Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Moon Stallion of Westbury

The little market town of Westbury is a quiet and charming spot. The Georgian houses which dominate its centre speak of a past prosperity, but though this was real enough it had little to do with the market or the surrounding rich acres. Westbury was the centre of the glove-making business in southern England for several generations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The glove trade has passed away with mechanisation, but one reminder of those days dominates not just the town but the whole valley. Carved on a hillside about a mile away is a white horse. It is in a highly visible position and when the sun dips down to the western horizon the horse can glow with an eerie red light as if bathed in blood.

This horse is, if local legend is to be believed, not merely a chalk figure but a phantom horse of terrifying appearance which goes by the name of the Moon Stallion. This powerful horse, locals believe, leaves its hillside on moonlit evenings to take on solid form as a gigantic spectral stallion. It then gallops off over the downs, past the enigmatic stone circle at Avebury and along the ancient Ridgeway Road, that was old when the Romans came here. Eventually the Moon Stallion reaches the white horse of Uffington. The two horses stay together for the night, before the Moon Stallion retraces its path to Westbury and takes up its place above the town.

There is nothing to be seen in the white horse to indicate either that it is a stallion or that it has anything to do with the moon. It is a graceful and elegant horse, almost certainly a thoroughbred. But the white horse of Westbury was not always as it appears today. The current horse was cut in 1778 by servants of Lord Abingdon and was paid for by local worthies from their glove money. The old horse was a very different creature. It had a long neck and perky, upright ears. The body was long and low-slung, rather like that of a dachshund, and carried unmistakable signs that this was a male horse. The tail was lifted in an arch as if swishing flies aside and ended in a crescent, not unlike a moon.

How old the old horse truly was is unknown, but it is likely it was many generations old when it was destroyed in the recutting. The sweeping curves of its design are reminiscent of the design of Uffington white horse. The two horses are also alike in that the hills on the slopes of which they are carved are crowned by Celtic hillforts dating to pre-Roman days. Although it is now impossible to study the old Westbury horse, the Uffington figure can be investigated. Modern dating techniques indicate that it is around 2,500 years old. The similarities with Westbury would indicate that this horse, too, is ancient.

It may be that the old stories suggest a religious link between the two Celtic hill horses. The truth is impossible to know, unless one evening you are up on the Wiltshire Downs and encounter the dramatic Moon Stallion galloping towards Uffington.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Wiltshire by Rupert Matthews

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