8 Enigmatic English Hill Figures

Large horse figure on a hill
Photo: SusaZoom/Shutterstock

Like house-sized concrete koala bears in Australia and 20-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statues in the American Midwest, a massive white horse carved into an English hillside does a great job of catching the eyes of passing motorists.

But don't be deceived. Gracing the rolling chalk hills of rural southern England and further afield, these monumental hill figures are anything but blatant roadside advertisements for nearby businesses. Well, for the most part. Many, if not most, hill figures predate the winding modern roads that now afford some of the best views of them by centuries, even millennia.

Rare promotional uses aside, English hill figures — largely, but not exclusively, horses — have been painstakingly cut in the earth for many reasons: as tributes to revered leaders; as prehistoric tribal symbols; as declarations of victory; as political satire; as artistic expressions; as love letters to one's home.

Others, however, are complete enigmas. Like many of England's most emblematic historic sites, these mysterious monuments are shrouded in mystery. Many hill figures have been unearthed and recreated after centuries of being "lost." The fact that so many hill figures have been neglected and left overgrown is a testament to the grueling, time-consuming nature of maintaining them. These monuments were meant to endure, just with regular upkeep.

With many spanning hundreds of feet across otherwise unembellished pastoral landscapes, hill figures were designed to be admired from afar or even from directly above, which made them problematic during World War II: big, white and very conspicuous landmarks etched into the chalk hillsides.

Here are eight of the most iconic English hill figures, all of which can be viewed from nearby highways, scenic hiking trails, designated viewing areas, rural villages and other points. As mentioned, hill figures predominately represent horses although we've mixed things up with a king (pictured), a lion, a bird and two especially large giants — one rather notorious.

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Bulford Kiwi

Photo: Jonathanjosh1/Wikimedia Commons

While a sight to behold for horse lovers, England's wealth of mostly equine hill figures wouldn't make for a very good menagerie. But etched into a hill above Bulford military camp in Wiltshire, you’ll find a most rare bird indeed.

Created in 1919, the Bulford Kiwi is a plus-sized chalk representation of New Zealand's flightless bird. The bird's body measures 1.5 acres; its beak spans an impressive 150 feet. Lest anyone forget where this big little birdie comes from, the figure is accompanied by a 65-foot-tall "N.Z." As the story goes, the kiwi was created by frustrated New Zealand soldiers anxious to make the long journey home following World War I. The troops became so restless that they rioted in protest. Following the riot, commanding officers thought carving a large bird into the chalk hillside above Bulford Camp would keep the troops occupied.

In subsequent years, Aussie shoe polish company Kiwi paid local villagers to tend to the hillside chalk creature, as it vaguely resembles the company logo. In the years since, stewardship responsibilities have shifted several times, including to a local Boy Scouts troop who unearthed it from layers of wartime camouflage in the late 1940s. The Ministry of Defense cares for the monumental bird now. In 2017, it was granted protection as a scheduled monument by the British government.

Wiltshire and the surrounding Salisbury Plain — site of a certain megalithic monument — is home to a veritable stable of equine hill figures including the Alton Barnes White Horse, the Devizes White Horse, the Cherhill White Horse and the Westbury White Horse (also included on this list). Several more colossal chalk horses that once graced the Wilshire countryside have since galloped off into the sunset.

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Cerne Abbas Giant

Photo: mark Way/flickr

Arguably the most famous — and anatomically impressive — of all England's hill figures is the Cerne Abbas Giant, a cudgel-brandishing fellow with genitalia as large as his head. (We're showing him from the neck up, although images of the giant in full-monty mode are plentifully available.)

Cut into a rolling hillside just outside the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, the 180-foot-tall "rude man" of South West England is of mysterious provenance. While he's believed by some to be an ancient Celtic fertility symbol or a rather naughty late antiquity era representation of Hercules created by the Romans, a majority of modern scholars are in agreement that the humanoid geoglyph is far younger. Most date the giant back to the 1700s when he appeared on the grassy hill as a form of political satire, likely a parody of puritan military general Oliver Cromwell.

Since 1920, the Cerne Abbas Giant has been under the care of the National Trust, which owns the site and operates designated public viewing areas. (Due to erosion and damage concerns, the giant himself is off limits to visitors.) The Trust also oversees care and maintenance of the monument, including re-chalking every 25 years and employing sheep to keep the giant neat and trim. Although a campaign to permanently place a fig leaf over the nude behemoth's renowned nether regions failed in the early 1920s, some temporary alterations to the figure have been permitted. This includes the November 2013 addition of a 36-foot-wide grass mustache to mark Movember, a prostate and testicular cancer awareness-raising event. During World War II, the giant was camouflaged to prevent it from being used as an aerial landmark by German aircraft.

And while the Trust does its best to protect the giant from defacement and unsanctioned makeovers — he's a scheduled monument under a high level of archaeological protection — the old chap has fallen victim to numerous political pranks and advertising stunts. Most recently, his club was transformed into a tennis racket by a group of night goggle-wearing pranksters in the days leading up to Wimbledon.

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The Long Man of Wilmington

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A family-friendly version of the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Long Man of Wilmington has loomed over the East Sussex countryside since ... well, no one's entirely sure when. Like his graphically nude cousin to the west, the 235-foot-tall Long Man — locally known as the "Green Man," he's the largest representation of the human form in all of Europe — is likely younger than initially believed to be.

Long thought to be of prehistoric origin, likely first appearing in the Iron Age or Neolithic era, many modern archaeological experts now trace the staff-clutching figure back to the 16th or 17th centuries when it could have been created, much like the Cerne Abbas Giant is believed to be, as a satirical statement or religious symbol. Still, it's not entirely clear why or when this enigmatic gent first appeared on Windover Hill, now part of South Downs National Park. And that remains a massive part of his appeal.

It's also not certain what the original Long Man looked like. Many believe that his feet were altered and protective headgear was removed during an extensive 1874 restoration in which the entire chalk-cut figure was outlined in yellow brick.

Under the care of the Sussex Archaeological Society since 1926, the Victorian-era yellow bricks have long given way to white-painted concrete blocks to maintain the Long Man's remarkable visibility. (He was painted green during wartime to avoid being used as a landmark by enemy aircraft.) The society maintains scenic walking trails that provide access to viewing areas at the base and top of the hill. Naturally, most folks who embark on a sneakers-required pilgrimage to this magical, mystifying English monument stop for a compulsory pint or three afterward at the Giant's Rest, a "druids-friendly" pub in town.

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Kilburn White Horse

Photo: Neil Mitchell/Shutterstock

Measuring 318 feet long and 220 feet high, the Kilburn White Horse is the largest of England's equine hill figures by surface area as well as the most northerly. It's located within the confines of North York Moors National Park.

Cut from limestone, not chalk, the Kilburn White House is somewhat new on the scene compared to its southern cousins, first appearing on the Hambleton Hills of North Yorkshire in the mid-19th century. Inspired by the dramatic horses gracing the chalk hillsides of Wiltshire and other southern counties, wealthy London businessman and Kilburn native Thomas Taylor decided to bring a plus-sized equine figure to his home region. While Taylor designed and financed the project, a local schoolmaster and his pupils, along with a dedicated team of local villagers, carried out all the grunt work, tracing the massive outline and cutting tons of limestone. The project was completed in 1857.

The Kilburn White Horse has suffered numerous tough knocks over the decades and at a couple points has been almost lost entirely due to extreme weather, erosion, overzealous vegetation and neglect. The horse's size and the steepness of the hill haven't always made regular upkeep easy. Today, however, this brawny off-white beauty is under the care of the Kilburn White Horse Association.

In 2014, the association oversaw a major grooming of the horse, which tends to quickly lose its luster when the chalk chippings spread across the limestone figure aren't regularly painted white. "The horse goes with the weather. When the sun shines it dries it out and makes it really white. But when it's wet and miserable it goes very dark gray and it gets the nickname, the 'old grey mare,'" association chairman John Bielby told the Daily Mail. "It was getting quite grey again. The chippings turn over and put up the side, which has not been painted. We also get algae growing on the chippings so we try to paint it every five years." In total, 220 gallons of white paint were used for the 2014 spruce-up.

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Osmington White Horse

Photo: Andrew Bone/flickr

Cut into a steep hillside just north of the bustling seaside resort town of Weymouth on Dorset's Jurassic Coast, the Osmington White Horse is carved into limestone. ("Osmington Off-White Horse" might be a touch more accurate name due to the geoglyph's gray-ish composition.) More notably, this horse has someone atop it.

That someone would be none other than King George III, a vocal proponent of — and frequent summer holidaymaker in — Weymouth. The king's presence can still be felt throughout the early resort. And there's certainly no missing the 280-foot-long equestrian representation of "Farmer George" that's highly visible from a major road just several miles from Weymouth's famed esplanade and beach.

Named for the hill that it's carved into, the Osmington White Horse was created toward the end of King George's reign in 1808, just three years before his majesty famously succumbed to mental illness and went into seclusion at Windsor Castle. Lore that the king was actually offended, not flattered, by his stallion-striding likeness has been largely debunked given that he was almost completely blind at that point in his life.

An enduring symbol of Weymouth and the king that put it on the map, the Osmington White Horse has changed very little over the decades. Major restorations were carried out in 1989 and in 2012, the latter in anticipation of the Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, which held their sailing events in nearby Portland Harbor. Much of the multi-year restoration completed in 2012 revolved around fixing mistakes made during the rushed 1989 restoration — as featured on an episode of the reality game show "Challenge Anneka" — and returning the figure to its original 1808 shape. A woman with the distinction of being an Olympic equestrian and George's great, great, great, great granddaughter, Princess Anne, was on-hand at the unveiling of the restored monument

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Uffington White Horse

Photo: Dave Price/Wikimedia Commons

Dramatically stylized compared to the hillside steeds that it inspired millennia later, the Uffington White Horse is the granddaddy of equine chalk figures and the only such figure to claim prehistoric status. It's legit old. Located atop the highest point in Oxfordshire County, the site is much older than long believed, dating to the late Bronze Age. Today it's a National Trust-managed Scheduled Ancient Monument with viewing areas that receive visitors by the busload.

Although experts are confident that they have the age thing squared away, the Uffington White Horse still holds many mysteries (and has been subject to persistent, predicable UFO beacon rumors). Some question if the figure, largely believed to be a tribal symbol associated with the ruins of a nearby hill fort, is even a horse at all. Although it's been referred to as a horse since at least the 11th century, there's been speculation that the 360-foot-long chalk creature could be a wolfhound or even a dragon. The folks at the National Trust, however, are sticking with the centuries-old horse theory. "I think we all think it is a horse," Ken Blaxhall, a warden with the National Trust, told the Guardian in 2010. “Horses were enormously important. It signified power. You were mobile."

The ancient construction method of the Uffington White Horse was replicated in many of the more literal horse figures that popped up across the chalk hills of southern England thousands of years later. In lieu of stripping away the soil to reveal the shiny white chalk beneath, shallow ditches filled with cut chalk — sometimes sourced elsewhere — form the horses' outlines. This technique is an archaeologist-friendly one as it allows the figure to be rediscovered after hundreds, even thousands, of years of plant overgrowth.

Traditionally, the figure received thorough cleanings by local villagers every seven years during "scouring festivals," which also involved heavy drinking and competitive cheese-rolling competitions. Today, the National Trust enlists local volunteers to assist in occasional mass scouring sessions, presumably minus the booze and cheese.

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Westbury White Horse

Photo: JohnPickenPhoto/flickr

Wiltshire, a rural county in South West England famed for its sweeping chalk downlands and ancient archaeological sites, is ground zero for white horse aficionados. You'll find more here than anywhere else in England. Thirteen equine hill figures are believed to have once graced the rolling Wiltshire countryside. Eight are still visible and maintained as tourist sites.

While each surviving white horse in Wiltshire has a unique and often inscrutable history, the Westbury White Horse — or the Bratton White Horse — stands out as the oldest, largest and arguably most iconic (although most historians aren't entirely sure how old it truly is or who created it and why). Most experts believe the horse to be at least 300 years old. Its first published mention appeared in 1742.

Like many hill figures, the Westbury White Horse's shape has been altered over the centuries with its current 180-foot-tall shape dating to an 1873 restoration effort in which the placement of edging stones made things more or less permanent. In the 1950s, the Westbury District Urban Council, in an effort to reduce maintenance costs, covered the entire surface of the horse with concrete and painted it white. This process has been repeated at least twice to stave off graying. The horse has also been subject to major cleanings — including one in 2012 to coincide with Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee — to erase the stressors of time and occasional vandalism.

Visible from up to 17 miles away, the dramatically sited Westbury White Horse — a scenic 30-minute drive northwest of Stonehenge — is unique in that two other Wiltshire white horses can be viewed from the ancient hill fort located near the top of the horse. However, the Westbury White Horse cannot be seen from other hill figures.

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Whipsnade White Lion

Photo: George Mahoney/Wikimedia Commons

Spread across 600 acres of the picturesque Bedfordshire countryside, Whipsnade Zoo, a safari park and zoo operated by the nonprofit Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is the largest zoo in the United Kingdom. It's also incredibly hard to miss — just keep your eyes peeled for the huge white lion prowling the hillside. This chalk behemoth is reportedly the largest in England at 482 feet long.

Carved into the side of the Downstable Downs two years after the opening of the zoo in 1933, the Whipsnade White Lion is, of course, a clever promotional tool for the zoo inspired by the iconic equine hill figures found throughout the south of England. It also serves a dual purpose as a warning signal of sorts to low-flying aircraft not to dip too low into the hills and disturb the resident animals.

On that note, the Whipsnade Zoo has quite the impressive big cat collection — no false advertising here — including a beautiful pride on display in the Lion of the Serengeti exhibit. The Lion is located on a slope located below the zoo's white rhino enclosure and can be seen from several major roadways in the area. The gently rolling swath of grassland around the lion is maintained as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), an example of a "rare and important habitat in England." The ZSL explains: "ZSL manages this site carefully, mimicking the traditional practices that historically maintained such habitats, to ensure that the biodiversity is preserved as fully as possible."

Like most English hill figures, the Whipsnade White Lion was obscured during World War II so that German bomber pilots couldn't use it as a navigational aide. Properly camouflaging the lion was particularly crucial as the industrial towns of Bedfordshire were frequent air raid targets during the war due to their tank production factories. The zoo itself, bursting at the seams after taking on numerous animal refugees from the London Zoo in the months leading up the war, was raided three times in 1940. Mercifully, only two deaths resulted from the raids: an elderly spur-winged goose and a young giraffe that ran itself to an early death after becoming startled by all the noise and commotion.