A White Chalk Horse Upon a Distant Hill

In which The Author visits a West Country landmark

These photos are from another trip I took in the early 1990s. There’s no particular reason why I’ve decided to write this today, but I had a rather odd dream last night which might have had some bearing on it.
Anyway, I had a week off work, and treated myself to a Rover ticket which was valid on trains throughout South Wales and the West Country. The train service to and from Aberdare was a lot more limited in those days (see Nice Work If You Can Get There), which meant that I had to be back in Cardiff by eight o’clock at night. In those pre-Internet days, booking accommodation would have taken dozens of phone calls ahead of time, so I was limited to a series of consecutive day trips.
Even so, I was still able to travel to some interesting and unusual places. I spent a day in Salisbury, where I bumped into Ian John Davies, an old school pal who was based at the army base in Warminster. On another day I went from Gloucester to Swindon, stopping at Kemble, from where I walked over a railway line and crossed some fields to reach the source of the Thames. From there I headed into Swindon, and back through Brunel’s famous Box Tunnel (1 mile, 1452 yards) into Bath. I visited Bradford-on-Avon, Frome, and the remarkable pumping engine at Crofton on the Kennet and Avon Canal.
I spent a whole day in Bristol; in the early evening I took the train through the strange industrial landscape of Avonmouth to Severn Beach and back again, simply so that I could mark it as ‘done’ on the current copy of S.K. Baker’s Rail Atlas: Great Britain and Ireland. And I travelled to Westbury.
Westbury lies at the intersection of the line between Cardiff and Portsmouth Harbour and the line from Paddington to Exeter. When I was there, it was also a busy freight junction, serving several large quarries in Somerset. My friend Andy from the Bristol Class War gang worked for one of the rail companies and was based at Westbury, He’d told me that it was a good place to stake out the Class 59. These beautiful American-built locomotives were fairly recent arrivals in this country, with ARC operating some and Foster-Yeoman operating the rest. There were only a handful in service at the time, and most of them were based around Westbury. I decided that it was probably worth a visit.
I made my way there on a Saturday, which was my biggest mistake. There’s very little freight traffic on the move at weekends, and I only saw one Class 59 – it was parked in a siding as the train drew into Westbury station. I didn’t even get a chance to photograph it. However, I had the Ordnance Survey map covering the area, and I’d already decided that I wanted to head for the town’s most famous landmark – the White Horse.
It took me about quarter of an hour to walk from the station to the town centre. I didn’t pay the town itself much attention, to be honest. I remember that there was a small independent bookshop where I browsed for a little while. I can’t remember anything else about it. I decided to head straight for the hill where the figure of the horse is clearly visible.

Westbury-1

It’s a long way to the top. The lower part of the approach road is lined with large detached houses, but they peter out into farmland as you reach the summit. It levels out gradually, and when I was there a large area was fenced off. There were some signs explaining why access was restricted, but I can’t remember the reason now.
This large flat area once formed an Iron Age hill fort known as Bratton Castle. It was near here, in the year 878, that King Alfred the Great led his forces against a Viking incursion from the north-east. The resulting peace treaty established the Danelaw – a dividing line between the Viking part of England and the Saxon part. The Battle of Ethandun was a key point in the history of England, and it has been suggested that the original chalk horse was carved to celebrate and commemorate Alfred’s triumph.
This isn’t the original chalk horse, unfortunately.

Westbury-5

This modern creation is made of cement. It’s also much more ‘horse-shaped’ than the famous Uffington White Horse. Nevertheless, it’s a distinctive sight from the railway line as you approach the town from the north.
Standing within the perimeter of the old hill fort, you get an idea of how strategically important this point would have been. You can see for miles in all directions. It was almost silent at the summit, apart from a rhythmic mechanical banging from a farm far below, and the drone of a light aircraft overhead. At one point I heard a very faint rushing sound in the distance, and looked down to see the Intercity 125 service for Exeter cutting across the fields towards the station.
There’s a circular plaque on a stand just above the head of the figure, showing the distances to various towns and villages as the crow flies. I’m sure I took a photograph of it, but I can’t find it now. I also wrote the distances down for subsequent use in my Great Unpublishable Novel, but I’ll spare you the horror of an extract from that. The whole site is in the care of English Heritage, who perpetrated possibly one of the country’s most conspicuous typos on the official information sign:
Read the last sentence very carefully.
Read the last sentence very carefully…
From the top, I made my way down the other side of the hill and into the village of Edington. I’d come across this in the AA book 250 Tours of Britain, which noted that its parish church was ‘remarkable, even for this region.’ It wasn’t wrong – just look at this:

Westbury-4 Westbury-3

This is the Church of St Mary, St Katherine and All Saints, built in 1352 at the request of the Black Prince by William of Edington, Bishop of Winchester. Everything about it is on a grand scale, and it’s said that even the yew tree in the churchyard is the largest and oldest in Wiltshire. The most bizarre feature, to my mind, is the clock: it has no face, and simply chimes the hour and the quarter, which means that you have to count the strokes to find out what time it is.
I can’t remember why I took so few photos on this trip; maybe I’d run out of film, or maybe I just wasn’t interested in architecture in those days. However, I do remember a daft conversation I had in the village pub. I’d called in for a pint to reward myself for making the journey to the White Horse, and started chatting to a couple of the locals. One lad, a bit younger than me, was telling me about the property prices in the area, and said he doubted he’d ever be able to afford his own place.
‘You ought to join the Wessex Separatists,’ I teased him.
‘I’m with the Nationwide,’ he told me, completely seriously.
I made my way back to Westbury along the minor road which skirts the western edge of Salisbury Plain. Again, I don’t know why I didn’t stop at the town for a good look around. I headed to the station and soon I was travelling back to Cardiff at a fair pace, with the hill figure receding into the distance.
I’ve been to the White Horse again at least once, on one of our famous road trips to the West Country. I’m fairly sure that we were on our way towards Westbury when a pheasant materialised a few yards ahead of the car; whoever was driving slammed the brakes on, and Pam made us get out to make sure we hadn’t run it over. There was no sign of the anticipated carnage under the wheels, and we assumed that it must have flown off into the trees on either side. I think it was during the same trip that we were followed by a barn owl, which kept level with the car for some distance.
I’m making a list of places to revisit when I get the opportunity, and Westbury is definitely one of them. Armed with a decent camera, and with plenty of background reading before I set off, I’m fairly sure I’ll get more out of it this time.
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