Wiltshire – home to The Shires Mysteries and White Horses

The Shires Mysteries are set in the ancient county of Wiltshire. Wiltshire is peppered with neolithic structures of unexplained origin and purpose, though speculation abounds as to why and for whom they were erected. Science, as much as it is useful in establishing the age of these mysterious creations, is of no use in understanding their purpose.

Stonehenge could be a pagan altar where human sacrifice was made to appease the gods, or it could be a tool of astronomy – a stony calendar, of sorts. It could be a burial ground or a betrothal venue. Who knows?

Avebury Stone Circle (and many other smaller circles scattered all over Wiltshire) could have been built for any reason, probably spiritual rather than scientific, but maybe the Ancients didn’t draw such differentiations.

In the third instalment of The Shires Mysteries, Cause of Death, the residents of Bishops Well requisition a moderate-size hill towering over the so called No-Man’s Land in order to carve a white horse and thus render the hill and the land sacred to save it from the property developers’ bulldozers. It is a ruse doomed to fail, but the Bishops Well White Horse (a.k.a Mule) will likely persist through the centuries, and three thousand years from today, historians will be trying to work out what made the ancient dwellers of Bishops Well create such a magnificent monument in the first place. Was it ritualistic? Religious? Purely aesthetic? Will it ever occur to them that it was simply a crazy ploy devised by one Maggie Kaye to block land development on her beloved stretch of village common green?

Before I move on to the fictional White Horse of Bishops Well, I simply must pay due respect to Wiltshire’s existing White Horses. Here are my favourites:

Westbury White Horse

Wiltshire’s best-known hill figure, cut into the slope of a hill beneath Bratton Camp Iron Age hillfort. Curiously, it is the only horse figure in the county to be shown standing still, rather than galloping. The horse measures 108 feet from nose to tail and stands 182 feet high.

It is most likely just over 300 years old. It is easy to assign a prehistoric – or at least a pre-Christian – date to hill figures, but most are of post-medieval origin. As for Westbury’s horse, the first written records suggest that the horse was carved from the chalk slope of Bratton Hill in the late 17th century.

It is thought to commemorate King Alfred the Great’s victory over the Danes at Ethandun (The Battle of Edington), which took place near Bratton Camp in 878AD. There are written records from 1742, but antiquarian John Aubrey, writing in the late 17th century, makes no mention of the horse, so it seems safe to assume that the horse was created after Aubrey and prior to 1742.

Cherhill White Horse

The horse outline was cut into the chalk in 1780 under the direction of Dr Christopher Allsop (or Allsup), a physician from Calne. Local folklore says that Allsop directed the operation by shouting instructions through a large speaking trumpet from a position on the Calne road at the base of the Down (where the A4 now runs).

The Cherhill White Horse is the second-oldest chalk figure in Wiltshire after Westbury, which was cut two years earlier. It seems highly likely that Dr Alsop was inspired by the Westbury White Horse.

During World War Two the horse was covered over with turf so that the white chalk did not act as a landmark for enemy aircraft.

The white horse is now cared for by Cherhill Parish Council. The most recent restoration by the Council took place in 2002 when the figure was returned as close as possible to its original condition. The restoration took a staggering 150 tons of carefully graded chalk, which was placed inside an outline made with 900 metres of timber revetment held in place by 1500 wooden pegs.

Devizes White Horse

Carved in 1999, this is the youngest of the carved White Horses. It was created to celebrate the millennium but it is not the first white horse to be carved near Devizes – back in 1845 a horse was cut into the west side of Roundway Hill underneath Oliver’s Castle. After years of neglect, Snobs Horse, as it was known locally, disappeared around 1922 although it’s outline has been seen occasionally.

It is located at the bank field, near the civil war site of the battle of Roundway Down. In the aerial photos the White Horse looks a little flat, but when viewed from ground level the hill contours are much steeper and the hills are more defined to look at.

And now to the Bishops Well White Mule, as extracted from “Cause of Death”:

“Painting the horse was a chaotic affair. People were tripping over each other, stepping into each other’s buckets, and spilling their whitewash all over their feet. White footprints trailed  out of the horse in all directions. It looked as if it  was under siege from a squadron of white flies. Any minute now and it would start kicking.

Despite those minor hiccups, by five a.m. the project was completed, the area cleared of any incriminating evidence (fingers crossed), and the gang of forgers were packed into Cherie’s pickup to be transported to the foot of the hill.

There they stood in awe.

The sun was rising over the horizon, its first faint rays growing wider and more assured. If the night view was to die for, the image of the sun emerging over the left shoulder of the hill was like a resurrection. The sun hit the image etched into the face of the hill with all its might, and the still wet whitewash glistened and sparkled like liquid silver.

Maggie was elevated. She gasped, ‘Our very own Bishops Well White Horse!’

The prototype for the endeavour, the ancient Westbury White Horse, had inspired several other equine carvings across the Shires to welcome the approach of the new millennium. Bishops Well might have been a decade or two late joining the trend, but that’s how things were done in Bishops – all in its own good time.

Vera shaded her eyes from the sun and scowled. ‘It looks more like a donkey.’

Maggie and Cherie glared at Vera. Sam swallowed a chuckle. The truth was that the blinking horse indeed looked like a donkey.

‘The ears are far too long,’ Vera continued.

‘It’s a horse,’ Maggie growled.

‘A bloody horse,’ Cherie verified, ‘and that’s final!’

‘It is a bit donkey-like. There’s no two ways about it!’ Dan Nolan waded in – unwisely – on the ladies’ disagreement, to his wife’s chagrin.

‘It’s a horse, Daniel!’ Mary, unusually for her, raised her voice.

James proffered a compromise. ‘It isn’t entirely a horse, I admit, but neither is it a donkey . . .’

Maggie compressed her lips to hold back the trembling. Sam could tell she was close to tears. He couldn’t bear it. In a conciliatory tone, he declared, ‘Of course it isn’t a donkey. It’s a mule – Bishops Well’s very own White Mule.’”

Extract from “Cause of Death” book 3 in The Shires Mysteries. To purchase the book go to:

http://viewbook.at/CauseofDeath

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