The Long Man of Wilmington…

You have met before.

I’ve posted about him in the past in connection with the musical suite On Windover Hill by Nathan James, but here he gets to star in his own blog post.

There is a fine day’s walk to be had from Polegate, just north of Eastbourne, with a handy railway station, along to Folkington, then up onto the Downs and along past the Long Man and down to Alfriston. From Alfriston there is a very pleasant walk along the Cuckmere river to Litlington where one turns north and, after stopping briefly – say for about an hour – at Church Farm where the Long Man brewery is located, head east back up onto the Downs and another four or five miles back to Polegate, passing through Lullington Heath nature reserve (which always seems to feel a little wilder than most other parts of the Downs, or perhaps that’s just the weather I’ve encountered when I’ve passed that way) to Jevington, then along a mixture of roads and footpaths to finish. It’s a full day’s walk, but well worth the effort.

He’s called the Long Man of Wilmington, or the Wilmington Giant, although he sits on the side of Windover Hill.

The Long Man is a figure cut into the chalk of the South Downs, similar in that respect to the more famous Uffington White Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant. Like those two figures it is not known when exactly this one was cut, but unlike them it is fairly certain it was comparatively recent. The first known mention of the Long Man was in an illustration drawn in 1710 when he also boasted a face and what looks as though it might be a helmet on the top of his head. It will be noticed that the position of the feet has changed through the years, too, although not dramatically.

I say he is cut into the chalk, although these days the outline is composed of bricks painted white sitting in the hollows of his outline.

The Long Man stands on the scarp slope of the chalk directly facing the village of Wilmington. On the edge of the village nearest him, there are the remains of a fourteenth century priory. It seems difficult to attach much significance to that, although it has been suggested he might have first been created by the monks to while away some idle time. I have to say, I didn’t think monks had that much spare time, though.

There is also a school of thought that thinks the Long Man is actually a Long Woman, suggesting the proportions of the body back this up. Personally, I don’t see this, either.

I’m very curious about the origin of the name Windover Hill itself. It is marked on the 1874 six inch Ordnance Survey map as Winddoor Hill, and in 1779 referred to as Windore Hill. Before this, I believe it was called Wyndore Hill, possibly from the Anglo-Saxon Wind Ora – windy bank. Another possibility involves an old name for the kestrel, which is Windhover, and there are certainly kestrels along the South Downs.

There are a number of theories about the two poles held in the figure’s hands. They would appear to be staves or poles of some sort, and it seems obvious that they were of some significance when the figure was cut. A 1776 drawing shows him with a scythe and rake, although this seems highly unlikely given that the 1710 drawing does not show this.

However, a resistivity survey done in the 1960’s does show disturbance around the tops of the staves, which might indicate either that the staves were originally longer than they are now or that there could even be some truth in the scythe and rake picture. It is always possible these had been added post 1710, I suppose. In 1925 Alfred Watkins published The Old Straight Track, in which he first proposed his theory of ley lines. Although maybe I’ll go into more detail about these another time, the essence of the theory is that many natural features of Britain are connected by invisible lines of power, and that ancient features such as standing stones or burial mounds, as well as more recent features such as churches and castles, were built on these invisible lines as a way of tapping into this power. Watkins talks a lot about how these lines would be surveyed by using two long poles as markers and mentions the Long Man in passing.

I think the jury is definitely out on that one.

Whatever the origins of the figure, though, it is certainly impressive both close up and viewed from a distance.

And another good reason to visit the area? The Long Man brewery at Church farm in nearby Litlington selling fine – nay, very fine – Sussex ales. You might have guessed I’d mention them.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.


An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.