TO say the old white mare ain’t what she used to be would have been an understatement. The once prominent figure that had served for more than a century as a dazzling emblem or logo for the village below was grimy and discoloured, muddied and bedraggled.

And those were the bits you could actually see. Most of The Broad Town White Horse had been over-run by greenie-yellow coarse grass while an infestation of stinging nettles and weeds had disrespectfully invaded its dingy, fading, not-very-chalky-anymore coat.

Mother Nature was in the advanced stages of claiming back what was rightfully hers, as she tends to whenever the interference of mankind is forsaken or neglected – like some all-consuming jungle greedily gobbling back a mysteriously abandoned Inca or Khmer city.

The plight of the Broad Town Nag – described as the most animated of all of Wiltshire’s equine hill carvings – was such that when a Short History of White Horses was published in Marlborough during the Eighties she was confined to the realms of the past.

The sad old steed appeared in the section ‘White Horses Now Invisible’, alongside those long-faded fillies at Roundway Hill near Devizes and Ham Hill near Marlborough (see panel.) Adding to the insult, she had been ignominiously omitted from a suggested 70-mile scenic tour of Wiltshire’s six remaining chalky chargers.

Wiltshire, of course, is the world capital of white horse hill carvings – just as it is the world capital of prehistoric stone circles and the world capital of seasonal crop patterns.

Broad Town could have laid a decent claim to being the most enigmatic of our magnificent mares – largely because you had to be quick just to catch a glimpse of her – flitting in and out as she does from behind bushes and trees along the Wootton Bassett to Marlborough B401… the only road from which she is visible.

For much of the Seventies and Eighties, drivers or cyclists would have craned their necks, largely in vain, for a sight of the once proud beast on the sloping downs that form a picturesque backdrop to the village.

She may have faded from sight but not – at least in the case of some villagers with a sense of heritage – from mind.

“Overgrown and barely visible,” was how she was described by the Broad Town White Horse Restoration Society which formed in 1991 not just to give the old girl an urgent grooming but, frankly, to thwart her seemingly imminent demise.

With cash from community grants, funds raised locally and more than 200 tons of chalk – aligned to a mountain of elbow grease from a voluntary workforce with a steady head for heights – the Broad Town White Horse was eventually returned to perky and playful good sorts.

Villagers were not prepared to see their white horse go the same way as their queen’s head – the shutters having long since come down on the village pub.

I am reminded of this doughty community effort by a recent story concerning the Westbury White Horse which received a spanking new coat to coincide with the Queen’s Birthday.

As the closest White Horse to Swindon – OK, probably neck-and-neck with Hackpen Hill – I thought I’d see for myself how Broad Town’s horsey earth sculpture was doing quarter of a century after galloping back from the brink.

And yes, there she was, resplendent in a creamy-white coat as I caught my first fleeting view through a curtain of mid-morning May drizzle as I headed downhill from Broad Hinton.

Obviously, for the accuracy of my report, I’d have to get a closer look. First thing you need to do is find somewhere to park (not as easy as you think), and then guess which right-of-way leads up to the horse before ambling past some inquisitive goats along a rutted track for about 15 minutes.

Through a couple of farm gates, over a stile and there she is – much higher and steeper than expected. So lofty, in fact, that the nearer you get the less you can see.

And then – dammit – you are pressing against a wire fence with an official Wiltshire Council notice proclaiming that the pathway upwards is dangerous and thus closed until further notice. Better go back then...

On the other hand you could clamber in an undignified manner over the fence and spend the next ten minutes scrambling up a 45 degree incline by grasping hold of long, slippery clumps of grass and the occasional nettle… all in the midst of an increasingly heavy downpour.

Sweating, cussing and getting stung, you may finally arrive at the sculpture and, without actually treading on it, somehow become haplessly smeared in sticky, smudgy white stuff that has little in common with dusty sticks of blackboard chalk but instead suggests a mixture of glue, paint and wet cement.

Having regained your breath and extracted some nettles from both socks while inspecting a gunge ridden pair of trainers, you are likely to descend by bum with all the decorum of a beer-bellied ballet dancer in hobnail boots before finally ripping your jeans in a place where you really don’t want to rip your jeans as you blunder red-faced and breathlessly back over the fence.

That’s what a cretin would do.

A sensible person like myself would simply drive through Broad Town, look for a gap in the roadside foliage and take some photographs of this majestic mare that has been heroically rebooted and is now regularly scoured by a praiseworthy body of community-spirited villagers.


THE origins of the Broad Town White Horse are muddied in time even though – at between 200 and 120 years old – it is a mere colt compared to others in Wiltshire.
Seventy two feet long and 75ft high, it is said to have been cut in 1864 by landowner William Simmonds.
He apparently wanted to enlarge the figure bit-by-bit as he believed this was how chalk horses were fashioned but the idea was abandoned when he suddenly quit the farm.
However, a letter in the Morning Post in 1919 from the curator of the folklore section of the Imperial War Museum recalled that when growing up in Wootton Bassett he helped scour the carving in 1863.
By that time, he reckoned, it was already around 50 years old – making it late 18th Century.
A third yarn claims that it was cut in 1896 by a Mr Horsey (that’s right), Horsley or Hussey – however it is likely that Mr ‘H’ merely scoured the beast rather than created it.

A SMALL herd of white horses that once graced Wiltshire have sadly cantered into oblivion.
Just inside Wiltshire’s border with Berkshire, a fine charger was once admired from afar on a steep slope at Ham Hill near Inkpen Beacon.
It was cut by the landowner Mr Wright probably in the late 1860s and appeared in an ordinance survey map of 1877.
Unusually, it was created by excavating the shape on a hillside boasting a healthy layer of chalk just below the topsoil, that required no additional infilling.
Later landowners had no interest in maintaining the specimen and it eventually faded away.
Nothing was known about the white horse at Rockley, between Broad Hinton and Marlborough, until a plough brought a mass of chalk to the surface in 1948.
Aerial photographs revealed it was the infilling of a previously unknown white horse described as well-proportioned and depicted in trotting or running mode with a long square-cut tail.
Its origins remain a mystery.
There was much excitement in Devizes in 1984 when its 19th Century white horse one day made an unexpected comeback.
Its ghostly form emerged on Oliver’s Camp at Roundway Hill in a photograph taken by council clerk Clive Leach from his bedroom window.
The old mare, which hadn’t been seen for decades, could clearly be made out as a result of early morning light and a fine dust of snow highlighting its outline.
It is believed to have been shaped by Devizes shoemakers in 1845 and was known as Snob’s Horse.
In 1999 the people of Devizes celebrated the imminent arrival of the Millennium by carving a new gee-gee close to the spot of its 19th Century predecessor.

<li> THEY are “a most eye catching and enigmatic art,” to quote Maurice Askew’s 2002 book Hill Figures of England.
But like murals, they need a little touching-up every few years otherwise they slowly vanish.
White horses have to be ‘scoured’ – that is, cleaned of encroaching vegetation and backfilled with fresh chalk.
Scouring the White Horse at Uffington – just over the Oxfordshire border – became a noisy, rumbustious and colourful annual festival, as recorded by Tom Brown’s Schooldays author Thomas Hughes in 1859.
Roughly around 3,000 years old, the Uffington horse is the world’s oldest, largest (360 by 90ft) and best known.*
More than 2,000 years later it is said that a sturdy mount was fashioned to mark Alfred’s famous victory over the Danes in what is now West Wiltshire in 878AD.
It vanished but was replaced by another that was recorded in 1772. This made way in 1778 for a far larger and impressive steed that we know today as the mighty Westbury White Horse (175 by 108ft.)
It is the only Wiltshire White Horse that is not chalk, having been filled with concrete in the 1950s.
The county’s other statuesque steeds are: Cherhill (1780 – 130 by 140ft); Marlborough (1804 – 62 by 48ft); Alton Barnes (1812 – 160 by 180ft); Hackpen (1838 – 90 by 80ft); Pewsey (1937 – 66 by 45ft) and Devizes (1999 – 150 by 148ft.)