Stewart Ainsworth is excited about our White Horse project. And for this senior researcher with English Heritage, who has worked on more hill figures, monuments and ruins than most of us have had hot dinners – that makes it rather special!

When Peter Addison (also of English Heritage), John Hayes, (DCC Senior Ranger) and I met with Stewart on the Horse last Thursday, he had already been up there for a day and a half (though he may have taken time to sleep!) and was brimming over with the results of the research. The following four hours, in which we circumnavigated the Horse and examined every metre of the outline, were rather like an exhausting edition of Time Team, where a picture of the original monument was slowly revealed. I say exhausting – but that may have been just me – Stewart looked as fresh as the proverbial daisy at the end, and he had been doing all the talking too!

One thing that became very clear is that this collaborative research between Ordnance Survey and English Heritage is breaking new ground (forgive the pun) in its approach. Ordnance Survey first mapped the monument in 1887, but this new work to create a computerised baseline image from a 1947 photo, and to map every contour via GPS, is 21st Century indeed. This mega-computing work has provided the tools for Stewart to record, from the very real features on the ground, exactly what the Horse would have looked like.

Earlier on, as I walked across the fields full of wild flowers, I thought that the Horse looked in desperate need of grooming (it is due to have a dose of weedkiller now the thistles are growing). What I had not realized is just how much weight it has lost over the years. Now, as we walked up and down the figure we were able to see legs that had shrunk to a third of their original width and hooves that had totally disappeared. With Stewart’s expert eye, we were also able to see the bicorn hat, the king’s nose, the reins, the baton, the ears and most important, the proper shape of the head – no more “lizard” look for our Horse!

Of course there is a lot to do before the Horse will be revealed in all its original glory. When Stewart has completed his work (he was still up there long after I had staggered home!), the Ordnance Survey team will join him to mark out the exact outline, using their incredibly powerful GPS system. And John Hayes is already coordinating volunteer groups to handle the mattocks and shift the turf in what will be a major cutting out operation.

So it was an exciting and very rewarding day on the hill with Stewart – and the bonus was that the sun shone and the views were magnificent. Oh yes – and early on in our session, one kindly walker took the trouble to walk down to us as we stared at the ground, to tell us “You’ll get a much better view of the White Horse from the road over there”! I thanked him and explained what we were doing – but if he had come at the end of our session, I could have replied with all honesty “You ain’t seen nothin yet!”.

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