The Massive and Mysterious Chalk Figures Carved Into Britain’s Hillsides

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty Images

Carved into the hilly countryside of Britain are several huge figures that stand out among the lush green grasses thanks to the white layer of chalk that fills their carved lines. Although most of the figures are depictions of horses (16 to be exact), some human figures have also turned up on the hillsides. A lack of definitive evidence makes most of their origins unclear, though they have become tourist hotspots that many people add to their itineraries when traveling to the UK.

What are the chalk figures?

People cleaning a white pathway in lush green grass on a hillside.
Volunteers work as they refresh the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, where people are working with the National Trust to re-chalk the giant figure. (Photo Credit: Ben Birchall / PA Images / Getty Images)

Several massive horse and human-shaped figures are etched into the British hillsides. They were created by carving away the top layer of the grassy hills to reveal the natural rocky underside. Often, a layer of some kind of brighter material, typically chalk, is placed on top to make their appearance even more noticeable.

These varied figures have become a significant part of Britain’s landscape. The practice of carving the figures seems to have been most popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, though some have been dated to the late Bronze and early Iron Ages.

Uffington White Horse

A white minimalistic horse carved into a hillside.
View of the Uffington White Horse chalk figure, dated as far as 550 BC. (Photo Credit: Michael SERRAILLIER / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)

The Uffington White Horse is 360 feet long and is located on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill, located not far from the towns of Faringdon and Wantage. It’s a more modern-looking figure, though its creation has been dated as far back as 550 BC. It is known as the oldest of the white horse figures in Britain and is the only one created in such a unique and minimal style.

Westbury White Horse

A white horse figure carved into the side of a hill.
The White Horse of Westbury, Wiltshire, is surrounded by grasses. (Photo Credit: Ben Birchall / PA Images / Getty Images)

The Westbury White Horse is 180 feet tall and is located just below the site of the Bratton Camp Iron Age hillfort at Wiltshire. Legend says that it was carved following King Alfred’s victory at the Battle of Ethandun here in 878, but there is no conclusive evidence to prove it. It’s more likely to have been carved in 1772 as was recorded in a contemporary engraving. 

Osmington White Horse

A figure of a man wearing a hat and holding a weapon riding atop a horse carved into a hillside.
Chalk cut hill figure of King George III on horseback, near Osmington, Dorset. (Photo Credit: Historic England Archive / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

The Osmington White Horse was cut into the hill north of Weymouth in Dorset in 1808. It is 280 feet long and 323 feet high. Different from the other white chalk horses, this one depicts a man astride the horse. The figure is meant to represent King George III riding his famous steed, Adonis, on his way out of Weymouth. He was a regular visitor to the area.

Kilburn White Horse

A figure of a white horse carved into a hillside.
The Kilburn White Horse, man made from lime, viewed from a glider mid air. (Photo Credit: Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images)

The Kilburn White Horse is cut into the hillside in North York Moors National Park and was commissioned by local resident Thomas Taylor in 1857. The story goes that he was inspired following his visit to Uffington and wanted to recreate that kind of monument in his own town. The figure is 318 feet long by 220 feet high and is believed to be the largest hill figure in England. 

Bulford Kiwi

A white kiwi bird with the initials "NZ" carved into a hillside.
Chalk Kiwi constructed to commemorate the Sling Camp’s First World War New Zealand troop occupation in 1919 on Beacon Hill above Bulford Wiltshire. (Photo Credit: David Tipling / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

The Bulford Kiwi is arguably the strangest of the white chalk figures and is carved on Beacon Hill in Wiltshire. The bird is 460 feet wide and 420 feet high. It was carved in 1919 by New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldiers while they awaited ships to take them home following the end of the First World War. Supposedly, ships took too long to arrive, and in an effort to quell riots caused by upset soldiers, their commanding officers ordered them to dig out the enormous kiwi bird. 

Cerne Abbas Giant

A naked man with erected genitalia holding a club carved into a hillside.
The Cerne Abbas Giant’s origin is uncertain, but the site is in the care of the National Trust. (Photo Credit: English Heritage / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

The Cerna Abbas Giant, also known as the “rude man,” is one of two human-like figures. It’s carved near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. This figure is an anatomically exaggerated 180-foot-tall naked man who’s holding a club. Its origin is unclear, as some scholars believe that the figure is dated from the 17th century, while others believe that the figure dates as far back as 700-1110 CE. 

Long Man of Wilmington

A figure of a man holding two staffs carved into a hillside.
Long Man of Wilmington, believed to have been carved into the hillside during the 16th century. (Photo Credit: CM Dixon / Print Collector / Getty Images)

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The Long Man of Wilmington is carved into the steep Windover Hill located near Wilmington. The figure is 235 feet tall and is holding two long, narrow strips. For a long time, it was believed that the figure was carved during the Iran Age, but archaeological investigations have suggested that it more likely originated in the 16th and 17th centuries. The oldest known depiction of the figure was made by surveyor John Rowley, who drew an image of it in 1710.