8 Enigmatic English Hill Figures

The Kilburn White Horse carving on.a hill in the North York Moors National Park with two horses grazing on the land below and a bright blue sky above on a sunny day
The Kilburn White Horse carving requires regular repainting of the chalk chips covering the limestone figure in order to maintain its bright, white color.

SteveAllenPhoto / Getty Images

The rolling chalk hills of rural southern England are covered with more than grazing sheep. They are also graced with massive white horses, a bird, a lion, and giant human forms. These figures were carved into the green hills to create white chalk designs hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Many hill figures predate the winding modern roads that now afford some of the best views of them. Some English hill figures were painstakingly cut in the earth as tributes or artistic expressions while others are complete enigmas. 

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. Many can also be viewed from nearby highways, scenic hiking trails, and rural villages. 

Here are eight of the most iconic English hill figures.

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Bulford Kiwi

Large, white chalk kiwi and the initials "NZ" carved on a green hill surrounded by lush green trees and plants

Education Images / Getty Images

Etched into a hill above Bulford military camp in Wiltshire, you’ll find a rarest bird. Created in 1919, the Bulford Kiwi is a plus-size chalk representation of New Zealand's flightless bird. The bird is 420 feet tall, and 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." The Ministry of Defence cares for the monumental bird. In 2017, it was granted protection as a scheduled monument by the British government.

Wiltshire and the surrounding Salisbury Plain—site of the Stonehenge 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.

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Cerne Abbas Giant

Close-up of head and shoulders of of Cerne Abbas Giant hill figure holding a large club on a green hill beneath a bright blue sky

Mark Way / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Arguably the most famous—and anatomically correct—of England's hill figures is the Cerne Abbas Giant, a cudgel-brandishing fellow. Cut into a rolling hillside just outside the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, the 180-foot-tall "rude man" of South West England was of mysterious provenance until 2021 when archeologists completed a year-long investigation that determined the giant was likely made by late Saxons between 700 and 1100 C.E.

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. The Trust also oversees care and maintenance of the monument, including re-chalking every 10 years and employing sheep to trim the giant. Although a campaign to permanently place a fig leaf over the nude behemoth failed in the early 1920s, some temporary alterations to the figure have been permitted.

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The Long Man of Wilmington

a chalk carving of Long Man of Wilmington hill carved into a steep green hill beneath a bright blue sky with rolling green hills and a few trees in the foreground

Patricia Hamilton / Getty Images

The Long Man of Wilmington has loomed over the East Sussex countryside since sometime between 1540 and 1710 C.E. Like his graphically nude cousin to the west, the 235-foot-tall Long Man—locally known as the "Green Man"—is the largest representation of the human form in all of Europe. Experts are 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. The yellow bricks have given way to white-painted concrete blocks to maintain the Long Man's remarkable visibility. 

Located on Windover Hill and part of South Downs National Park, the Long Man has been under the care of the Sussex Archaeological Society since 1926. The society maintains scenic walking trails that provide access to viewing areas at the base and top of the hill.

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Kilburn White Horse

Aerial view of Kilburn White Horse limestone carving on a green hill surrounded by gold and green trees on the surrounding hills beneath a bright blue sky

Neil Mitchell / Shutterstock

Measuring 314 feet long and 228 feet high, the Kilburn White Horse in North York Moors National Park is the largest of England's equine hill figures by surface area as well as the most northerly. Cut from limestone, not chalk, the Kilburn White Horse first appeared on the Hambleton Hills of North Yorkshire in the mid-19th century.

The project was inspired by the dramatic horses gracing the chalk hillsides of southern counties. Kilburn White Horse was designed and financed by wealthy London businessman and Kilburn native Thomas Taylor who decided to bring a plus-size equine figure to his home region. A local schoolmaster and his pupils, along with a dedicated team of local villagers, carried out all the physical labor, tracing the massive outline and cutting tons of limestone. This brawny off-white beauty is under the care of Forestry England.

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Osmington White Horse

Aerial view of Osmington White Horse and rider carved in a green hill under a blue sky on a sunny day above bright green lawn in the foreground

Arterra / Getty Images

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 with a rider on top of it. That rider is King George III, a vocal proponent of—and frequent summer visitor to—Weymouth.

The king's presence can still be felt throughout the 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 miles from Weymouth's famed esplanade and beach. Named for the hill that it's carved into, the Osmington White Horse was created in 1808 toward the end of King George's reign.

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Uffington White Horse

close up aerial view of Uffington White Horse carved on a dark green hill covered by grass

Michael Serraillier / Getty Images

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. Located atop the highest point in Oxfordshire County, the site is believed to date back to the Iron Age. It is a National Trust–managed scheduled ancient monument with viewing areas for visitors.

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 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.

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Westbury White Horse

Aerial view of Westbury (or Bratton) White Horse on a hill where the grass has turned brown with green rolling hills and trees in the foreground beneath a cloudy sky

JohnPickenPhoto / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

While Wiltshire has a long history of white horse figures, the Westbury White Horse—or Bratton White Horse—stands out as the largest and arguably the most iconic. Most experts believe the horse to be from the late 17th century. Its first published mention appeared in 1742.

Like many hill figures, the Westbury White Horse's shape has been altered over the centuries. Its 180-foot-tall shape dates to an 1873 restoration effort in which the placement of edging stones made things more permanent. In an effort to reduce maintenance costs, the Westbury District Urban Council covered the entire surface of the horse with concrete and painted it white, a process that has been repeated 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.

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Whipsnade White Lion

Chalk carving of Whipsnade White Lion on the green pasture of a hill surrounded by trees and flowers under a blue sky with white clouds

George Mahoney / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Spread across 600 picturesque acres of the 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 483 feet long.

The Whipsnade White Lion was carved into the side of the Dunstable Downs two years after the opening of the zoo in 1933. The carving, inspired by the iconic equine hill figures found throughout the south of England, is both a clever promotional tool for the zoo and a warning signal to low-flying aircraft not to dip too low into the hills and disturb the resident animals.