I have an abiding fascination with hillside carvings which occur mostly in southern England where the white chalk rock is found. Last year I wrote about the Cerne Abbas Giant (http://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/the-worlds-biggest-willy.html) and the Westbury White Horse (http://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/a-particularly-english-art-form.html) This year it is the Long Man of Wilmington and, if I can find the time, the Uffington White Horse. Like the crop circles which appeared a few decades ago, these art works are available to everybody – anonymous, mysterious and free. Nobody knows who made them and no-one makes money out of them.
Actually that is not quite true. The Giant’s Rest pub in Wilmington gains some business from the curious who come to see what is generally agreed to be the largest figure of a human being in the world. It is a prosperous looking Sussex village and there were a few locals as well as me when I drove over there taking advantage of a rare sunny day to see the local giant.
As with the Cerne figure, you can walk up to the Long Man but not across him. The need to preserve his shape overrides the natural desire of people to clamber over him. Unlike the Giant, there is no phallic attachment to Wilmington, even if the term Wilmington Willy has a certain ring to it. Some locals did try to paint one on years ago but it was soon removed. A large and obvious penis may be all very well down in Dorset but this is Sussex and altogether more respectable.
G K Chesterton wrote in The Ballad of the White Horse:
“Before the gods that made the gods had seen the sunrise pass
The white horse of the White Horse Vale had been cut out of the grass.”
It is tempting to lump together our ancient stone circles with the hillside carvings but this may be wishful thinking. Much of the hill carving activity dates back only to the eighteenth century when the English started to develop this curiously public-spirited art form.
So when did the giant appear? Hillside carvings defy accurate dating. There is no record of the Long Man before 1710 (or the Giant before 1694) and there are no discarded antler picks or other tools made from organic material that can be used to date its construction, the technique used by archaeologists for Stonehenge and other stone circles. He may even have been made by monks from the nearby priory and represent a pilgrim with his long walking sticks.
In fact, when you get close to him, you can see that the Giant’s outline has been highlighted with breeze blocks. If left in his original state, he would be only an indentation in the grass almost unseen by the naked eye. An the pub would not be doing such good business if you could not take a photograph of the local celebrity from the village car park. The camera remains king.