The Osmington White Horse Restoration

An Osmington Society Project
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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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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It is not easy climbing up the White Horse with a broken little toe – but it is possible.  And on Thursday it was essential for me to do it, because our Horse was being surveyed by what I can only describe as the “A Team” – and I wanted to be there!

To explain the importance of this survey, I need to go back a few months. Then, with the Horse clear of all the scalpings, the major issue facing the restoration group was the question of the outline. There had been so many changes over its 202 year existence that getting the right outline was far from easy.  But Geoff Codd, chairman of the group, had a brainwave. He asked Ordnance Survey, who had first mapped the Horse in Victorian times, and English Heritage to lend a hand.

I have to confess that I had not realized the importance of this until we had a planning meeting at the Village Hall in February.  There we met the guys who had become involved, and in particular, Stewart  Ainsworth  and John Horgan.
Stewart as Senior Investigator with English Heritage (and previously with Ordnance Survey) had already been on the Horse to have a preliminary look. His expert eye had enabled him to see that most of the tell-tale signs of the original outline still exist.  And Jon, who is a research scientist with Ordnance Survey, had used an aerial photo from 1948 to build a computer model of the Horse as it was then.  By identifying the exact spot in the air where the plane was when it
took the photograph (don’t ask me how), he was able to build an image to show this in 3-D and even fly round it on the screen!

So the reason for my rather slow ascent of the Horse (which I now know is officially described as a “Hill Figure”) was that both Stewart and John were up there carrying out a detailed survey to enable us to finally see the correct shape for King George and his horse Adonis.

Now my role was to take a few photos – and I realised that I had a problem (other than the toe) even as I approached the hill. A picture with the Horse in made to surveyors look tiny, and a picture with the surveyors in made the Horse disappear!  Well at least you can get the general idea from the few snaps I have included….but the real interest was in watching the guys work.

When I arrived, puffing and gasping as usual, they were working on the King’s head, and after we had swapped a few “toe” stories (well I had to explain that I don’t normally walk like this) Stewart was able to show me that what looked
like bare grass, was, in fact, the King’s bicorn hat. And here was his nose – plus a later extension that made even Mr Punch’s nose look small. And here was his collar etc. etc.  If ever there was a demonstration of what the trained eye can
see, then this was it and I have to say that it was fascinating!

I could have talked all morning, but they had to get on with their work, because each high and low point had to be entered into the satellite device (which Jon told me not only used the GPS satellites, but also the Russian system to give
the maximum accuracy).  So I took a few more photos and admired the surface of the Horse, which, after the long dry spell, is as white as I have ever seen it. The weeds will soon begin to grow, but these will be sprayed in May, I understand, to have the maximum impact.

Geoff and Christine Codd joined us a little later, as did John Hayes, the senior Ranger who has played such a major part on the project so far.  A brief get together in the Spring sunshine established that results of the survey will ready in early May and then it will be a matter of marking out and cutting out in the early Summer.

As we walked down the Horse it was interesting to reflect on the fact that although this amazing expertise and 21st century computer wizardry from English Heritage and Ordnance Survey will enable us to re-define the White Horse, to
actually do it , we will use genuine 19th century technology – pick and shovel.

Oh yes  – and I also reflected on another thing. Stewart had been right when he predicted that my toe would be worse going downhill – but it was definitely worth the trip!

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Only joking. You won’t see it this white again for a while.

Two more great photos from Chris.

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ChrisAs most of you will know, we are now at the end of several months of very hard work by everyone involved, including the Ranger Service, in removing the limestone scalpings that were threatening the outline of our White Horse. I am very grateful that this challenging operation was also recorded for us by Chris Bird, often in very inclement weather, who vividly captured the spirit of those toiling up on the hill. 

Where to now? For some time the Osmington White Horse Restoration Group has been researching answers to the remaining challenges. The first of those, which is now well on the way to being decided, is how to identify the difference between today’s monument outline and its original shape, and then how to mark the shape out on the ground and cut back as closely as possible to that.
Issues still to be addressed concern whether it is possible to provide an edge to the monument that will minimise long term maintenance problems, and also if it is possible to stabilise the surface. It is generally believed that the original figure was not as white as the recent limestone scalpings made it appear, and the restoration is intended to be closer in colour and in texture to the figure that was originally created by those Weymouth folk back in 1808.

Well it turns out that the helicopter was louder than my gasping after having “run” up the Horse on Friday.  It is only a brief video, made in the midst of a squall of rain, but it gives a helicopter view of the naked White Horse in all its glory.

Yesterday morning, a chance phone call from one of my wife’s oldest friends revealed one of those “small world” coincidences.  She lives in South Wales and just happened to have had a phone call from her son the night before. He had been working down in Osmington he said.  It turns out that he was the Dave that invited me for the helicopter ride!  Our excuse for not recognizing each other is that we had only met once at his sister’s wedding  – and I had no idea where he worked…….

Anyway, here is the little video:

I ran up the Horse today. Well nearly ran – and wouldn’t you if you had just been offered a lift down in the helicopter? A chance for a video I thought as I gasped and panted my way up the hill after Dave (the hooker-on) had made the kind invitation. As we headed for the door, bending low in the down draught, I vaguely remembered watching Anika Rice doing the same thing all those years ago – only she was a lot more elegant!The team had been in action since 0900 hrs and when I arrived on the Horse there were only a few bags to go. We could see a real squall of rain out over the bay, but it wasn’t too bad on the hill.  At about 1120 hrs I snapped the last bag being lifted and the job was done – just as the rain arrived.

As I strapped myself into the helicopter, the rain really hissed down and the view for my 60 second journey was largely obliterated. I did take a little video – but I suspect that the sound of my breathing will drown out the helicopter!

After the two minute run-down, the blades stopped and I emerged from my first ever helicopter ride.  I took a couple of photos and then Dave suggested taking one of me with Wes, the pilot. Apparently folk like to be photographed with the pilot! It was when I was taking another of the three of them, that he mentioned the rainbow – which I had not even noticed. Now what are the chances of a perfect rainbow within minutes of the last bag of scalpings being removed?

More photos then – but sadly I missed the moment when I am convinced that I saw the Horse wink…………

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As I squelched across the fields this morning, all desire to climb onto the Horse for photography deserted me – which was just as well, as I was met by one of the Ranger’s new recruits, who very politely suggested that I didn’t go any further!Yes, I was a little late, and the Veritair team had already started operations. Even with my high-vis jacket and hard hat I was not allowed under the flight path, so I headed for the drop off point to take a few pictures.

With Wesley piloting the helicopter, Dave up on the Horse hooking on and Duncan hooking off, they were rapidly down to their usual three-minute turn round. It is such a smooth operation to watch that I just had to take a few more photos and make the best I could from the occasional rays of sunshine.

I returned to the scene just before 4.00pm, in time for a couple more snaps before they ceased operations for the day with a total of 112 bags delivered – approximately 56 metric tonnes.  And that was in spite of the less than pleasant weather.

They will be operational by 0900 hrs tomorrow and at the current rate, peace will descend on our valley by about lunchtime – and the Horse will be naked to the world – at last!

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Well the sun is shining today and those white bags of scalpings continue to glisten on the White Horse.  But not for long, I am happy to say, as the Veritair helicopter is due back this week on Thursday the 18th and Friday the 19th to remove them.

The limited daylight means that the helicopter will be operating for most of the two days over the footpaths again, so we would very much appreciate the co-operation of walkers in avoiding these routes. Quite simply we cannot fly half ton bags of stone over the heads of walkers, so the Ranger team will be on hand to advise the public and ensure that the operation is suspended if safety is compromised.

I have been up on the Horse a couple of times since my last blog – the first was to see the Gregorys team finishing up their herculean task – needless to say they were very happy to have the job done and were off for a minor celebration.

The second climb was to take some detail photos for the team looking at the Horse outline.  We are all aware that the monument is going to look worse before it looks better, but the next important step of establishing the outline is now under way. 

To say that the final removal of the scalpings will be a “load off our minds” is an understatement ………!

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Well I have just about dried out after a quick photo reconnaissance up on the Horse – just about 20minutes was enough for me, but Greg walker and the team were up there all day………..

After the helicopter work last week, the lads were back up on the White Horse yesterday in perfect weather, raking scalpings from the grass and rapidly filling bags from the piles remaining. So rapidly, in fact, that they ran out of the fresh bags and the Coastal Ranger team had to join in by emptying bags down at the farm and ferrying them up. A phone call to Warmwell Quarries yielded another forty available for today (thank you!) and so with the Rangers on the shovel, the supply was maintained.

What a difference today! I climbed the hill in the driving wind and rain to find the work still continuing apace. Nobody was enjoying it though – and my arrival coincided with the first time a full bag made a bid for freedom. They caught it – and then had to re-fill it before making the weary climb up to their vehicles for lunch.

I headed back down and called to see the guys emptying the bags, hard at it down below.  They seemed pretty cheerful considering……….

The last of the scalpings should be bagged tomorrow and then it will be the turn of the helicopter again.  The dates for this are yet to be confirmed as there is certainly more than a day’s lifting to be done.  Fingers firmly crossed for some decent weather for it!

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