Westbury White Horse
The Westbury or Bratton White Horse is a hill figure on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain, approximately 1.5 mi (2.4 km) east of Westbury in England. Located on the edge of Bratton Downs and lying just below an Iron Age hill fort, it is the oldest of several white horses carved in Wiltshire. It was restored in 1778, an action which may have obliterated a previous horse which had occupied the same slope. A contemporary engraving of the 1760s appears to show a horse facing in the opposite direction, and also rather smaller than the present figure. However, there is at present no documentary or other evidence for the existence of a chalk horse at Westbury before the year 1742.
The horse is 180 feet tall and 170 feet wide and is a symbol for the town of Westbury, appearing on welcome signs and in the logo for its tourist information centre. It is also considered a symbol for Wiltshire as a whole.
The origin of the Westbury White Horse is obscure. It is often claimed to commemorate King Alfred's victory at the Battle of Eðandun in 878, and while this is not impossible, there is no trace of such a legend before the second half of the eighteenth century. It should also be noted that the battle of Eðandun has only tentatively been identified with Edington in Wiltshire.
Another white horse, the Uffington White Horse, featured in King Alfred's earlier life. He was born in the Vale of White Horse, not far from Uffington. Unlike Westbury, documents as early as the eleventh century refer to the "White Horse Hill" at Uffington ("mons albi equi"), and archaeological evidence has dated the Uffington White Horse to the Bronze Age, although it is not certain that it was originally intended to represent a horse.
A white horse war standard was associated with the continental Saxons in the Dark Ages, and the figures of Hengest and Horsa who, according to legend, led the first Anglo-Saxon invaders into England, are said to have fought under a white horse standard (a claim recalled in the heraldic badge of the county of Kent).
During the eighteenth century, the white horse was a heraldic symbol associated with the new British Royal Family, the House of Hanover, and it is argued by some scholars that the Westbury White Horse may have first been carved in the early eighteenth century as a symbol of loyalty to the new Protestant reigning house.
In Alfred and the Great White Horse of Wiltshire (1939), the Downside Abbey monk Dom Illtyd Trethowan debunked the suggested connection of the White Horse with Alfred and the Battle of Ethandune. Paul Newman suggests in his book Lost Gods of Albion (2009) that the horse may have been inspired by the popularity folly buildings in the 18th century.
The horse had been illuminated in 1900 and again in 1950, both times using army equipment. Wiltshire White Horses noted that "apparently the effect was spectacular, and the horse looked as if it was floating in the sky." For the 1950 event, traffic in Westbury and Bratton came almost to a standstill as drivers slowed down to look. Some local people hoped that the horse would again be illuminated for 2000, but this didn't happen.
The horse was vandalised in the 1950s and was not properly repaired at the time and for many years slight damage could still be seen. The horse regularly greyed over time, and was recleaned in 1993. In 2003, the horse was again vandalised when "Stop This War" was written in yellow text across the horse in capital letters in protest of the Iraq War. After the text was removed, the horse was notably grey with a white horizontal strip where the message had been removed. In November 2006, the horse was repainted. This time the 1950s damage was fully repaired, as was the white strip. The newly whitened horse was illuminated for a third time when it was shone on by authentic World War II searchlights on the night the repairs were finished. In July 2010, the neck of the horse was vandalised when the word "wonkey" was written on the horse's neck. This part of the neck had been written had to be rewhitened in 2010, leading to the horse having a whiter neck than the rest of the body.
The BBC announced on 2 March 2012 that the horse was to be cleaned again in 2012. Work began 11 April 2012 and was completed 19 April 2012. The cleaning coincided with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Celebrating the completion of the work, again the horse was lit up with searchlights. Since the annual Village Pump Festival moved from Farleigh Hungerford to the White Horse Country Park beneath the horse in 2012, the horse has been illuminated at night whilst the festival has been taking place. This is achieved via a tinted spotlight which changes colour every couple of seconds, so the horse appears different colours. The near-by Lafarge chimney is also simultaneously illuminated with projection decorations.
Two visitor's information signs on the hill above the horse and in the Viewing Car Park which features all eight of the Wiltshire White Horses were placed in 1999, following the completion of Devizes White Horse. Also on the side of the hill is a toposcope mounted on a small stone structure which features the White Horse and many of the views that can bee seen from the location. Adcroft School of Building constructed this topograph in 1968. For the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in June 2002, a fire beacon was placed to the side of the road on the top of the hill leading to the car park, that resembles the millennium beacons. It is lit sporadically, and most recently for the 70th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May 2015.
At the 2009 edition of the West Wiltshire Show, a wooden canvas, consisting of the white horse on the hill appeared at the entrance to Westbury's tent. The board reappeared in 2010 on a roundabout at the entrance of Westbury where the horse can be seen from, facing Trowbridge Road on the A350, thus welcoming visitors to Westbury that arrive from that road. The board was removed a few years later but returned in 2013. It was revealed in 2013 that in Marlborough (home to Marlborough White Horse), a new roundabout is to be built in Salisbury Road, Marlborough to provide access to the new White Horse Business Park. There are plans to create two chalk white horses, one on each side of the roundabout, with chalk spoil from the development. Some believe this may be inspired by the Westbury White Horse board that had appeared on the Westbury roundabout.
The Horse can be viewed from up to 16–17 miles in all directions. From the horse, Westbury and Trowbridge can be closely observed. From the top of the horse and Bratton Castle, Devizes White Horse and Alton Barnes White Horse can both be viewed. The horse itself cannot be seen from other hill figures, although it can be viewed from Solsbury Hill, home to a small turf maze carved in the 1990s. One of the furthest views of the horse is said to be from Beckford's Tower.
About a mile away from the hill is a 400 feet (122 metres) tall chimney at the Lafarge cement works. Built in 1962 for Blue Circle, a company bought by Lafarge in 2001, the chimney was made defunct in 2010 and was threatened with demolition that year, but still stands today. Some consider it an eyesore whilst others consider it a local icon, a debate covered by a BBC Wiltshire radio broadcast in 2011. Many further views of the horse also include the chimney and the chimney is the most prominent feature of the view from the horse; some consider the chimney to spoil views from the hill. As the horse has been vandalised several times, so too the chimney was defaced in 2010 by the addition of a Union Jack flag.
The landscape of the horse was threatened in 2013 when Wiltshire Council revealed plans for a potential three-lane bypass that would run within half a mile of the horse, with a 35-acre business park and 550 new homes on Green Belt land. Local residents fought back against the "Swindonisation" of their corner of West Wiltshire.
Battle of Ethandun Memorial
Although the horse is only presumed to commemorate King Alfred's victory at the Battle of Ethandun, an official monument to the victory was erected atop the hill, adjacent to Bratton Camp. The monument does not have an official name but is known as the Battle of Ethandun Memorial. It consists of a large sarsen stone (stone of remembrance) with a "pebbled" base, on which lies a metal commemorative plaque. The monument was unveiled 5 November 2000 by the 7th Marquess of Bath.
King Alfred's Tower, near Stourhead, is the best known monument that was definitely built to celebrate King Alfred and his victory. The folly tower was erected in 1772, six years before the white horse was redesigned.
In popular culture
The White Horse was also referenced in the books The Tontine (1955) by Thomas B. Costain, The Emigrants (1980) by Caribbean author George Lamming, and in the novel The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje as the location where the sapper Kip learned how to deactivate bombs.
The figure can be seen in the music video for Scottish guitarist Midge Ure's 1996 single "Breathe", and is featured in the current opening titles of the regional television news programme ITV News West Country. Furthermore, it featured in a 2015 Visit England tourist advertisement produced in association with the England rugby team.
The horse lends its name to White Horse Business Park outside Trowbridge and White Horse Country Park outside Westbury. The horse overlooks both parks. White Horse Way is also a name of a street in Westbury, and the town's tourist information centre features the horse in its logo. The horse is also included in a mosaic on the town's Morrison's outlet in Edward Street, which was placed to commemorate the links between the youth of Westbury and the Chernobyl area.
- Illtyd Trethowan, 'Alfred and the Great White Horse of Wiltshire', in Downside Review vol. LVII (1939)
- Reverend Francis Wise, Further Observations on the White Horse and other Antiquities in Berkshire (1742)
- William Plenderleath, White Horses of the West of England (1885, 2nd edition 1892)
- Morris Marples, White Horses and Other Hill Figures (1949)
- Westbury White Horse at Wiltshire White Horses
- The White (ish) Horse at ThisisWestbury.co.uk, Westbury's history website
- Wiltshire Web information
- Bridewell is pronounced locally as if it is spelt "Briddle", and as such, the springs are also known as the Briddle Springs.
- Plenderleath, Rev. W. C., The White Horses of the West of England (London: Allen & Storr, 1892)