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Uffington's Galloping White Horse

Discover the legends and magic of one of Britain's greatest antiquities on this spectacular downland walk.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 415ft (126m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Ancient tracks and field paths, road (can be busy), 13 stiles

Landscape Vale of White Horse and exposed downland country on Oxfordshire/Berkshire border

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 170 Abingdon, Wantage

Start/finish SU 293865

Dog friendliness Under control or on lead in vicinity of the Uffington White Horse and along Ridgeway

Parking Large free car park near Uffington White Horse

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park go through the gate and follow the outline of the grassy path along the lower slopes towards the hill. Make for a gate and cross the lane to join a bridleway. Keep left at the fork, by a bridleway waymark, and walk along to the head of Uffington's galloping White Horse.

2 Descend steeply on the path to the tarmac access road, keeping the chalk figure on your immediate left. If you prefer to avoid the dramatic descent, retrace your steps to the lane, turn right and continue down to the junction with the B4507. Cross over and take the road towards Uffington, turning left at the path signposted to Woolstone. Cross the stile and keep the hedge on your right. Make for two stiles in the field corner. Continue across the next field to a stile and cut through trees to the next stile. Keep ahead with the hedgerow on your left.

3 Cross the stile, turn left at the road and walk through the village of Woolstone. Turn left by the White Horse Inn and follow the road to All Saints Church. As you approach it, veer right across the churchyard to a stile and gate. Cross a paddock to a further gate and stile. Turn left up the road and turn right at the footpath sign. Follow the edge of the field, keeping the hedge on your left-hand side, eventually reaching a stile. Turn right and walk through the trees to a footbridge. Cross the footbridge to a field, head diagonally left to a stile and turn right. Follow the field edge to a stile within sight of a thatched cottage. Cross it and go ahead to another stile leading out to a road. The cottage is now level with you on the left.

4 Cross the road and follow the D'Arcy Dalton Way, signposted on the opposite side. Make for a stile, cross a paddock and head for the road by the village sign for Compton Beauchamp. Cross over and take the drive to the church, next to the manor. Retrace your steps to the sign and walk up to meet the junction with the B4507. Cross over and climb quite steeply to the Ridgeway.

5 Turn right if you wish to visit Wayland's Smithy (PWhile You're There). Otherwise, turn left to continue the walk. Follow the track to a crossroads signed 'Woolstone' and continue on the Ridgeway uphill to reach the grassy ramparts of Uffington Castle on your left. Leave the track here, cut through the remains of the fort to the access road and return to the car park at the start of the walk.

High above the Oxfordshire countryside stands the chalk figure of a galloping horse. Shrouded in the mists of the past, this noted 856ft (261m) high landmark, 365ft (111m) long and 130ft (40m) tall, represents one of Britain's most famous antiquities.

The best time to see the horse is early on a summer's day or during the week in the middle of winter, when the crowds and the cars are scarce. It is then that the Uffington White Horse exudes its own peculiar air of mystery. Regarded as far and away the most beautiful of all the British chalk hill figures, the horse is formed from a chalk-filled trench and, contrary to popular belief, not etched into the natural chalk. Its design is stylised, with an elegant, slender body and a distinctive beaked jaw similar to those displayed on early Iron-Age coins. There have been countless theories over the years as to its age and exact purpose.

A medieval document records it as one of the wonders of Britain, along with Stonehenge, while some sources suggest it was cut some time during the 1st century ad. Others claim it was established to celebrate King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in ad 871. In more recent times, the age of the horse has been scientifically pinpointed by a series of archaeological digs and analysis of soil samples, indicating that it dates back almost 3,000 years, to the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age.

The horse is not clearly appreciated other than from the air or from some distance away - which gives credence to the theory that the White Horse may have acted as a tribal banner or badge for the inhabitants of the Vale of White Horse below. What does it symbolise and why was this particular site chosen? There are no conclusive answers. Certainly the White Horse is closely associated with mythology. One legend claims that the figure is St George's steed and that the flat-topped chalk outcrop below, known as Dragon Hill, is where St George slew the beast. A bare patch on the summit is supposed to mark where the dragon's blood was spilt.

The Uffington White Horse has also attracted its fair share of literary figures. G K Chesterton (1874-1936), creator of the fictional detective-priest Father Brown, wrote about it in his Ballad of the White Horse, and Thomas Hughes (1822-96), who was born in Uffington, described the custom of scouring the horse, clearing it of grass and weeds, in The Scouring of the White Horse. It was Hughes who helped revive the tradition, which at one time attracted as many as 30,000 volunteers.

Where to eat and drink

The White Horse Inn at Woolstone is directly on the route of the walk and serves food. Alternatively, try the Blowing Stone at nearby Kingston Lisle which offers an extensive menu and a pleasant conservatory restaurant.

While you're there

Visit Wayland's Smithy, just off the route. This impressive 5,000-year-old long barrow occupies a remote, ghostly setting seemingly miles from civilisation. According to legend, Wayland's Smithy got its name from the Norse god, Wayland the Smith, who made shoes for the White Horse. Crowning Whitehorse Hill is Uffington Castle, an Iron-Age hill fort situated high on the Ridgeway, Britain's oldest road. The hill fort covers about 8 acres (3ha) and is enclosed by a rampart and a deep outer ditch.

What to look for

All Saints Church at Woolstone is a lovely chalk-built church. Inside you'll find a lead font and some striking 20th-century Stations of the Cross. During the Second World War, a German bomb blew out all the windows. Close by is the tiny village of Compton Beauchamp, with its Tudor and Georgian manor house (not open to the public).

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