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.

Yesterday’s Walk

We’ve had rain recently, and everywhere was muddy again. Much more like I would expect February to be. The ground had dried out quite a lot over January, but the soil was still saturated just beneath the surface and it doesn’t take much for it to turn back to thick, claggy, mud. But the weather was better than had been forecast; and as I set out the sun was glinting on the stubble fields and in the shadows there was just the faintest blue hint of frost. It felt so Spring-like. Everything was suddenly green and growing.

Soon, I was much too warm in all my layers. Mornings like this inevitably remind me of other favourite walks; long walks on sunny, clear days. I walked through a valley which was filled with birdsong – blackbirds, robins, blue tits, the demented cackle of a green woodpecker, and the determined drumming of a greater spotted one. In the future I will probably take walks that remind me of this one.

I must sometimes be a frustrating person to walk with – I like to stop frequently and just look around me. Absorb the landscape. The air smells fresh, now, but without the over-sharp coldness that stings the nostrils. Even though it is too early to smell flowers in the air, there is something on the breeze…Something evocative, much like the scent of woodsmoke causes me to instantly think of trekking in Nepal, or campfires closer to home in Sussex.

Suddenly there is a kestrel overhead…I never seem to get those shots of foxes or buzzards and don’t know whether I’m just too slow or if everyone else just walks along with their cameras in their hands, ready to take that photo.

At least flowers and trees tend to keep still. I do find my camera can be an unwanted distraction, though. If I am walking along looking for something to photograph, I feel I’m not really seeing the landscape around me. I’m just searching for a subject. For that reason, I often don’t take a camera with me on walks.

The first peacock, in fact the first butterfly of any kind I’ve seen this year. But talking of green woodpeckers and kestrels, I think there is a case for replacing all their somewhat dull modern names with the ones they used to have in the past: the green woodpecker was the yaffle, named for its wonderful manic call, the kestrel used to be called the windhover – how wonderful is that? And in the seventeenth century it was actually commonly known as the windf*cker. Perhaps the prudish Victorians banished that name the same as they changed the perfectly named white arse to the bland (and meaningless) wheatear.

I think we should reclaim the names; they add extra interest to a long walk.