Review of The Land of the White Horse: visions of England by David Miles
published by Thames & Hudson, isbn 978-0-500-51993-6, £24.95, 288 pages
Reviews published in Country Life
This quest, an attempt to unearth the age and purpose of the Uffington White Horse, is written by a professional archaeologist with an impressively wide cultural horizon. Although we peer into excavation trenches, we also walk in the dusk with the poets Edward Thomas and G.K. Chesterton and look at the landscape through the eyes of painters Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. He quotes the observations of pioneering antiquarians such as William Stukeley and John Aubrey, camps out at night to catch the magic of the dawn and happily dives into the fuggy comfort of pubs in bad weather.
David Miles is interested in unravelling what the British have thought about this symbol. For the Uffington White Horse has always been both ancient and modern. It is an ephemeral figure which needs the active participation of every generation, to scour it, in order to survive. So it is not only one of our oldest historical monuments but one with an extraordinary lineage of engagement. In the 12th century, a scholarly Dean of St Pauls Cathedral recorded it, at number five, in his thirty-five wonders of Britain.
As to its origin, David Miles has been able to use a dazzling new scientific technology to give the first accurate range of dates for its creation. Its proximity to other prehistoric sites, such as Waylands Smithy, the Ridgeway and Uffington Castle confuses as much as it instructs, for dozens of different cultures have left their mark on these downs. He also takes us on a tour of the spiritual and political role of the horse in ancient art, in order to suggest, but not dictate, its likely purpose. The horse is a universal figure, connected with the sun, the gods and mortal power. It was probably built as part of an open-air temple, which embraced the surrounding landscape and included a spring, a processional dry valley and the Dragon Mound. It may also have played a political role. It is situated at a meeting point of three powerful Iron Age Kingdoms, and a seasonal pilgrimage here would have allowed them to meet in peace and drink, race horses, trade, flirt and worship.
Thirty-five years ago, I was one of a succession of young scholars employed by Lady Aldington to help with her obsessional research into sacred white horses – inspired by her father’s work on Sudanese camels. Her files were stored in dozens of cardboard (White Horse whisky) boxes but were never condensed into a book. So it is a special delight to find that this quest has been so comprehensively and beautifully fulfilled.
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