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The White Horse of Cherhill

If you’re on the A4 heading east from Bath, you’ll pass through a Wiltshire village called Cherhill just before you get to the turn-off for Avebury. Just after Cherhill, take a glance at the hillside on the right, for there, carved into said hillside, is a white horse. If you’re heading west from Avebury, pull over before you get to Cherhill and take a look at the White Horse of Cherhill.

There are quite a few hill-figures in that part of southern-central England where the bedrock consists of chalk. A couple of these are of men (naked men at that, as anyone who’s ever seen the Giant at Cerne Abbas in Dorset will testify!), but the majority are of horses. One is ancient indeed – the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire, which is reckoned to have adorned the hillside there since the late Bronze Age – but most of them are of a more recent vintage. The one at Cherhill is still pretty old, though, although it ‘only’ dates back to 1780.

It is the creation of a doctor from the nearby town of Calne. Christopher Alsop was known locally as the ‘Mad Doctor’, presumably because he decided to cut the image of a horse onto the hillside. Actually, he didn’t do the cutting (the removal of the top-soil to get at the chalk beneath); his servant did that, while the Mad Doctor sat in a chair at the bottom of the hill shouting instructions through a megaphone.

Quite why the Mad Doctor did this is not entirely clear. He was a friend of George Stubbs, the famous painter who specialised in pictures of horses, so the hill-figure may have been done as a tribute to him. It’s also possible that he might have done it to show his support for the Royal family of the time, the Hanoverian dynasty whose symbol was the white horse of Hanover (that is also one of the theories regarding the older white horse at Westbury, also in Wiltshire, although some reckon that that one is much, much older, having been cut to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory over the Vikings at nearby Ethandun (modern-day Edington) even though there is no mention of that particular hill-figure prior to the mid-eighteenth century). Or it could be that the Mad Doctor was doing some advertising for a local pub, the White Horse – as the A4 was a coaching road (the Great West Road, also known as the Bath Road) in the eighteenth century, that might be plausible – but then again, maybe the White Horse pub is so named because of the white horse on the hill, rather than the other way round!

Close to the White Horse of Cherhill is a stone obelisk. It is the Lansdowne Monument, erected in 1845 by the aristocratic Lansdowne family to commemorate … themselves. Or rather, one of their ancestors, Sir William Petty (1623-87) – an economist, scientist and philosopher who was a founder-member of the Royal Society. He was a friend of Samuel Pepys, who in his diary described Petty as “one of the most rational men that I ever heard speak”.

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