbed. Asteroids scatter. Black holes open up. He startles as night fades flashes back to turf remembers he is only chalk.

The White Horse Submits to a Scouring

It is essential to remain perfectly still, And resist the urge to arch the spine Or cause a minor earthquake. The crust Of algal bloom itches like eczema, And the White Horse feels something Like a whale who cannot rid his Tail of barnacles. That scratching With a gleaming trowel keeps him On the edge of ecstasy and pain, And when fresh chalk is hammered Into his pock-marks, it hurts worse Than the reverse of depilation. He mustnt even twitch his tail Or close his one visible eye. If only he could raise his head And nuzzle the nearest child. Traditionally, the White Horse is scoured every twelve years, but in fact, algae need to be removed from the surface of the Horse annually in order to keep it in pristine condition. At times in the past, the horse has been allowed to grow over, and it was concealed completely during the Second World War, so that it could not serve as a landmark for the Luftwaffe.

The White Horse Drinks at the Spring Beneath the Manger

The spring which feeds the Ock, which feeds the Thames, Comes out of a pipe in a glassy gush, A column of molten ice. There is snow Enough to burden every branch, and a constant dripping That breeds liverworts and a black and wholesome sludge. The White Horse comes gingerly, lest his hooves Be smirched. Chalk mingles with ice crystals. Stars Become lost in snow. When the White Horse drinks, There is no disturbance the perfect spurt Is not spattered; there is no spray, no sound of lapping Just a slow absorption of water into chalk. The little fossils in the horses eyeballs breathe again; His whole form is a white swarm of animalcules Swimming for their lives. A white sign forbids Trespass. A white owl spies a mouse. Legend insists that the White Horse always drinks at the springs in a wooded area at the bottom of the Manger (a fluted chalk combe gouged by glaciation) during his nightly gambols. These springs feed the local River Ock, although that river has a rival source near the village of Little Coxwell, not far from Faringdon.

The White Horse Over Uffington Castle

There is a moment of awkwardness, scrabbling Out of turf and into sky; the horse must leap His first hurdle half-lying-down, and shake The Bronze Age silt from his underside. Those grassed ramparts are new to him, Comparatively. He saw the earth thrown up Long after antlers were used for digging; Flinched a little as the stakes were driven in. Tribes made him their emblem, although The idea of him had grown in a fist-sized Clump of flint; his spine a glacial contour, Bared by men with the earliest spades. From those, they progressed to aeroplanes And cars, made lights to dim the stars, Took too much stock of time. He falters, Bridles, bolts towards Orion. Uffington Castle is an Iron-Age hill-fort with ditches and ramparts, at the top of White-Horse Hill.

Visiting Waylands Smithy

There is a smattering of asteroids and mist. Chalk hills are indistinguishable from clouds: Both have their ramparts, curves, flutes and coombes, Gallops strewn with orchises and stars. The horse Traverses them both; soil and space are one To him, tramping the crowns of beech trees, Clovers, cumulonimbus. He is held aloft By winds, the hootings of owls, the breath of ravens. Sheep and sarsens become identical, sleeping In the fields. There is whinnying above the Smithy, An uncanny clattering in air, and out of the moth-dank cave Something comes. The anvil rings. Sparks and stars Are one. The horse shudders chalk dust, paces, Grows calm, raises his fetlock for the shoeing. Waylands Smithy is a Neolithic chambered long-barrow, a medium-length walk down the Ridgeway from White Horse Hill. Legend insists that a horse tethered to the Smithy will be shoed by morning, provided a penny is left in one of the holes in the stone, in payment for the services of Wayland the Smith.

Over Russley Downs

The lynchets are a negative print, A system of shadows, spilled With a blench of moonlight. Beech hangers sleep. Villages Are dormant. The White Horse Embosses himself in sky, Like a watermark: an undulation Of chalk against cloud. Forking Combes wear uncanny silences For shrouds, the land engraved With centuries of human toil, The deads intaglio in soil. There is an ancient field system of strip-lynchets on the downs above Bishopstone, near to the Ridgeway.

Looking in on Snap
Even the White Horse has his work cut out Finding Snap, though he watched it thrive As a Celtic village: state-of-the art. It was Old when its name was written down In the thirteenth century. By Victorias reign It was known to breed countryfolk Of uncommon health; they lived into Their nineties, in ten or fifteen houses, And the schoolroom doubled as a church. He cranes his neck through the branches, Catches a glimpse of Snap High Street: A rutted track of chalk, erratically cobbled, Overhung by trees. House foundations Are marked by nettles. A box tree has Outgrown its garden, the gardener Cast out by economics. The farmers Who lived there could not compete With cheap American corn, and at the end Of the century, fell prey to invention: Frozen meat from Australia, New Zealand Cost less than lamb from Snap. Mr Wilson, Butcher, bought up the land. Some folks Hung on, lived off barter in the schoolhouse, But time has a habit of whittling away, And the mortar crumbles for the elder tree. Street plans become earthworks. Marks. The White Horse sympathises with marks, Being one himself. One of those urchin tests Falls out of his eye, rolls onto the lane. He cocks His ear for the nightingale who doesnt sing. After Fox Hill, the Ridgeway takes a southwards turn, and after it has bypassed the little town of Aldbourne, and is making its way towards Ogbourne St. George, it passes the vanished village of Snap. Oddly, there are still signposts to Snap (formerly Snape), although the village completely disappeared in the early twentieth century.

Nonplussed at Westbury
The White Horse cannot suppress a snort Or two of recognition before that inevitable Sense of deflation sets in. There are even Ramparts of a fort in the right position, And a grassy eye, but the beast itself is staid, Restrained. It barely blinks or shudders, Just stands there looking handsome, doesnt Paw the turf or kick up a clump of flinty loam, Tame as a work of taxidermy. The lower lip Hangs as though anaesthetised. The fossils In its skin have a look of extinction about them. Long ago, the Westbury Horse had been Good company for a gallop through the Pleiades. On dark nights, the old sickle Tail was an acceptable substitute For a moon, and it scattered the lesser Stars with stumpy legs. But that colt Has been buried by Enlightenment; The replacement inert as clay, quite Drained of skittishness. Nothing works: No piaffe, passage or pirouette Can provoke the slightest whinny. The Westbury Horse was heavily reconstructed in the late eighteenth century, but when Richard Gough surveyed the creature in 1772, he depicted a very different creature from the one which exists today. The horse suffered further indignities in the twentieth century, when it was concreted over to prevent erosion. These days, it is scoured by steam-blasting.

Astray at Cerne Abbas

Things the White Horse will never tell: The form of worship at his holy hill, Whose lips have touched the Blowing Stone, How each hole in it was worn, How Segsbury, Liddington, Barbury were built, Whose bones were buried, and whose burnt, Who went to hunt, who stayed to herd, Who first cupped hands at Swallowhead, Which fingernails were grimed with clay At Windmill Hill, and on which day The first brooch was cast in bronze, Where the swifts go on the breeze, Where Lob goes, how Grim hides When farms fall into grasping hands The ways and words of ancient folk, How to read their dreams in chalk, And when and why the virile man Was etched in turf beneath the moon, And why his full-frontal girth Was matched with an Egyptian gait, And whether he would love, or drub His foes with an ill-fashioned club, And how the lovelorn think it right To lie upon his shaft all night, And when the Post Office came to grips With him on postcards. The White Horse skips A bit, frolicks, thinks to lick Unmentionable parts, knows he can Run twice as rampant as any man.

Nobody knows why the Uffington White Horse was etched upon the landscape in the Bronze Age: perhaps it was a religious symbol a representation of the horse-goddess Epona or perhaps it was merely the symbol of the local warlike tribe. Perhaps it was merely an echo of the forms indelibly marked on the landscape, and human beings found it before it was lost. The Blowing Stone is a large sarsen, riddled with holes made by tree-roots, in a garden a couple of miles to the east of White Horse Hill, and is reputed to have been blown by King Alfred to summon his men to battle. Segsbury, Liddington and Barbury are Iron Age forts, strung out like garrisons along the Ridgeway. Swallowhead Spring is a source of the River Kennet, and the point at which that body of water is joined by the Winterbourne, which flows through Avebury. It is now, and may always have been, a local sacred place. Windmill Hill is the site of a Neolithic culture defined by significant technological advances in the art of pottery-making. Lob and Grim are household names for nature-spirits, mentioned by multitudes of authors. The Uffington White Horse has taken quite a detour to visit the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset one of the few chalk hill-figures whose provenance is hotly contested. Some affirm that the giant is an ancient representation of a fertilitygod, whilst others question whether such a figure could survive for centuries overshadowing a Christian monastery, and insist that it was inscribed in the turf during the Civil War, or afterwards. The earliest documentary records of the figure were made in the late 17th Century, but its penis has been a nocturnal point-of-assignation for couples wishing to conceive for as long as anyone can remember, and it remains to date the only pornographic image which the British Post Office will handle unwrapped, with a stamp licked and slapped upon its back.

The White Horse Surveys Silbury Hill

Thirty-five million basketfuls of chalk, Stone, rubble, soil, excavated chunk By chunk with antler-spades, stone Axes, sweat, blisters, deaths of strong Men and passed, man to woman, Woman to man, in a ragged line, worn With fatigue and not ever dumped, But sculpted, stepped, rounded, heaped, Into a hill filled with offerings: bone, Mistletoe, ox-ribs, flint, moss. Brawn Made it, but also brain. Whole lives Flowed and ebbed. Autumn leaves Dropped from trees a hundred And fifty times. Men murdered, Made love, sowed, reaped, ploughed, Sowed through short lives, plod By plod, until one day, it was built. But why it was built, and what burnt As sacrifice at its summit, no one Remembers. The motive is all gone, And the White Horse was not engraved In turf in those days. If they grieved Some chieftain, wrapped in moss, Time devoured his stripped remains. Brachiopods in the White Horses eye Open like watches. He scores the sky In a holding-pattern. BMWs break Speed-limits on the A-road, brook No compromise with time, and miss It all in their frenzied quest for bliss. The facts and figures relating to the building of Silbury Hill - a gigantic Neolithic mound shaped like a barrow, but with a ziggurat-structure underlying it, and containing no human remains are derived from Aubrey Burls authoritative study, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University, 1979, pp. 131-133. An arterial road passes close by Silbury Hill, and the Ridgeway terminates at this point. The hair-raising speed with which many motorists negotiate this sacred landscape is a source of constant grief and irritation. Silbury Hill is the tallest prehistoric structure in Europe, but was built before metal tools were invented.

The White Horse Over Avebury Cove

Rime lends sarsens a chalky hue In moonlight: squat stone and tall Gaunt in the field. Micrasters cluster Around the heart of the White Horse. The ash tree wears its own crust Of frost, the twigs brittle, upturned. Beyond ditch and rampart, the church Is founded on split sarsens, its font Etched with dragons, each subdued Beneath a bishops feet, his crozier Raised as if to deal a fatal blow. The White Horse sees Pagan and Christian Frozen in stone, each household, walled With sarsens, turned inwards on its hearth. Earth is dormant. Chalk horse, fossils, Flint, stars, frost: these breathe and live. Avebury is a gigantic stone-circle and henge complex, not far from Marlborough in Wiltshire. The village which now nestles amongst the ditches and ramparts was largely built out of demolished sarsen stones. The iconography of the font inside Avebury church is often interpreted as a representation of the battle between Christianity and paganism. Micraster is a genus of heart-shaped sea-urchins, which flourished in the oceans which covered this part of the globe between the Cretaceous and the Miocene.

The White Horse High-Tails It Over Avebury

Its that calm arrangement of objects On a gigantic scale that pleases him Every time: ditches excavated, mounds Piled by spades made of shoulderblades Of oxen, man-killing sarsens transported On tree trunks, with ropes of nettle To hold them steady, the thunderous Clump of Silbury raised out of piles Small as molehills, the Sanctuary Its burden of dead flensed by kites And great stone-mouthed barrows, Where skulls and longbones were filed Like books in libraries, for future Reference. The White Horse knows There is nowhere like it in the world. Tests of Cidaris give him goosepimples; There are tremors amongst ancient Corals in his tail. Then there is the church Hanging outside the cursus, like A satellite, or a menhir from a missing Avenue of stones split by fire For building houses, and those Modern roads, gouging through The village, channelling buses From Swindon to Devizes. And To think: the whole place was once An ocean full of Belemnites Who preyed, ate, waned, died, Transmuted to bullets of stone. The man-killing propensities of the gigantic sarsen stones at Avebury were gruesomely attested in 1938, when the skeleton of a man (called the Barber-Surgeon because he was carrying a pair of scissors and a surgical probe or lance, along with three coins dated 1320-1325) was discovered beneath one of the stones whilst attempting to bury it in the earth. It is a fitting testimony to the skills of the Neolithic architects of the Avebury complex that successive attempts at the erasure of their efforts have failed to obscure the grandeur of their achievement. The church, and many of the houses in the village which is partly encompassed by the Avebury Rings were built out of splinters of sarsen. These were obtained from the standing stones by lighting fires beneath them, causing untold destruction of the archaeological record, and yet somehow leaving the enduring power of the place quite undiminished. Indeed, it could be argued that all of these comparatively recent developments have only served to enhance the mystique of the place, and further energise its genius loci.

The White Horse Hides from Prying Eyes

Sometimes, the White Horse gets tired Of celebrity status: loud children treading In his eye, turning three times and making Wishes, people setting up easels, thinking Theyre Ravilious, devotees of von Daniken Insisting in his hearing that he is a message For aliens and then the archaeologists Get going, digging down to his thigh-deep Underside, sampling silt. A horse has got To kick heels occasionally; sometimes climbers On his back tickle and itch like flies. Even At dark-moon, there is the danger some Human do-gooder will climb up there, find He has absconded, leaving behind a dusty, Horse-shaped trench. And when he has Scampered off, a mile above the Ridgeway, Making diversions to visit his chalky Friends, he risks being spotted by some Drunken neo-Druid who has staggered Out of the public house at Avebury For a pee. It has happened once or twice, And the White Horse has loped into The cirrus, then come panting to ground At Swallowhead, craving water. He lies Flat as East Anglia, splayed out across The landscape, his head slotting perfectly Under the arched bough of an ancient Willow. A cloutie is sucked inadvertently Up his nostril. He has to suppress A sneeze. All around him, theres an ooze Of wetness which will make the Kennet, Augmented by the Winterbourne. His leg Sinks whitely under the Spirogyra. Now His breath is held. But no one comes: No one notices the black shadow of his Absenteeism, no one reports him As a U.F.O., and the neo-Druids Wiccan Friend has bought another round of real Ale. A tardy swallow decides to migrate. The horse blinks. It begins to rain.

Swallowhead Spring, which is a short walk from Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow, is regarded as the source of the River Kennet, although much of the water is supplied by the Winterbourne, which joins the Kennet at the same point. The spring, with its over-arching willow, is a popular walking destination for modern pagans, who regularly hang clouties (strips of coloured cloth and ribbon) from the branches of the tree. Large sarsens laid across the river-bed serve as stepping stones when the river is awash.

At Windmill Hill
Theres not much here, a tourist said Earlier today, Just a couple of barrows, And weve walked all this way. Nice view, Though. Pity you cant see Avebury much, Except for the church. Those trees ought To be trimmed. And from this distance, Silbury looks smaller. Darling, arent you cold? The White Horse hears echoes of that voice And a thousand others but the older ones Have more resonance and they travelled Too, importing pottery, limpets and whelks From the Cornish coast, arrowheads Of Portland chert, Mendip sandstone, Cotswold slate. Amid the voices of makers And merchants, are murmurs of children, Their bones in the ditches. The White Horse Inclines his ear, hears yet darker echoes From layers deeper than Bronze Age barrows: The laughter of women, rounding pots Out of Kennet clay, laying the foundations Of culture. His deepest deposits of silt Begin to luminesce. He touches ground, prods With a gentle hoof, feels the thrumming Of all that existence, under compacted Earth, and the little buried things carved Out of chalk come alive at his passing; The crude phalli throbbing in the loam. Theres not much here... barrows... Avebury... Silbury... church... Darling, arent you cold?
Windmill Hill, a causewayed enclosure which overlooks Avebury, shows signs of habitation and other human activity from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age. Much of it remains unexcavated, but the artefacts mentioned in the poem demonstrate that the Windmill Hill culture was capable of gathering resources from far afield. Among the most interesting finds are carved chalk objects, including little cups, and erect phalli, which archaeologists have been quick to associate with fertility rituals. The deepest layers have yielded rounded pots which are amongst the earliest in Britain, and which would have revolutionised the preparation and serving of food.

The White Horse Among the Stars

The White Horse spent half an hour this morning Watching Red Arrows. He had to do it; he was pinned To the hill, and it is inadvisable to blink, with So many people standing in your face. They spewed Out red, white and blue smoke, and horses Of flesh and blood also turned to watch them: Every stallion and nag for miles around, facing In the same direction. The White Horse doesnt need Wikipedia to know the history. 1969: A gnat hit trees one fatality. 1971: Two gnats collided four men dead. 1987: a hawk crashed into a house No one died. Insurance paid. 2011: Crash, death. Still under investigation. Iraq War: a hundred and fourteen thousand, seven Hundred and thirty one civilians dead. Afghan Istan. And counting. The White Horse doesnt understand: he hasnt Taken sides in wars, or watched Top Gun, and The sound of children crying makes the fossils In him grind. When helicopters took folks up There to glimpse him from the air, the whole Thing took three minutes, from start to finish. His making took an age. It began With sea-things lives. He was born Out of them, with the whole hill: The Downs formed in the ocean swell. Seas receded. Glaciers gouged Out the Manger. Men emerged. They saw his form long before They cut it, looked from afar And discerned his arching spine On a windy landscape, strewn With thistles. They paced him out From ear to tail, etched his throat With picks, dug his body deep. And when pilots and passengers Are asleep, the fossils resonate, The eyeball widens. The White Horse peels Himself from the hillside, looks down On village, orchard, town, blesses That child who helped to scour him With her little trowel, arches himself. His forelegs grapple with the turf, as though He was some imago emerging. That Eyeball revolves. And at once he is leaping, Catching thermals like a peregrine, Slicing through clouds, slipping out Of our atmosphere, leaving the merest Smear of chalk, cavorting with Arcturus, Aligning the Pole-Star with his eye, Seeking Betelgeuse in the armpit Of Orion. Earth becomes invisible. Each fossil becomes a star.

This poem was completed on the second day of the White Horse Country Show, in the fields between Uffington and Fawler. Large crowds gathered on White Horse Hill to watch the Red Arrow stunt fliers from the R.A.F., and helicopter flights to view the White Horse from the air cost more than ten pounds a minute. Gnats and hawks are the types of aeroplanes flown as Red Arrows.