South Downs: Long Man of Wilmington

The second short walk I did on my day pottering about East Sussex in the car was to finally see the Long Man of Wilmington - from a vantage point where I could actually get a decent view of it. This would now be my third attempt to get a decent look at it (read about the second attempt here), and this time I was just going to take the easy option - drive to the designated car park at Wilmington Priory, and walk from there.

After my morning walk to see the Seven Sisters, I'd been for a quick visit to Rathfinny Estate to buy a bottle from their cellar door, and from there continued on to the Plough and Harrow at Litlington for lunch. I was reminded at the Plough and Harrow of my proximity to the Long Man - the brewery in the village is named after it (that's a shandy by the way, I was driving alas). So naturally that became my next port of call. As an aside these cheesy chips were very good, and alas given the current situation my visit to the Plough and Harrow was confined to the beer garden, which is a shame as the interior looked nice in the photos on the web.

There is in fact a good view to be had of the Long Man of Wilmington from the car park at Wilmington Priory. So I could have been really lazy and just ticked it off the list there and then. I still had my walking boots on though, and so not getting at least a bit of exercise in the process seemed inexcusable.

It's a very straightforward walk from the car park to the Long Man, just cross over the road and follow the footpath. I quite liked that shot with the modernity of the road signs in the foreground with the ancient (?) hill figure in the background. We'll get to that below.

I'm not really sure exactly where the best vantage point was - it's a tricky thing given the slope it's on - the closer you get, the more of your field of view it consumes, but equally at some point the angle you're seeing it from starts to worsen. The aspect ratio changes - from a distance he indeed does appear to be a long man. Closer up he appears to be a rather squat fellow.

I'd already established from my last failed attempt to see it that you can't get a good view at all from the ridge immediately above it, nor I suspect can you if you're standing right in the middle of it (it's actually fenced off, so I didn't try that). As many onlookers do, it got me wondering who made it and why, and I think these lines of sight probably offer some clues.

Although at one time thought to date back to the Neolithic, recent archaeological evidence suggests it was created in the 16th or 17 century - and the oldest documented record of its existence is a drawing dated 1710 by a surveyor named John Rowley. It seems hard to imagine it is not somehow connected with nearby Wilmington Priory, a Benedictine cell established in the 11th century, given the direction it faces, and the fact that between there and the adjoining fields the best views are to be had. Presumably those fields were at one time owned by the priory and worked by the monks, and a 1766 drawing by William Burrell show the staves were at that time a scythe and a rake. So perhaps it was as simple as an image to encourage the monks in their honest toil out in the fields.

That said in the 1710 drawing the objects held by the man do seem to be simple staves as they are once again today. It is clear modifications have taken place over time - both feet originally faced outwards it seems, and at one time there were facial features, and possibly a hat or helmet. So perhaps the monks adjusted a pre-existing image to be something more suitable to their daily lives.

It has been argued that if the monks had created the long man, then they would have fashioned a more Christian image. The outline we see today is abstract enough that it is tempting to read something more ancient and pagan into it - and indeed at least one pagan group uses this as a ritual site, in addition to a local Morris dancing side performing a dance here each May Day.

It does seem rather a coincidence though that the only other known human hill figure in the UK is the famous Cerne Abbas Giant, which is also close to a Benedictine Monastery. Similarly recent archaeology suggests that it dates from around the same time. Could these have been rebellious acts by defecting monks? Or could they have been the work of other locals who had a bone to pick with the priory / monastery? Or perhaps these orders were at the time just more broad minded than we give them credit? Who knows?

There's some more background on the Long Man of Wilmington here, including the various drawings over the years - although I note that article doesn't mention the 2003 archaeological survey which dates the carving to the 16th/17th century (see wikipedia), so opinions clearly continue to be divided here.

The weather looked for a moment as though it might brighten slightly as I followed the chalky path back down to Wilmington Priory. It was really quite warm and muggy by this point of the day, and my thoughts turned from ancient mysteries to where in the vicinity I might find an ice cream.