The Osmington White Horse Restoration

An Osmington Society Project
“Are they coming?” I asked John Hayes as I stood in the field squinting through the horizontal rain. I had not phoned before I left the house, as I knew he would be up for it whatever the weather, but now I had my doubts as I looked up at a deserted White Horse from the field below.

“Yes of course” John said, “They are on their way”. “Oh good” I said, though to be honest I didn’t really mean it – but that was before I met Chris and Nikki Jenkins with their team made up from the Weymouth East Scouts and the “Houlding” Explorers.

They were already cascading down the Horse when I arrived at the bottom and by the time I joined them, John was well into his briefing. Despite the weather, they were enthusiastic – and I soon found out why. The White Horse is the logo they use for the Scout Troup and Explorer Unit and it is very close to their hearts.

And today they had the honour of making history by shaping, or at least re-shaping the leg that we had been clearing up yesterday. They did have some help though, as Countryside Rangers John and Nick were there, together with Sean on his day off. Geoff and Christine Codd were there too, and we were even joined by Peter Addison again – alone this time – I wonder why!!

Between us we tackled the “front back leg” and what a tough task it was. The turf we needed for the revetments (okay – wooden shuttering) had to be hacked from the rubble and and the large quantity of overspill stones, carefully raked from the hillside grass. It seemed like the trugs full of stone just multiplied despite the best efforts of the hauling team – but by sheer muscle power, they got it shifted. The weather improved and waterproofs were quickly shed – until we spotted a storm coming across the bay. For a moment, I thought we were going to be lucky as the vast dark cloud suddenly veered away from us – but then another appeared from over the hill, so we got wet anyway!

The Scouts and explorers gave a superb demonstration of teamwork with ideas flowing thick and fast about how best to tackle the spoil removal. With a small team they achieved an amazing amount and as usual, between bouts of serious mattocking, I found a few moments to chat. I learned that the Weymouth East Scout troop, who meet at Scutt (yes Scutt!) Hall in Sutton Poyntz number over forty and at 14 years old (ish) they move up to become “Houlding Explorers”. There are currently fifteen in this unit, which has adopted the Houlding name in honour of one Theo Houlding, an avid international explorer and all-round great guy.

After a brief break for lunch, we were joined by two more Explorers, and the work rate continued unabated. While Geoff and Christine relentlessly cut and carried turf from the front leg, John and I filled the revetments and the Scout/Explorer team relentlessly shifted gravel. By the end of the afternoon, the leg and hoof were revealed and we were able to rake some of the natural limestone down to clearly define its shape. The Rangers had laid on a water supply, so we were able to give the turf a good soaking before we were finally done.

It had been a great day and as Chris and Nikki took their team up the hill homeward for a well earned rest, Geoff, Christine and I walked down across the fields. Looking back to the Horse we could see the leg and the hoof clearly showing the excellent work that had been done. And it was nice to think that these Scouts and Explorers had followed in a long standing tradition – I know of one 90 year old – my wife Liz’s uncle Angus – who was up there cleaning the Horse as a Scout in the 1930’s. The only question now is whether these modern day Scouts will have to update their White Horse logo to show the impressive result of their work……….

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I will not record the words that came into my head when John Hayes told me over the phone that the planned work on the Horse was going ahead. I did mention to him though that the hill was invisible under a bank of cloud and that the rain was horizontal……..

And I was definitely not alone in my misgivings, as when I approached the Horse, I saw no company of Army Cadet volunteers, but just three Rangers – John, Nick and Elliott, hard at work. The Cadets had indeed arrived, but an assessment by the instructors had found it pretty much a non-starter in such conditions (rain, wind and mud) and so they had to reluctantly call it off.

So that just left the four of us – until the “cavalry” arrived in the form of Peter Addison (from English Heritage you will remember) plus wife Jo and son George.
Now they might have looked a little wary as they descended the Horse’s body using the safety rope, but that didn’t last for long. Of course they were up for some serious work, they said, and by heavens, they certainly proved it!

John had decided that some scalpings on one of the back legs just had to be moved before we lifted the turf, and Jo volunteered to do the shoveling – indeed she had grabbed a shovel and was off before the rest of us had decided very much. In the event we soon had a great system going and it only took the six of us men to keep up with her!

In practice this meant shifting the full trugs onto Elliott’s improvised fish wagon and hauling it up the muddy slope, before carrying it the final distance up the steep slope to the quarry “tip”. Today we had the benefit of a little technology to help us as Ranger Sean had been over, early on, to set up a pulley and lock knot (learned from his tree surgery work). This meant that instead of hauling directly on the rope, we could ‘walk” down a small sheep path with it, and thus haul up the wagon. This was lucky, as the wagon wheels grew larger and larger (and harder to pull) in the mud.

What started as appalling weather soon began to improve. Suddenly we could see Portland and the brightness from the west began to spread. Waterproofs were shed down on the Horse’s leg and soon Jo was well ahead of us with the filled trugs. I went down to take a few pictures but I have to confess that by the time I got back up to the rope gang, I was beginning to feel I had had enough. Peter came up to join us and gamely (or was it rashly?) volunteered to unload the trugs and empty them. So while we pulled, he carried hundreds of kilos of scalpings up the steep slope until the job was done.

The weather was improving all the time, but we decided to conserve energy for tomorrow and began to clear up soon after 1.00pm. I confess that I thought this an excellent decision and walked home in some welcome sunshine.

Luckily more words came into my head – printable this time – so I sat down to write these Blogs……and think about tomorrow, when we will do it all over again!!

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My day started with losing my small camera – a real gem that I can keep in my pocket and which still just about works after all the dust and abuse it has had to put up with on the White Horse project. My wife Liz and I spent a merry half hour searching for it and debating the merits of “A place for everything……..” before we gave up – and it miraculously appeared from under my hat on the kitchen table…..

We had hoped it would be “Press Day” today as the students from Thomas Hardye school were due to cut out King George’s profile. I say had hoped, because even before I crossed the fields in the glorious sunshine, we had already got the message that media were busy elsewhere and so we were unlikely to make any headlines. Now I am a bit biased, but I have to say that they missed a treat as we had an extraordinary team up there on the hillside and genuinely made some newsworthy history with our picks, shovels and trugs.

As usual, Dorset Countryside Rangers John, Nick, Elliott and work experience student Shannon were already well prepared by the time I reached the King’s body. Stewart Ainsworth and Peter Addison from English Heritage and Jon Horgan from Ordnance Survey were already there and soon after, the staff and students arrived from above and below us. At first we were puzzled by what appeared to be the number 18 on their T shirts, but deputy head teacher, Kaye Chattenden quickly explained that these were, in fact the letters “IB”, standing for the International Baccalaureate. Of course, we said, though at that stage I confess that I was not much wiser!

John and Nick went through their briefing for them and although I think I detected the odd gulp as they looked at the pile of heavy mattocks and spades. It certainly didn’t deter them though and they soon swung into action.

It is strange that what looked like it would be the easy bit – the least slope and just a bit of turf to remove – proved to be an almost mattock breaking task. In some places, below the innocent green of the grass, lurked hard packed Portland scalpings. Here the harder we hit it, the more the blade bounced back. In other places the turf was deep and serious excavation was necessary to get down to a stony layer. Some of us old hands were able to give a bit of guidance, but when it came down to it, it was just seriously hard work!

Talking of excavations, Stewart and Peter, with help from Jon, tackled two important ones. The first was the horse’s “eye” which had first appeared in the 1970’s and which had no place on the restored monument. They performed this surgical operation first with mattocks and then with their archaeologist’s trowels to see if any thing interesting lay beneath. This drew a blank so they then pegged out an area of the King’s chin for detailed examination before joining in with the general cutting out.

And by this time the Students were making excellent progress, helped by White Horse enthusiasts, Bill Norman, Geoff and Christine Codd and Councillor Teresa Seall, as well as Ruth Carpenter and husband Tim from Natural England. White Horse owner, Paul Critchell, also joined us – which was great as it is Paul, under Natural England’s “High Level Stewardship Scheme”, who has made all this work possible. Like the others though, he wasn’t there to watch, he had his own trusty mattock and soon got down to business.

It will not surprise you by now to learn that I found the odd moment to chat to folk. I learned about the International Baccalaureate from some of the students and also from staff members Alex and Bridget. Out of a sixth form of nearly 500, at Thomas Hardye School, some 20 students have taken on this prestigious course with its six subjects (equivalent to A levels) and an obligation to put at least 150 hours into Creativity, Action and Service. I have to say that I was seriously impressed – and I gather that Universities across the world are too.

When we paused for lunch, cakes and biscuits provided by the Osmington Society were very welcome indeed – it is surprising how much energy this job uses up! And then it was back to work, which seemed to be getting harder as we uncovered more and more of the dreaded Portland scalpings. As I walked down to the fields below for a photo or two, I had some misgivings about whether we would achieve the day’s target – but when I got back up there, some superb teamwork had got well on top of it. And I also heard that Kaye Chittenden had been heard giving an interview on the project to our local Wessex FM, which pleased everyone.

When time came for them to pack up, the weather was turning, but I managed to take a group photograph of the students on the King’s newly shaped bicorn hat, and then, at Stewart’s suggestion, one next to the Dorset Countryside Ranger’s vehicle. This was because Stewart knows, as indeed do all of us involved in this project, that it is the organization skills and energy of the Rangers team that had made this, and all the other days, so successful.

And then it was time for me to stagger home – but as I looked back at the freshly shaped image of king George III, I could not help pondering about the headlines that might have been. I mean if the journalists had seen those young people accurately hacking lumps out of the hillside might they not have written; “Student Hackers Expose Lost Royal Profile!”?

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FRIDAY 15th JULY

YOU ARE INVITED TO OBSERVE THE START OF THE CLOSING STAGES OF  THE OSMINGTON WHITE HORSE RESTORATION PROJECT

THIS PROJECT STARTED OVER TWO YEARS AGO.

IT HAS BEEN BROUGHT ABOUT BY
The Osmington Society, local Councillors and members of the community, experts from Dorset Countryside Rangers Service, the Council’s Historic Environment Service, Dorset AONB Partnership, English Heritage and Natural England.

IT HAS ALREADY SEEN
the removal by helicopter of 160 tonnes of limestone scalpings.

EXPERT ADVICE & TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE
has been provided by Ordnance Survey, and the English Heritage Archaeological Survey and Investigation team.

IT HAS BEEN ENABLED BY
Natural England funding, the landowners’ active collaboration,  business contributions, and volunteers from the Army and Royal Navy, Dorset Army Cadets, PGL staff, Thomas Hardye School, and Weymouth Scouts.

DIRECTION ON THE GROUND
has been provided by the Dorset Countryside Rangers Service.

My muscles were not amused. What – climb up on the hill again? You have got to be joking! And I do not think they were alone in thinking that – some County Ranger and PGL muscles were no doubt feeling pretty much the same on Sunday morning.

But climb it we did – though I was a bit later than yesterday so John, Nick and now Sean Shereston were well established and the PGL team were already hard at work by the time I arrived. Nick stopped briefly to chat to a dog walker who turned out to be one of the Commando Force who had lifted scalpings off with the SeaKing helicopter last Summer. His beautiful Dalmations found the rucksacks fascinating and it wasn’t long before one was rolling down the Horse to be rescued by a quick-footed fielder.

Today the PGL team tackled the back legs with their steep slopes and rather slippery grass. The upside of this was a boost to their party fund as each full slippage (hands down and bottom on the turf) meant a contribution of 20p. Later on I heard someone ask if it could be capped at £5!

It is fair to say that if Saturday was hard, then Sunday was even harder. Nearly every trug of spoil had to we carried or hauled up the slope and even those hauled had to be carried up the last slope to the quarry. It soon became clear that qualifying for one’s bus pass does not qualify one to be a rope man – at least not for long. The youngsters hauled with such vigour that I soon couldn’t keep up and was relegated to trug carrying. At least photography gave me some respite!

When lunchtime came, I had planned to walk home, but now my muscles took the upper hand. Instead, I sat down and enjoyed a sandwich from John (thanks John!) and the stunning view – which I can never get tired of.

The afternoon brought very welcome reinforcements from PGL – and more mattocks were needed from the Landrover. After a briefing from John, this fresh team were set to tackle the tail outline while the morning team finished off on the legs and hooves.

And then more reinforcements arrived in the form of Geoff and Christine Codd. There were only shovels to spare so Geoff grabbed one and tackled the top of the tail while Christine tackled the rump. They made excellent progress too, working faster than John and I could keep up with moving the cuttings – a job, incidentally, which might best be described as like picking up your entire drive and garden and carrying it upstairs in a suitcase……..

I took some comfort from the fact that while I felt like I was going through an accelerated aging process, many of those around me looked like they were too – even the lads on the rope. In fact when time was called, only Geoff was carrying on – he was in his element, having finally got hold of a mattock, and was carving out the Horse’s rump like an artist. We had to stop him!

And so the guys from PGL sat on the King’s body for a photo before hauling the tools up to the vehicles and walking back to the Camp.  They have set a fantastic example in this first stage of the cutting out and their work, together with the generosity of PGL, has been indelibly marked on our Dorset hillside.

And as for the muscles – well we have a pact that they get a bit of a rest until Friday – and then we start on the King’s head……….

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It’s strange how one can end up making history – even with a mattock. I know they did it that way two hundred and three years ago when they cut out the White Horse on the hillside using mattocks, shovels, baskets, carts and muscle power – but hey this is the 21st Century!  Some things just don’t change though, so when John Hayes and Nick Tarrier of the Dorset County Ranger Service unloaded their tools at 8.00am on Saturday, it was mattocks, shovels, trugs and even a wagon of sorts!

For John this couple of weeks will be the culmination of 20 years of trying to tend the Horse. Before, he has been fighting the scalpings and weeds with a very limited volunteer force and no real freedom to make changes. This weekend, the tools might be traditional, but now he was leading a team backed by the best expertise and technology and with all the permissions he needed to cut out and restore this wonderful monument.

He and Nick were pretty well set up by the time I got there, with ropes anchored to aid the climb and haul the “wagon” (you may have read in my previous blog that this is the marriage of a fish box and a mountain board). And soon after I arrived, we were joined by the first group of volunteers from PGL. Now anyone who lives round Osmington will be familiar with the smart blue uniforms of the PGL instructors but it was only at the Royal Wedding party in the village that many of us really saw them in action. Activity holidays for youngsters are their business and they gave the youngsters a fantastic time with non-stop games and involvement.

And now we saw another side of these young people – they are capable of sustained and seriously hard graft.  Students, graduates and young folk on Summer contracts, they come from all over the country and after briefings from John and Nick, they just got on with it.  Mattocks cut along the painted line, shovels filled the trugs and endless trips were made to the small quarry where the cuttings were dumped. Those working on the Horse’s legs made use of the wagon and to say that hauling this up the slope was tiring, would be an understatement.

I decided my role, between taking photos, was to permanently mark out the baton. Now if I am honest, the paint would have lasted until next week, but well, I just fancied making a mark! And yes, it is a baton not a sword, before you ask. I was busy working on this when I looked up to see Ruth Carpenter and husband Tim, both from Natural England. Ruth has been hugely important in the project as it was she who obtained the funding for the helicopters last Autumn and has been so helpful in facilitating our work on the SSSI site. As it happened, their main interest was to join in and they will be back next Friday to pick up shovels – this project is a bit like that!

A little later, Geoff and Christine Codd joined us and Geoff joined in there and then, grasping a mattock like a professional and helping to carve out an ear. This entire project was Geoff’s brainchild and so to actually be cutting after two years hard graft on research and co-ordination was a real joy.

And so the work progressed – the sun shone and the wind blew. I graduated to mattocking and then humping trugs to the quarry before walking home for lunch and a brief rest. Needless to say I nearly set solid in my chair – but managed to persuade my muscles to take me back up there for another couple of hours. I helped on the reins, and heaved more trugs while the PGL team carried on with their good humour and dogged determination.

There was not much time (or breath in my case) for talking, but it is strange what one can learn on the hillside. A young geologist showed me a fossil, a girl explained about the problems of texting in Japanese and a guy who wants to run orchards and vineyards voiced his concerns for the economic future of his beloved Norfolk. And all this was as we chopped and shoveled and looked out over one of the finest views in the country.

I think it is fair to say we were all pretty tired by the end of the day – but as I walked home across the fields, I could see what we had achieved. The earth has yet to be washed clean, but suddenly the Horse’s body had begun to look right, it’s head had begun to lose that lizard look and I knew that our small group, with tools little different from those original workmen, really had begun to make (or should I say carve) history!

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I learned a new word on Thursday. Well to be honest I already knew it and have nodded sagely when it was mentioned in the White Horse discussions, but I only really knew what it meant when I climbed the Horse to see two of the County Rangers, Nick Tarrier and Elliott Green hard at work on the back legs.

They were building the “revetments” – wooden lattice structures to hold the turf in place on those sections below the hind legs where scalpings have bled down over the years to create those awful white scars on the hillside. The structures have a hard edge of green oak where they mark the outline, but the rest is untreated larch which will hold the turf. This larch will rot out over time and leave the turf well established. Clever stuff!

Nick and Elliott had been up there for most of the week, in rain, wind and shine and had made great progress by the time I joined them.  In that time they had also developed a simple system for getting tools up and down the Horse using ropes and Elliott’s redundant mountain board (“much too scary!”) with a fish box screwed on.

Another of their tasks had been to mark the rabbit hole “minefield” with posts and arrows to alert the volunteers due at the weekend. It is, after all, tough enough to work up there without the danger of twisting an ankle in one of the many rabbit residences. And as these are the guys who look after our footpaths, the little arrows were marked Dorset County Council. I suspect that if I could understand rabbit language, I might have learned a few more choice words when the residents returned to see the Council had taken possession!

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I guess we have all played a game of join-the-dots at some stage in our lives, but on the last day of June I took part in a game that was of, dare I say it, Olympic proportions! To be honest, it wasn’t a game – but high up on the White Horse it was at least as pleasurable as any game, as we saw the original outline of the horse and rider take shape.

The team involved in this major exercise were Stewart Ainsworth and Peter Addison from English Heritage, Jon Horgan and Roger Lewis from Ordnance Survey, John Hayes from DCC and myself representing the Osmington Society.

I was a bit late as usual – mostly because I wanted some long shots of the guys at work on the Horse – at least that was my excuse. They had already started with the marking as I did my usual impression of a steam locomotive arriving, so at least some of the dots before my eyes were yellow paint on the turf!

Stewart was brimming over with excitement that this project – which is not only a first for him, but is a first for anyone – was finally coming together. The exact outline had been agreed after meticulous research of photographs, paintings and, most important, his interpretation of the earthworks. This outline was stored in the state-of-the-art computerized GPS wielded by Jon and it was he who located the exact spot in the turf for John to mark with special, yellow, bio-degradeable paint.

I started helping the “joining” crew of Roger, and Peter as we used a steel tape measure to span the dots so that Roger could spray the line.  Stewart soon took over from me as it became clear that his expert eye was essential in determining what was a straight line and what was a curve. Meanwhile I carried on snapping, chatted to the occasional visitor and kept the lads supplied with paint.

Soon after a brief stop for lunch we had our first “challenge” (other than constantly bending down on a 30 degree slope that is!).  All of a sudden, the GPS started to wander and made a bid to redesign the horse’s rump.  Apparently it uses a combination of mobile phone stations, US and Russian satellites to create a Virtual Reference Station (VRS) and from that it gives an accuracy of within a centimeter. But just sometimes, when working on the side of a steep hill for example, it loses a satellite and the VRS wanders . To paraphrase Jon’s comment at the time “When technology breaks wind – the results stink!” So even with all this technology, the human eye and brain is still essential – Stewart confirmed the error, Jon sorted the VRS for the GPS and we were back on track.

I confess that by mid afternoon I had had enough and left them to it – I mean there are only so many photos one can take of blokes joining dots – even if they are slightly reminiscent of the characters in Three Men in a Boat!  They carried on though and had the first draft of the outline on the hillside before the battery on the GPS finally gave out (as did various knees and backs).

The following day was just perfect with excellent visibility and sunshine. They were busy as usual by the time I walked through the fresh cut hay to begin my ascent. I had rather expected to see the yellow outline and glimpse the true shape of horse and rider, but the yellow line is very thin so its secret was not revealed, even from the field below.

The plan for the second day was checking and re-checking the outline to be absolutely certain that no GPS wander had been missed. It also gave Roger a chance to thicken the line and gave us the chance to photograph everything and revisit some of the decisions and interpretations that had been made, now that the paint was on the ground.

By lunchtime we were happy and were thinking that the job was done when we had our second challenge. This time it was not technology, but a herd of very inquisitive cattle that decided that they could easily remove all trace of paint from the rocky areas of the back legs. Luckily Stewart had a bag of English Heritage “approved” red pegs, so it was all hands to putting these in the ground where our bovine visitors had trashed our carefully planned artwork.

So when Geoff and Christine Codd arrived in early afternoon, the job really was done – countless dots had been placed and meticulously joined by over seven hundred metres of painted line – and a few red pegs. Our “game” of join-the-dots was complete but for now, perhaps only the buzzards circling above can see the big picture. The rest of us had to wait for the cutting out to begin……..

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For the past few months, we have been working with English Heritage and
Ordnance Survey who have been making an absolutely key contribution to the
on-going project. The primary focus thus far has been on reconciling various forms of evidence of the original outline of the monument, with a view to being able to ‘cut the
first sod’.

The restoration of the outline will commence on the weekend of Saturday 9th
/ Sunday 10th July. Under the supervision of Dorset County Council’s Ranger
Service.

Instructors from PGL Adventure Centre, Osmington, will be the first of several volunteer groups to work on the hill cutting out the restored outline. They will be followed by sixth formers from Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester, on Friday 15th July, the Dorset Army Cadet Force on Saturday 16th July and Weymouth Scouts on Sunday 17th July.

Anyone approaching the Horse last Friday morning, bright and early, would have got a bit of a shock to find three white suited figures, like a forensic team from “Waking the Dead”, busy up there. No murders or mysteries though – just the County Rangers team spraying the creeping thistle on the body of the horse.

They were just finishing off this difficult task (the surrounding grass is SSSI so there must be no overspray) as I approached across the fields to meet John Hayes with Geoff and Christine Codd to carry out some test ‘digs”.

John had obtained permission from English Heritage to carry out this work to determine just how difficult it will be to cut out the shape. Armed with mattocks and spades we soon found the answer to that question – pretty darned difficult!!

In some places it is turf removal, which can be re-used on some of the bald parts, but in others it is digging out creeping roots in rubble. This was no real surprise to John, who has been leading working parties on the Horse for the past 19 years, and it was certainly no surprise to Paul Critchell who joined us soon after we had started digging.

Paul and Jan Critchell own White Horse farm and therefore own the White Horse itself. And Paul has been actively involved in managing the surrounding grassland for the past 11 years. In fact, if he hadn’t, we would be struggling to see the Horse in a sea of gorse!

At the end of our work and discussion we were all clear that it will be a lot of hard work for our volunteers and that those that John has already lined up will not be enough for this major task. So if you fancy helping out on the Horse in July, then watch this space for a call for volunteers. Do remember though that it is a tough task on a steep slope, and certainly not the thing for those with bad backs, knees etc.!

Before that will be the official marking out, by English Heritage and Ordnance Survey, so if you look out one day and see a painted outline on the hillside, it is not another forensic team at work – but it does show where the “body” lay. And the great news is that unlike the bodies in “Waking the Dead” we really are bringing this one back to life!

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