Kings, saints, goddesses, fire-breathing dragons and a giant horse... welcome to Uffington, one of the most intriguing and atmospheric sites in Britain!
On this walk today we’ll explore chalk landscapes - places where underneath your feet is a type of rock called chalk. We’ll see how the properties of chalk have shaped the landscape that you can see today, a long ridge with steep slopes dropping to the valley bottom.
This walk was created by Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University.
"I chose this walk not only because it’s a great spot with wonderful views, but also because this landscape has a particular story to tell. We’ll learn about the people that have lived here in this landscape from prehistoric times to the present, finding out why they chose to live here and what buildings they created.
The walk begins in the southwest corner of Oxfordshire, where a line of hills forms a natural border with the county of Berkshire. We’ve also got Swindon and the county of Wiltshire to the west. We start near the top of the hill, drop down to the village below and return back up the hill to our starting point.
It’s a steep slope downwards – and back up again – so go at your own speed. I hope you enjoy the walk!"
Leave the car park through one of the three gates onto White Horse Hill. Walk diagonally uphill. Stop partway up the hill to look back down the valley.
2 Path between car park and Dragonhill Road
We are on what is known as White Horse Hill and down below you is the Vale of the White Horse. This hill is the highest point in Oxfordshire, reaching an altitude of 262 m etres (857 feet). This means that there are wonderful views on a clear day but it can also be very bracing up here!
Let’s orientate ourselves. If you are standing on the hill looking down at the valley, you are looking north. If you look to your left – which is a north-westerly direction – you should be able to see the Cotswold Hills – on a clear day at least!
We need to start our story today by thinking about the land between where you’re standing and the Cotswold Hills in the distance. In particular, we’re going to think about what’s beneath your feet – the rocks that formed here millions of years ago.
What you should be able to see looking from here into the distance is a series of hills and valleys. The Cotswold Hills in the distance and the forested ridge in the middle ground are made of rocks called limestone, some of which are more than 150 million years old. We call it Jurassic Limestone because it was made in a period of time that geologists (the people who study rocks) call the Jurassic period.
In between the hills and ridges are valleys. Underneath the low-lying valley bottoms, including the Vale of the White Horse in front of you, is a different type of rock called clay.
White Horse Hill itself that you are standing on is underlain by what we call white Cretaceous Chalk. This is a type of limestone rock that was formed about 80 million years ago when this area was covered by the sea and the climate was a lot warmer than today.
This cross section of land – the ridges and the valleys – and the typical underlying rock is not just found here. The same pattern can be found in a great arc up the centre of England from the Dorset coast to Yorkshire.
Part of the Geological Map of Great Britain. The mid-green colour shows chalk
Continue uphill across the field. Cross the road and continue diagonally upwards to the summit of the hill, which is Uffington Castle. Stop on the earthen ramparts of the castle.
3 Uffington Castle
At the summit of the White Horse Hill is Uffington Castle. This is not a castle in the sense that we often think of - it hasn’t got great battlements constructed of stone and a moat or anything like that. Rather, it’s a great hill fort that was constructed in the Iron Age round about 2,700 years ago.
It has a single ditch and rampart. The rampart was certainly once deeper – perhaps by three metres – than it is today, and has become partially infilled over the years by the washing of material down the slope, the trampling of sheep, and the activities of earthworms.
The ramparts were also once topped by a timber palisade – a defensive line of stakes. The main entrance appears to have been on the north, which was protected by an earthen passageway that would have been further protected by wooden stakes. And smaller entrances through the south and northeast ramparts were created by the Romano-British during their occupation of the site.
The fort comprises an area of approximately 3 hectares (7.4 acres) and between the castle and the White Horse, which we’ll see later, lie a number of burial mounds that date from the Neolithic and Bronze ages but which were reused for Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon burials.
It has sometimes been proposed (though with little evidence) that the castle also marks the site of the Battle of Badon, which was the scene of KIng Arthur’s great victory over the Saxons but, as we’ll see, there are lots and lots of myths and legends associated with this area.
Cross the centre of the castle or go round the embankment to the south east corner, which is on the opposite side to the view over the Vale of the White Horse. Find the gate which leads out of the perimeter fence. Go through the gate and stop on the pathway.
4 The Ridgeway
Immediately to the south of Uffington castle, there’s a lovely green lane streaked with white chalk where vehicle ruts have been made. This is The Ridgeway, part of what is now a National Trail.
It’s thought to be the oldest road in the country, having been in existence for about 5,000 years since a period called the Neolithic.
The National Trail (as it is today) extends for 139 kilometres (that’s about 87 miles) from the great prehistoric stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire to the Iron Age fort on top of the Chilterns at Ivinghoe Beacon. The ancient roadway, though, is longer than that and provided a link between Dorset and the Wash.
It’s very high and very dry, which is why people used it. Down in the vale, it would get very marshy as the clays got wet in the winter months but up here it would be predominantly dry underfoot. So Neolithic people would have used this path to go and see their friends, or to go to market, or to raid their neighbours.
It has also been used in more recent times by the Romans, by the Saxons, by medieval sheep drovers, and – until a recent ban – by four-wheel drive enthusiasts.
Return through the gate and follow the grassy path straight ahead, keeping the Castle embankment on your left. Shortly after the trig point, the path bears right. Follow this grassy path through the dip. This should bring you to the edge of a steep slope near the top of the White Horse, stop here.
5 Uffington White Horse
In southern England, there are quite a lot of figures carved in the chalk. There’s the famous white giant at Cerne Abbas in Dorset. There’s also a figure on the way out of Weymouth of George III. And there’s another White Horse down at Westbury, not so far away from here. But the Uffington White Horse is the most impressive of all the white chalk figures in Britain and attracts visitors from all over the world.
It may also, at 3,000 years old, be the oldest chalk figure. It’s about 114 metres long (that’s 374 feet) and is a sort of stylised representation of a horse, though some would say a dragon. It’s formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk. We used to think that – like the castle – it was the product of the Iron Age, but recent dating using a scientific technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence (which is based on radiation levels in the soil) now suggests that it is earlier than this and dates back to the late Bronze Age.
Images similar to the outline of the horse have been found on Iron Age coins. It may be that the figure represents a horse goddess connected with the local Belgae tribe. Horse goddesses were worshipped throughout the Celtic world and that may be why this horse is best seen from the air - because they wanted the goddess to be able to see it. In some ways the views of the horse from the ground don’t look that impressive.
Until the late nineteenth century, the horse was scoured every seven years as part of a more general local fair held on the hill and which involved cheese-rolling down its steep bounding slope. The slope is very, very steep so you need to be very careful not to imitate bouncing cheeses!
You now need to make your way down the hill keeping the White Horse on your left. It is very steep in places so take your time. Cross the road and follow the path on the other side up onto Dragon Hill. Stop on the top of Dragon Hill.
6 Dragon Hill
Having descended from the White Horse, we’ve now arrived at Dragon Hill. From here we can look back to the White Horse and get a rather good idea of its outline.
Dragon Hill is a flat-topped mound, almost perfectly conical in shape. It has a level summit and this led to the assumption over the years that it was man-made. However, only the top appears to be artificially flattened.
There are lots of legends about how the hill came into being. One has it that the hill was the site of a battle between St George and the Dragon, hence its name. Look for a great white patch in the middle of the hill. It was believed that when St George struck the final fatal blow, the dragon's blood gushed out here. It is said the grass died and never grew back.
Others argued that the hill was the burial mound of King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. It still remains a mystery, but it adds to the grandeur and fascination of the whole site.
Dragon Hill is a lovely place to see typical grassland flowers. There are so few old, unimproved pastures left in England but here on the hill we have an old-fashioned meadow. You can see cowslips in season and lots of other flowers in the course of the year. There are also lots and lots of birds in the area and one can almost always hear the skylark as it hovers up above.
Retrace your steps back down from Dragon Hill. Turn right at the bottom of the steps and follow the footpath. Cross the stile ahead and then cross a second stile on the left. This takes you onto the rim of The Manger.
7 View into The Manger
As we clamber down from Dragon Hill, we come into a great green valley called The Manger. This valley is cut back steeply into the chalk and heads up to the White Horse itself. It’s a superb example of a feature that occurs widely in the chalklands of Britain which we call a dry valley. It is, indeed, a valley and it’s also dry – there’s no stream in it today – but it must have been created by a stream that no longer exists and so may be a product of climate change in the distant past.
One theory has it that it was cut by a retreating spring at a time wetter than today. At that time, the water table under the ground was higher. Today there are springs in the village of Woolstone but if it had been wetter, they might have occurred higher up the landscape.
An alternative view is that The Manger was cut by streams during the Ice Age. The greatest ice cap of the Ice Age reached south of Oxford so this area would have had a very severe climate, rather like Siberia or Alaska. When it was that cold, the soil was frozen into permafrost. Permafrost would have stopped any ice or rain from running through the soil. Instead it would have run off the surface of the land in streams.
These streams might have been fed by snow melting in the early summer. Also there would have been severe frost attack, which would have weakened the chalk and made it softer and easier to erode.
Follow the footpath down into The Manger. Take care as again the ground is rough and steep. When you reach the bottom turn right. Stop at the wooden gate.
8 The bottom of The Manger
We’re now right down in the bottom of The Manger. Look down valley – away from the direction of the White Horse – and we can find that The Manger has some very intriguing and interesting features along its sides.
On the left hand side as you look down the valley, is a series of more-or-less parallel trenches. One theory for these is that they are the remains of features we find today in very cold areas such as Siberia and Alaska. These features are called 'avalanche chutes'.
During the Ice Age great snow patches would have built up on top of the chalk. These patches would have liberated large avalanches. Avalanches cause erosion. Once they fall, they create a groove in the land called an avalanche track. Further avalanches tend to follow the tracks of earlier ones, which make the tracks even deeper.
Also in the valley, on both sides, there are some terraces. Terraces are quite common in the chalk in southern England and historical geographers or archaeologists call them 'strip lynchetts'. These are probably the result of generations of ploughing, which allowed steep slopes to be farmed at a time when land was in short supply. The flatness of The Manger's floor may also result from the same process.
Continue along the flattest ground at the bottom of this dry valley. Do take a moment to look back up at the view of the White Horse. Go through the gate onto the road. Take care as there is no footpath and you will need to walk on the road for a short distance. Make sure you walk against the traffic and keep a constant lookout for vehicles. At the crossroads, turn right towards Woolstone village. Follow the road into the village for about 600 metres. Stop when you reach the T-junction beside the White Horse Inn.
9 The White Horse Inn, Woolstone
We’re now in Woolstone Village. This is a beautiful village located in the clay vale of the White Horse. The parish is a curious shape – it’s long and thin. It extends just over 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) from north to south, but it is less than 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) wide. This is a characteristic of what are called springline villages.
Springs occur on steep slopes where you have a junction between the chalk and the underlying clay. Clay does not allow water to pass through it so It’s at this point that the spring gushes out. Springs provides the village with water. So that’s why the village is where it is but, by being long, the parish also had access to the important grazing lands of the chalk downs behind.
Woolstone is not only beautiful, it’s also very old and Iron Age pottery has been found nearby. Before then the village once had a Roman villa.
There are some wonderful ancient hedgerows and many crab apples. They produce exquisite blossom in spring and large crops of very varied fruits in the autumn. They also make excellent apple jelly!
Do take time to explore the village. You can follow either road from the T-junction for a short distance. In particular look out for different building materials. When you are ready, retrace your steps back to The White Horse Inn. About 100 metres from the Inn, the road bends to the right. But there is also a road straight ahead signposted All Saints Church. Follow this road and enter the churchyard.
10 All Saints Church, Woolstone
All Saints churchyard is a good place to think about Woolstone's buildings and what they’re made of. We’re in a landscape that is underlain by rather weak rocks, including chalk. There is also Greensand, which is very soft and Gault Clay. None of these materials are good for building. So what did people do?
People in the Cotswolds and Dorset had access to good building stone besides the chalk. Here in Woolstone people used what they could find. Timber was widely used, including the timber-framed pub in the village – the White Horse. For roofing, a great deal of thatch was used because none of the local rocks make good roofing material.
The Parish Church of All Saints was built in about 1195 AD. One material used in the church was some relatively hard chalk called 'clunch'. This forms the bulk of the upper walls. Elsewhere are flints derived from the chalk. The villagers also employed some blocks of local sandstone – sarsen stone – which we will discuss at our final stop.
Do go in if the church is open.You can see the clunch walls on the inside at close quarters. There is also abundant use of brick, perhaps made from local clay, especially for vital parts of the building structure such as window arches, doorways and corners.
The rather random uses of all these different materials gives the village so much of its charm.
Do take time to look in the church. When you are ready, find the gate in the bottom corner of the churchyard opposite to where you came in. Go through the gate and cross the field. Turn left onto the road and retrace your steps back up to the crossroads. Go straight across, which is signposted Uffington White Horse and Waylands Smithy. After a few metres, enter the gateway on the left hand side. Here there is access to a field path up the hill which avoids walking on the road. Follow the path all the way up the hill parallel to the road. Take care as the hill is fairly steep and can be slippery. Stop in the car park.
11 Rocks in White Horse Hill car park
We’re now in the car park, which may seem an unusual place to have a stop. But if you look around – not least in the middle of the car park – there are a whole series of curiously-shaped brown rocks. We’ve seen similar rocks in some of the buildings down in Woolstone.
These are hard sandstone blocks that are now called ‘Sarsen stones’. They have also been called ‘greywethers’ because where they appear in fields at a distance they look like sheep. Sheep used to be called ‘wethers’.
These Sarsen stones are very widespread in southern England and were extensively used in the construction of all sorts of prehistoric monuments. They make up, for example, the stone circle at Avebury and the stones found at Waylands Smithy (nearby on the top of White Horse Hill).
It is generally believed that the sarsens are the remains of a resistant and once extensive cover that overlaid the chalk. This layer of material has been largely removed by millions of years of erosion - and of course by people.
Similar materials still occur today in some tropical areas such as the Kalahari. These rocks may indicate Britain's warmer conditions before the onset of the Ice Ages some two or three million years ago.
This walk has explored a classic example of a British chalk landscape. Chalk is a very soft rock so physical processes like frost and water have worn it away and created particular shapes. For example, we saw The Manger, which once had a stream that carved away the rock but is now what we call a dry valley.
We’ve also seen how people have lived and worked in chalk landscapes for at least 5,000 years. We’ve seen how the chalk ridge was a good defensive site for Uffington Castle. We’ve seen how the ridge provided a line of travel – The Ridgeway – for generations of travellers right up to the present time. We’ve also seen how the chalk ridge became a ritual site, although exactly why these rituals were located here is unknown.
Chalk has also affected people at the bottom of the slope. We saw how springs of water emerge, again because of the chalk. Villages need water, so this was a perfect location. Water also fed crops, so we get very fertile agricultural fields. We also learned that because the chalk rocks underneath our feet are soft, they are not very good for building so other materials have been used in their place.
So we’ve seen how the physical landscape influences the human landscape and also how people have adapted their activities. If you go to chalk landscapes elsewhere in Britain – such as Wiltshire, the Surrey Hills or the cliffs of Dover – a lot of the story that we’ve heard today will be relevant there too.
Kings, saints, goddesses, fire-breathing dragons and a giant horse… welcome to one of the most intriguing and atmospheric sites in Britain.
Visitors to Uffington in Oxfordshire can enjoy spectacular panoramic views, a unique collection of ancient landmarks and explore a picturesque village.
This walk uncovers some of the stories behind and beneath these spectacular sights. Along the way, discover fortifications and defences, religion and culture, travel and trade, settlements and buildings.
This is a fascinating story of a landscape that has shaped people's activities and behaviour for thousands of years.
Follow the walk by clicking on the map pins or downloading the guides below