I’m jogging up a steep, tufty hillside in search of 218-year-old carving because I’ve just whizzed right past it on my bike and I’m sure as hell not cycling back up again. It’s Saturday evening and if I don’t find this chalky cheval soon, I’m going to have to come back again in the morning.
Just as I’m about to give up, I spot a bit of fencing below me. Ah ha! I jog down and peer into the enclosure. Sure enough, there lies the Marlborough Horse. Four down, four to go. But first, shower, food and bed.
I’ve always had a thing for chalk hill figures. These extraordinary artworks pepper the English landscape, mostly in the south where sprawling chalk downlands with their grassy covering make for an ideal canvas. The oldest surviving carving is the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, a particularly artistic creature over 3,000 years old. Probably younger but certainly more amusing is the Cerne Abbas Giant, a club-wielding man cut into a Dorset hillside sporting a rather eye-catching erection – not something you expect to see in the countryside.
Kiwis, lions, giants and kings may have been cut into English hills over the centuries but if there’s one theme that keeps cropping up, it’s horses. I grew up not far from the chalk hills in southern England and while I’d seen a few horses over the years, I’d never made a concerted effort to truly get to know them. Armed with a mountain bike and a free weekend, I decided to change that.
The best place for a mountain biking white horse adventure is undoubtedly Wiltshire. This history-laden county is home to Stonehenge, Avebury stone circle, more prehistoric hillforts and burial chambers than you can shake a bike pump at and no fewer than eight white horses.
History aside, it’s also a wicked place for long mountain biking days. The white horses are scattered across two main ridges, one on Salisbury Plain, a vast plateau used as a practice area by the military, and another in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The entire area is rich in chalk tracks, gravel trails, wooded single track and bridleways – off-road routes restricted to horse riders, walkers and cyclists, and often challenging and thoroughly overgrown.
There’s already a long-distance hiking trail linking Wiltshire’s white horses but it uses a fair whack of footpaths forbidden to chalk-happy mountain bikers like me. Instead, I plotted a similar route suitable for riding and split the distance over two days. In total, the route would be around 130 kilometres, or 80 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,350 metres, or 4,400 feet. I decided to start from Westbury, which has one of the most visible and striking horses, and ride to the Pewsey, Alton Barnes and Marlborough horses on day one, and the Hackpen Hill, Broad Town, Cherhill and Devizes horses on the second day.
Westbury is a small town at the foot of Salisbury Plain’s westernmost ridge and we’re immediately faced with a steep climb up a rocky, crumbly chalk trail. We push our bikes up, gaining height quickly and eventually reach the Imber Range Perimeter Path, a byway that encircles one of the military firing ranges. It’s not long before we find ourselves at the top of the Westbury (or Bratton) horse. Having captured the first chalk equine, I feel like the adventure has truly started.
The landscape here is epic. You won’t find jagged mountains, glistening lakes or steep canyons, but you will find expansive, rolling fields of golden wheat and barley; and from the ridges, vast panoramas across the vales. As we ride, the tracks ribbon out before us across the landscape and I can hear the faint rat-tat-tat of gunfire.
Britain is in the grip of a long, hot dry spell and the terrain shows it. The trails are rock-solid and rough. We clatter along, soaking up the ridgeline views, until we reach the Salisbury Plain Training Area range and find a red flag. Literally. While you can ride around the Imber Range during live firing, the same does not go for this one. Sabotaged, we pedal along the wheat field bridleway to the dulcet tones of a combine harvester in the next field. We whizz downhill to the edge of a village to find a string of wicked bridleways and byways running behind the houses.
"You won’t find jagged mountains, glistening lakes or steep canyons, but you will find expansive, rolling fields of golden wheat and barley; and from the ridges, vast panoramas across the vales."
Making tracks to the Pewsey white horse, we pedal through thick grasses and overgrown paths that seem to hold England’s entire population of butterflies. I often promise my partner, James, that the next carving is ‘just up here’ and, after a considerable amount of time, we finally reach the Pewsey horse. This one is young, cut in 1937, and replaces a much older horse which was lost to the grasses of time.
The route sends us zooming down Pewsey Hill into the vale below. The relief doesn’t last for long though, because we now grind up Walker’s Hill to the ridgeline which houses the Alton Barnes white horse. This is tough in the summer heat but I suddenly look up to the hills ahead and see it appear, bright white against the grass. In the foreground is a field, improbably, with grazing horses.
With three down and five to go, we set off past a ridge-top neolithic camp complete with lumpy earthworks, to the top of Golden Ball Hill and its majestic views. No matter how tough the climb here, there’s always a magnificent vista to greet you.
Next up comes a grassy descent that plunges us into a woodland filled with rooty singletrack that has us whopping with exhilaration. It’s quite a change from the exposed ridges and barley fields. Knackered and sweaty, I enjoy the road descent into Marlborough a little too much, whizzing straight past our enigmatic friend, the Marlborough horse. As a result, I find myself jogging through a steep field in search of the white-legged creature so I can finally end the day’s ride. I have, as always, underestimated the difficulty of all-day mountain biking and we reach our bed for the night after over eight hours.
My quads ache and the weather forecast predicts drizzle but I’m excited to round up the final four horses. After eating as much breakfast as our stomachs can take, we head off uphill for the first carving of the day, the Hackpen Hill horse.
After riding through a bone dry barley field, we pedal along a gravel track past some very real horses – racing horses. This area is home to several gallops, racehorse training areas, and I start to feel as though horses might be taking over my life. We break free from the training grounds and find ourselves mired in the most overgrown bridleways imaginable. Brambles trawl our legs and nettles have swear words abounding – England’s hedgerows can be vicious. Submerged in plant life, I carry on pedalling and am thrilled to reach a wider track and the Hackpen horse.
Cut in 1838, you can walk right up to this carving, although we got the best view from the road immediately below. We shot off down Hackpen Hill to the village of Broad Hinton and got onto the tough bridleways that ascend the next ridge. After crossing a field, we find ourselves embroiled in what I can only describe as a hedge. Pushing our bikes through a path we ourselves were making – although a bridleway on the map – we emerge into another field. The Broad Town white horse is only accessible via a footpath, so we diligently walk down to it, only to discover a steep hill cloaked in long grass.
‘It’s there,’ I say.
‘Where?’ asks James.
‘I don’t know, but I know it’s there.’
As it turns out, horse number six is near impossible to see. We hike back up the hill and set off for Cherhill. What I’m really learning though, is that there’s no such thing as a standard bridleway. Where I live, they’re typically gravel or stone tracks, sometimes moorland grass; in Wiltshire, one might be wide gravel and the next could be steep, overgrown singletrack with more stinging nettles than seems reasonable. When we reached the Cherhill horse though, the whole undertaking is worth it.
This horse is clearly visible from the Lansdowne Monument, an 1845 obelisk standing next to a Bronze Age hillfort atop Cherhill Down; as I said, Wiltshire’s littered in history. As we pedal through the ancient earthworks, I roll to a stop at the northern edge and there it is, an absolutely magnificent white horse cut into a steep fold of the hill. It’s a postcard view and I’m a little sad to leave it but onwards we go, to reach the Devizes (or Millennium) horse – the eighth!
With ebbing energy, we ride along a fantastic Roman Road cut into the chalk and then a series of gravel trails to reach the horse above Devizes. In my head, the loop is over and after peering at the Millennium horse, we descend to the town below for lunch.
Feeling smug at rounding up all of Wiltshire’s horses, I check the distance back to Westbury. With no ridges in between, it’s a flattish 20 km – easy. We set off, freewheeling alongside Devizes’ flight of 29 locks and then cut south west to follow bridleways all the way back. And this is where my naivety really sets in because the route I’d plotted turns out to be an unbroken series of incredibly challenging, overgrown, rugged bridle paths suitable only for someone with fresh legs and better suspension.
It takes us over two hours to ride those flat 20 km and eventually we see the bright white flanks of the Westbury white horse again, glowing in the evening sunshine. We reach the car and I feel utterly elated – and knackered. The horses have long intrigued me and now I know their shapes, their hills and the trails that link them so much better. Now, where’s this giant?
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