The Osmington White Horse Restoration

An Osmington Society Project

RNASThe team from Commando Helicopter Force did an awesome job high up on the slopes of White Horse Hill at Osmington.

On the ground were the Mobile Air Operations Team consisting of Sgt Richie Stevens, Cpl Jonathan Reed and Lt Cpl Ryan Sceats. And, piloting 845 NAS (Sea King Mk4) were Lt Jim Ashlin, Lt John Rutter and LACMN Trewick.

I’m have no doubt that these guys encounter more challenging circumstances in Afghanistan and eleswhere but I’m sure that today was a good training exercise.

What a day !  I feel almost lost for words!  My pulse rate is almost back to normal after the excitement of this afternoon, and the shower has removed another kilo of dust, but nothing will erase the memory of being that close to a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter in action on the White Horse!The day started well – I was up in time and ready to meet the Cadets of A Company at the foot (or should I say feet?) of the Horse.   These cadets mostly come from West Dorset, but on this day included a contingent from the Channel Islands. They seemed pretty fit as they climbed to the body of the horse and after their briefing from the Major, this is where most of them worked. A small team, however, dismantled the unsuccessful chute and carried the scaffolding planks down to a van.

We steadily shoveled and raked the gravel down, but I knew we had a big task ahead – and that was to load the already bagged gravel into fresh bags on the special carrying nets for the helicopter.  The layman (including me this morning) might wonder why this was necessary, but it became crystal clear later as the bags made their journey by Sea King.  These guys are the professionals and they only do it one way – the right way!

So teams of cadets, under the guidance of Sgt. Major Cowburn from Chickerell Training Camp, collected and unfolded the heavy-duty nets and we shoveled and bucketed the gravel across.  Everybody joined in, as we were working to a deadline, and the Navy ground crew arrived to finalise and check the arrangement for each one ton bag.  By lunchtime, there were nine netted bags safe and ready for collection.

I headed home to collect my large camera (most of my photos are with a tiny Sony WX1), ready for the large scale action, and after brief refreshment headed back up via the bridle path. I was feeling rather proud of my new-found fitness when my knee started to complain painfully. I hobbled for a while and then the sight of a helicopter, forty minutes early, made me forget this problem and charge on upwards. In fact it turned out that it was an RAF Puma, nothing to do with us, but it cured my knee problem instantly!

Michael (the web-master who seems to have tamed the paragraph-maniac elements of this software) had kindly brought me a pasty for my lunch so I became the sole interest for the Sgt. Major’s black Labrador Sam. I gathered that he had already lunched well so had to resist any generous inclinations!

The Royal Navy Sea King arrived bang on time and after a few preliminaries, got down to the task.  This was serious training for them, but it was a real godsend for those cleaning up the White Horse.  We had to stay well back as they hooked up the first bag, near the top of the hill and then we did wonder why they too a circuitous route to the drop off point – giving a great view to the residents of Osmington and Sutton Poyntz.  (This is apparently due to the dynamics of a heavy load needing smooth direction changes to be delivered safely). At one stage as they flew over my house, I did wonder whether it would be convenient for them to deliver some……….

We were able to get a little closer for the next pick-ups, which was a mixed blessing. Better photography, but doing that in a cross between a sand-storm and a tropical hurricane had to be experienced to be believed! Eyes closed, ears deafened, camera being sand-blasted (will it work tomorrow?) – it got the adrenalin going for us, but for the loader in the middle of it was a serious task.  One of the guys later assured me that Afghanistan is MUCH worse…….

The drop-off point at White Horse Farm was no picnic either – the rotors kicked up billowing clouds of dust as if someone had just lit a massive bonfire.  But in spite of the dust, the slope and the need for careful routing, the nine bags were smoothly delivered to their new home.  I really think that Major Ian Drummond, the CO of Chickerell Training Camp and Sgt. Major Cowburn were as pleased as we all were. They and the ACF team had delivered a fantastic training exercise for the Dorset Cadets, in this their 150th Anniversary year.  The cadets had enjoyed working with one of the finest views on the planet. The Navy guys had been able to hone their training with a precision delivery in less than easy circumstances, and our own White Horse had shed nine tons of weight in just over an hour!

A fantastic achievement for the whole team involved – and this is just the start.

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I’m very fortunate, perhaps uniquely so, in that my office window overlooks the White Horse.

Every day I ply my trade tapping away on my keyboard travelling to the other side of the world on the information superhighway and to the even further reaches of my imagination. Whenever I come home the horse is still there. In summer or winter, rain or shine, excepting thick sea mist, I keep a careful eye on its fortunes.

Today, around lunchtime, the Sea King helicopter arrived. I’d been expecting it sometime this week so immediately it was walking boots on, the dogs getting very excited and within minutes we were stomping through the stubble of the recently harvested oilseed rape, the clatter of the huge machine echoing across the valley.

It was a spectacular sight and I think the pilot was enjoying himself too, swooping back and forth between the top of the hill and dropping bags of scalpings by the big manure dump in the centre of the valley. Up on top, fearless ground crew would attach each bag struggling against the downdraft and swirling dust. Silhouetted against the sky they reminded me of that marvellous image of US marines raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima.

Time after time the helicopter ferried more and more bags down. It was a full aerobatic display from where I stood with dramatic banking, side-slipping and precision hovering. The dogs and I moved closer to the base of the hill until I saw a lone figure signalling at me. As we approached each other I realised he was an army cadet. In a previous life I used to pretend to be a half-colonel so I was tempted to call him to attention, followed by twenty push-ups and a couple of circuits of the field. Regrettably though, he was there to eject me from the danger zone which he did with great charm and civility. I didn’t realise there were well-spoken, polite young men in Britain any more!

Our espionage mission completed, the dogs and I executed an orderly retreat, photo-reconnaissance in the can. What a wonderful job by all concerned, most particularly the poor bl**dy infantry that shovelled every last one of those scalpings off the hill. Those glamourous flyboys always get the easy job!

Peter Reynolds

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 A bright and breezy day with fantastic views across the valley to Portland and Weymouth. The hill is teaming with hard working and breathless cadets of A Company ACF, raking and bucket filling.  I was not breathless, not tired, I felt as fit as a fiddle, after all I had only climbed for half a mile! 

I hadn’t been up there since Friday and there had been a lot more work done, Saturday must have been a busy one.The rest of the team were already there Steve Wallis (DCC Senior Archaeologist) and John Hayes (DCC Senior Ranger). I was standing in for our leader Geoff, who is sunning himself in Alderney!  Chris (head photographer) was amongst the lads and lasses shovelling away, easy to tell by the hat and gloves.  Steve was taking photos and looking at the view.  I felt a bit of a spare part so I hand picked a few stones that had dropped on to the grass and popped them into the bulk bag then took a couple of photos.

The work today was to get the one ton bags onto the nets for the helicopter crew to lift to the farm far below.  Not an easy task as it meant emptying one into another so that it sat square on the netting.  The mobile air operations team of Commando Helicopter Force RNAS Yeovilton then tied the netting up and around the bags ready for the off. 

The cadets took 11 minutes to do the first bag full then speeding up managed the last couple in 8 minutes! I helped fill a bucket and did a bit of raking, not easy on that slope. How they have stood for 4 hours without falling over I don’t know.

A smart guy called Sam, sat panting and watching with interest and hoping that it would soon be time for lunch.

A couple of holidaymakers came across and I had a chat and explained what we were doing (or rather what was being done!). Then to a guy who had walked across from Bowleaze leaving his wife on the beach.

Glancing across the hill I saw Michael (husband and webmaster). My lunch was on its way.  A delicious pasty which went down very well. No coffee though.

At two o’clock the helicopter arrived and circled around the site landing on the top of the hill.  Then we all watched with bated breath as each bag was hooked on to the rope and carried off into the air to be dropped into the field below on the farm.  Each bag pickup was executed so skilfully and it was watched by a couple of young boys, who were stood on the top of the hill. They did not expect to see something so exciting on their holiday a Sea King helicopter a hundred yards away hovering and lifting!

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Just in case anyone is wondering – this software has a mind of its own – adding and removing paragraphing in a random way!So back to yesterday and okay – I was late again!  I woke late at 8.00 after having completed Friday’s blog at sometime past midnight, but my lateness on the Horse was nothing to do with the fact that it was drizzling outside and the hill was wreathed in mist (honest!).  No, I had to edit and upload the photos and send the blog to Michael to upload.

So it was 9.30ish as I crossed the fields and I could see the cadets of B Company ACF already hard at work on the horse. I approached from the east, hoping that a diagonal climb would be easier, and surprised a pair of Roe deer who bounded up the hill as if gravity didn’t exist. As usual, it did for me….I found the chute (apologies for yesterday’s spelling) well advanced, but early testing showed that a re-think was necessary, as the volume successfully transported was low and the velocity rather high!

The cadets were just back from a three-day exercise, so there was an element of fatigue, but in spite of this they were stuck into the task. The Horse’s tail was theirs and one section soon had the gravel raked down to the bottom. The rest worked on the body – shifting the deepening mass of gravel down to the belly of the Horse.

Up on the Monument I met John Hayes who has a small team looking after all the key sites from Poole Harbour to the Devon border.  John has been tending the White Horse for nineteen years with annual visits with volunteer groups so it is very close to his heart.  He has been one of the prime movers in this project and his “popping in” today turned into a full day of hard labour.  And as he was able to give me the authority to help, I was able to get officially very dusty too!

Also up on the Horse were Lt Col. Gordon Davies, Commandant of the Dorset ACF and Major John Bradshaw  who were already planning the next moves and how they could continue to help after next Tuesday.  

After a break for lunch, I walked back in good time and met Mr and Mrs Critchell, the farmer whose land we were crossing.  It is astonishing how much goodwill is involved in making this project work, and without the help of the Critchells, none of this would be happening.

Traffic gridlock in Weymouth meant that the afternoon team from B Company, were a bit late. These were the younger members and they decided to complete the Horse’s tail by forming a bucket chain from the gravel pile at its base to some of the bags kindly donated by Aggregate Industries Ltd at Warmwell Quarries.

It was fascinating to watch the young cadets developing their teamwork. When they were finally in a line, it seemed that every member had a grievance and a point to make.  Shouting was the norm and from some way above we could hear arguments raging along the line.  Then suddenly (thanks to the lady officer in charge “getting cross” as she put it) it began to work.  Silence reigned for a while as the gravel was steadily shifted and then they began to sing.  It was rather like tuning in an old radio, where different music stations would come and go as one turned the dial.  At one end “Old MacDonald held sway, but as one scanned the line, “We are the Champions”, YMCA and even, from one cadet “Happy Birthday” could be heard!

John Hayes and I worked alone on the body gravel.  The wind made it essential to work some way apart to avoid each other’s dust, but we steadily moved the pile down towards the bottom, shifting tons of the stuff between us, and both finding muscles we didn’t know we had!

On the way home I took my usual photo and eagerly compared it with the same photo from the end on the morning shift. All those tons from two of us hardly seemed to register, bringing home the fact that the cadets have worked a minor miracle.

And then I met a lady from Osmington walking her dog.  After explaining what we were doing she said that she had seen the Horse from the bus yesterday and thought it was looking much better. Well that’s a result I thought! 

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Well today was the second day of the Dorset Army Cadet Force’s help on clearing the gravel from the monument and I learned quite a lot up there on the hillside.

Once again we were lucky with the weather – warm but cloudy. I got up early with good intentions of being up there well before the team arrived, but it somehow didn’t happen like that and they were already lined up by their transport when I arrived at the foot of the slope. This was D Company I learned (Monday had been C Company) and they were from the Poole and Bournemouth area. They very soon had the same shock that everyone has on their first climb up to the horse.  And it was no easier for me, even with a trusty thumb stick…..

There are allegedly many ways to skin a cat, and it seems the same applies to a White Horse. After their briefing from Major John Bradshaw, the morning team decided to tackle the head and neck using a cadet bucket “chain” to shift the gravel down to the bottom of the body. With so many of them in action, it was extraordinary to watch – with the full buckets descending on one line and the empties returning up the other. It worked surprisingly well – assisted by a fair amount of shouting and even some singing.

Meanwhile, up near the King’s body, the organising team assembled to meet any press who might be visiting. In the event it was more of a chance to catch up on the project progress and consider additional methods for removing the gravel as it has now become clear that the Navy helicopter will be tackling the difficult bags at the top. It was great to see the Dorset Echo photographer who arranged us for a photo – and told me off (very nicely) for trying to photograph him photographing us!

By lunchtime, the head and neck were clear and the team were well pleased as they headed off for their lunch and their next activity at Bovington. We walked down and across the bone dry fields where the farmer was haymaking. Home for a quick bite and a look at the morning’s photos – some of which you will see here.

After lunch, I beat the cadets up onto the Horse as they had been delayed by their morning activities. It gave me a chance to talk to one of the volunteers who organise and supervise them. The cadets come from all backgrounds and clearly enjoy the many and varied activities – which is hardly surprising considering the effort and dedication put in by these men and women who seem to give up huge amounts of their spare time. It was quite an eye-opener.

The afternoon team from D Company arrived on the Horse, puffing and gasping at the climb, and were quickly organised into groups. For the first hour they went with the bucket “chain” method but it became clear that bolder tactics were needed for the vast amount of gravel on the body. They returned to the shovelling, scraping and “treading” tactics – helped by the South West breeze which blew most of the dust up and away from us. There was still plenty of it though and all those smart, clean uniforms were caked in dust before long. This was seriously hard work and despite the late start, they shifted a huge amount!

Meanwhile, down below, Major John Bradshaw had arrived with the materials to construct a gravel shute (courtesy of the CO of Chickerell Camp). So if you glance at the Horse and think we are adding an extra leg, then fear not – it is just a clever way to shift a lot of gravel.

All too soon the mini-buses arrived and it was time for off. I felt sorry for the lad who got to the bottom and remembered he had left his beret at the top!
I bet he won’t do that again!

I was also thick with dust by then and headed home, very satisfied with the progress and very impressed indeed with the members of the Dorset ACF.

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Well Monday the 26th July was a busy day indeed!

Phil met me at 8.00am to discuss the photography and then headed off to the main road for some distant photos. Mark arrived soon after and we walked across the fields to wait for the Cadets to arrive. Somehow I was imagining Land Rovers and ten ton army trucks, but the Warrior 4×4’s and white minibuses still managed to look the part as they crossed the fields in convoy.

The cattle were very impressed too – they had clearly been waiting for something and stampeded after the vehicles in great excitement. They were clearly puzzled when the vans contained cadets not food, and were more so when they found a very smart Colonel giving them their marching orders – which they obeyed!

Looking at the White Horse from the main road, or even from across a couple of fields does not give any impression of just how steep it is. The officers, cadets and photographers soon found out though. It is indeed a stiff climb and all my attempts at video were marred by the sound of heavy breathing…….

A brief rest at the summit and then an inspired briefing from Major John Bradshaw got everyone in the mood. And it was relatively easy to start with – raking the gravel and filling buckets and trugs. Even filling the bags on the  shallow slope of the head was not too bad (well it didn’t look it from where I was sitting!). There can be few finer places to work (or sit) with a pleasant warmth and magnificent views. The cadets (and the officers) rose to the occasion and bags were steadily filled until the first shift was over at lunchtime.

I headed home to my computer to check out some of the morning’s work and then, after some brief refreshment, made my way back across the fields from my house. I could already see the change in colour on the king’s head and the afternoon team were swinging into action as I neared. And was the second climb of the day any easier? No! I did approach from a different angle though and was able to get some photos of the team working on the skyline.

Early in the afternoon shift, the Sergeant Major arrive with a slight change of plan. Rather than fill the bags on the steepening slope, they would rake the gravel down the slope to fill the bags at the bottom. Although it saved all the bucketing, it was very hard and dusty work with raking, shovelling and “walking” the loose gravel down. The sun came out and the temperature rose, making regular stops for water and squash essential for all involved. The plan worked though – and by the end of the shift, the king’s head and body looked significantly better. Also, another team had worked on the horse’s rump and a large area of that was cleared.

My 7 year old Godson arrived on the horse (back from a day on the beach) just as the afternoon team were heading home. He was proud to stand on the “eye”and survey the progress made in such a short time – and so was I!

I had managed to collect a fair bit of the dust myself during the afternoon, so home for a beer and shower (in that order). Then later, I sat down to edit the photos and try to put them on to the Flickr account. Let’s say that I just about managed…..by about half past midnight!

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Here are some photos taken by me on the 22nd of July,

Hopefully we’ll see some an appreciable difference in the White horse over the next few weeks.