The Duelling Giants of the South Downs

James Lloyd visits the Sussex village of Wilmington, home of the memorial to a dead giant, whose memory has fared better than that of his adversary.

Legend has it that the South Downs in Sussex were once the home of two battling giants. One giant, named Gill, hurled his hammer at his adversary, laying him out flat on the ground, where his silhouette was carved by the locals in the chalk of the hillside. This figure is still visible today as the Long Man of Wilmington, the white outline of a man two hundred and thirty five feet tall, holding two staves, his featureless face staring down on the A27 to Lewes.

It is probably safe to assume that the Long Man is not, in fact, the grave of an actual giant, in which case why was he cut? One suggestion, made as early as 1835, was that the monks of Wilmington Priory, within sight of the hillside, cut him out of sheer boredom. Variations on this theme suggest that the monks carved him as a reference to a biblical character (perhaps Samson straining against the pillars of the temple of Dagon) or that they were heretics carving a pre-Christian deity, the standard go-to explanation for anything old and mysterious.

An ingenious suggestion fashionable in the early twentieth century draws a link between the Long Man and King Harold II’s standard flown at the Battle of Hastings. This depicted an armed warrior and Harold himself came from an old Sussex family. Perhaps, the hypothesis goes, the man holding spears was a South Saxon emblem. This idea was given a new lease of life in 1964 by the discovery, at Finglesham in Kent, of an Anglo-Saxon belt-buckle with a similar image of a warrior holding two spears.

There are suggestions of an even earlier date. Perhaps he is the Germanic god Balder opening the Gates of Dawn, or Hercules inscribed into the hillside by the Romans. He has been associated with Julius Caesar’s description of Celtic Wicker Man sacrifices, while the plethora of Iron-Age and Bronze-Age barrows in the vicinity has allowed an imaginative procession of pagan purposes to be perceived in the Long Man of Wilmington.

All such hypotheses, as enjoyable as they are unverifiable, are arguably rendered redundant by the simple fact that, technically, we already know exactly when the Long Man was created. He is not actually a chalk figure at all but is made of concrete blocks installed in 1969. These in turn were a replacement for a Victorian restoration, carried out in 1874 by amateur cricketer and Vicar of Glynde the Reverend William de St Croix (possibly the most achingly appropriate surname a priest could have). Having been defeated by the depth of the soil in his initial attempt to re-cut the figure, he resorted instead to highlighting its outline with yellow bricks fastened together with concrete.

The restoration was rather a botched job. Contemporaries complained that the staves were too short and that the left leg had been moved. Modern analysis of the soil has confirmed these criticisms: The staves were shortened by ten feet and the left staff originally had a flail or crook on the end. Either the Man had a hat or his head was larger and his left leg, rather than pointing rightwards as it now does, pointed leftwards and was extended further down, giving the impression that the Long Man was walking down the hill.

One contemporary objected to the whole idea of bricking in the Long Man. Missis Ann Downs had lived at Wilmington Priory between 1850 and 1860 and had grown used to watching the Long Man slowly appear and then slowly disappear at certain times of the day and year. She had formed the opinion that he was not supposed to be seen at all but was a reclusive being, showing himself only to those who knew when to look.

Wilmington Priory

It is just as well that her complaints went unheeded. Although it is dispiriting to think that what one sees today is really a Victorian fake, if it had not been for St Croix, there would be nothing there today at all. The reason why St Croix bricked over the figure was because it had been grassed over for more than a hundred years. Each successive description or drawing of it in that period had shown it becoming more faded and it would be lost altogether if it were not re-created.

This was already apparent in the earliest known depiction of the Long Man, drawn in 1710 in dashed lines, giving him a spectral appearance. Descriptions of the Long Man written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries make no reference to a white figure carved out of the chalk but rather to a ghostly indentation in the grass that appeared only in the right light.

Such deterioration is a common problem amongst hill figures. They are, of course, a kind of living monument, created by the absence of grass but grass grows and soil moves and without regular maintenance the figure will be eaten up again by the landscape from which he is attempting to escape. Such other famous hill figures as the Uffington White Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant are routinely scoured and have been since at least the seventeenth century but no such tradition is recorded of the Long Man of Wilmington until his radical restoration by St Croix. If he was already grassed over by 1710, then he cannot have existed for long before then. This accords with modern archaeological analysis, which found that an unusually large amount of chalk debris was dislodged from the hillside around five hundred years ago, indicating a sudden spate of activity.

This is a disappointing verdict. Everyone wants the Long Man to be ancient, just as everyone wants every artefact of folklore to be ancient but in fact hill carving was a minor craze in the period either side of 1600. A similar date has been suggested for the Cerne Abbas Giant and around the same time Cambridge University had to forbid students from wasting their time in the Gogmagog Hills, presumably carving the giant figures which would continue to be spoken of in Cambridgeshire folklore until the twentieth century but which have now completely vanished.

It was another such lost giant who was the Long Man’s adversary. Four and a half miles from Wilmington is the village of Firle, overlooked by the seven-hundred-feet-high Firle Beacon. The Beacon is the site of around fifty Bronze-Age barrows, one of which is known as the Giant’s Grave. This may or may not be connected with Gill, the giant who is said to have thrown his hammer at the Long Man and killed him.

In 1909, Arthur Beckett, editor of The Herald (not to be confused with the contemporary editor of The Times of the same name), wrote a vivid description of a visit to the Long Man. He could see Firle Beacon, on which he perceived carved into the chalk “… an outline like a human arm placed akimbo.” This sounds like another giant almost wholly consumed. There is nothing there now but infrared photography has detected the ghost of a carving, apparently resembling an ear of corn. Presumably, this too was once a giant, who was gradually swallowed back into the hill. For a period only his arm was visible, giving birth to the legend of his hammer, before that too disappeared beneath the grass.

There are believed to be at least thirty-six other hill figures in Britain which are partly or wholly vanished. It is easy to be sniffy about the Reverend William de St Croix’s mistakes in restoring the Long Man of Wilmington but, if only more Victorians had shown the same lack of regard for archaeological sensitivities, we might have had many more hill figures now for which to be ungrateful.

Firle Beacon

Photo credits: Evening Sunshine on the Long Man (Colin Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Wilmington Priory (N Chadwick) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Firle Beacon from Wilmington Priory (Kevin Gordon) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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