Why is a huge white crown carved into the Kentish hillside at Wye?
The origins of the Wye Crown go back over a hundred years to the early days of the twentieth century when Wye was home to a thriving agricultural college. Nestled on the footslopes of the Kent Downs above the fertile Stour valley, the varied soils of the college land made the perfect outdoor classroom for a wide range of agricultural and horticultural studies. Keen to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, the college’s principal came up with the brilliant idea of carving a crown into the hillside above the village.
Far easier to say than do, the credit for the mammoth task of putting this idea into practice - from design to drawing board to digging – goes to ‘Tommy’ J. Young, the college’s Lecturer in Surveying. Laying out a symmetrical design on an irregular surface was a tricky challenge, but Young had the idea of plotting the outline from a vantage point from the fields below the hill.
While a team of students armed with flags stood in readiness on the hillside, Young signalled to them from his vantage point in the field below, getting them to move positions until the right shape was achieved. Some say he copied a drawing of a crown from an 1887 florin (a coin worth 10p in modern terms) and stuck this to his surveying tools, but it seems the perfect shape was simply achieved by his good eye.
With the outline marked, the back-breaking task of removing 7,000 barrow loads of turf, soil and chalk took 35 students four days to complete over the spring of 1902. In the event, the coronation was postponed with the king suffering from appendicitis, but this did little to dampen the spirits of the college and a bonfire was lit beside the new crown on the evening of 30th June.
The Crown was later illuminated by 1500 fairy lights on the night of the actual coronation on 9th August 1902. The King was able to view the spectacle of the illuminated crown himself when he stayed at nearby Eastwell Manor two years later.
But the crown is not just a historical artefact from another time, the Wye crown has been used for bonfires and other illuminations right through to the present day, including the coronation of King George VI in 1937 when it was lit by electric lights. During the First and Second World Wars it was covered with heaps of brushwood to camouflage it from enemy aircraft and prevent it being used as a landmark.
He scrubs up well
Maintaining the appearance of this mighty chalk figure is no mean feat as the unavoidable regrowth of grass and vegetation, if left unchecked, would soon cover the white chalky surface. In the past it was a tradition for the college students to periodically scour the chalk figure and clean back the debris which threatened to disfigure it.
In 1991 a far more long-lasting solution was achieved by installing galvanised metal cages which were filled with white-washed flints, reducing the need for regular maintenance and so preserving the chalk figure as an enduring feature of the local landscape.
While dozens of other chalk figures, ranging from horses and giants to crosses and lions, can be found throughout the downlands of lowland England, Wye is the only chalk crown. In a sense it’s is a symbol of a bygone age when you could impose on a landscape a monument to be seen for miles around.