Monday, 10 September 2012

The Long Man of Wilmington

This is a medium length walk which offers magnificent views from the South Downs over the Weald to the north and the valley of the Cuckmere River to the west. It also offers a view of the Long Man, one of the most enigmatic hill figures in England.  

The Walk

1) From the car park at the south end of Wilmington village, well signposted off the lane, follow the signed track towards the Long Man. This famous Long Man is visible to your left, standing on the flanks of Windover hill to the south.

According to local stories, the Long Man commemorates a giant who lived up on Windover Hill in years gone by. There also lived a second giant on top of Firle Beacon, three miles to the west on the other side of the Cuckover Valley. For some unspecified reason the two giants did not get on. They shouted insults at each other in voices that rolled like thunder down the valley, and they were forever dreaming up ways to annoy each other.

Finally the giant on Firle Beacon lost his temper entirely. As a blacksmith, he happened to have a mighty hammer in his hand at the time. This he hurled at the Windover giant, striking him on the head and killing him instantly. The giant tumbled to earth, his body coming to rest on the north slope of Windover Hill. The villagers of Wilmington hurried up to the hillside and drew a line around the dead body. This line was later cut out of the turf to reveal the white chalk underneath - and so formed the Long Man.

A second legend, recorded in the 19th century, has it that the Long Man was cut by the Romans. A senior Roman officer is said to be buried underneath the hill figure in a coffin of pure gold.

So much for legend, what of fact? The striking figure is first recorded in 1710 as part of a survey of the lands of the Earl of Northampton, but does not appear again until 1776 in another survey. These early accounts talk of eyes, nose and mouth. Although these are now absent there are hollows in the turf that may be these features. It also seems that the older figure was facing towards the viewer, not walking to the left as he now does. These changes are generally blamed on the great recutting of 1874 when the outline was marked in white bricks, as today, rather than bare chalk. In 1939 the bricks were painted green so that the Long Man did not serve as a landmark to German bombers. Finally, once the Luftwaffe was safely banished from English skies, the bricks were replaced with white concrete slabs.

Interestingly, the digging involved in installing the concrete blocks revealed quantities of Roman tile scattered about. Perhaps the locals were right when they said the Long Man was Roman in origin. But what of the golden coffin?

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