Part One: In Search of Gogmagog
by Pattie Lawler
The topic of hill figures, for anyone who
has looked into them to any degree, is a bittersweet theme. When I began
my own research I was, frankly, uneducated. I learned about hill figures
as I learned how to research. Removed from my subject by an entire ocean
made any mental images I had lush and inviting. Yet nothing can prepare
a person, laboring in obscurity, for the mental, as well as the physical,
reaction when confronted by the object of your desire live and in person.
White Horses abound in Englands chalk-rich Salisbury Plains, and a slim
finger of this chalk reaches as far afield as Cambridge to the west, and Plymouth
to the south. Both of these two cities have had their own hill figures, but
both had Giants, not Horses. Sadly, both have also lost their chalk figures
to the whims of time and fashion. The two figures purportedly in Plymouth
were of Romano-British folklore, but the ones in Cambridge were pure British.
When I first learned of the figure in Cambridge I could not find an exact
location. I have a friend in the area, and I questioned her, but she also
had no clue. When I finally did find a reference in a guidebook, the book
was more interested in the local golf course than in mentioning the figures
so the entry was only 2 lines long. But it was enough.
The figure of Gogmagog, now lost, once stretched Her/His length on the side
of a hill that was, at one point, part of an Iron Age hill fort. The area
has had an active history and its fame doesnt end with the hill figureLord
Godolphin, famed for the Goldolphin Arabian, housed his horses on this reclaimed
hill fort. The impressive stables still stand but the only mention of the
lost figures is on the first placard you encounter when entering this National
In the early 1950s a maverick archaeologist named T.C. Lethbridge
went on a private quest to locate and reclaim the figure. His method was considered
unorthodox in the extreme and as a result the scientific authorities largely
ignored his research. While I find this both sad and understandable it doesnt
lessen the impact his giants lovely figure has on the casual visitor.
Described as moon faced, Lethbridges Gogmagog gazes out
at you from Her hillside as if you just startled Her. One of Her hands stretches
gently forward, to touch the head of the horse She is riding, and the other
seemingly wraps around what has been called both an apple and a breast. Lethbridge
said he found remains of offerings at the base of this curve, mostly in the
form of libations which stained the white soil.
You may, at this point, be wondering why this figure is still considered lost.
What Lethbridge discovered/created began wonderfully well as Iron Age art
goes. I have portrayed this mesmerizing Goddess to Her waist (see cover),
which is pretty much where Her loveliness ends. Convoluted lines, which were
described even at that time as resembling runoff tracks, make up Her lower
limbs, as well as the horses legs. Over Her head shines a huge, canoe-like
crescent moon and beyond that a man, bare to the waist, brandishes
a sword. To say this hill is populated is an understatement.
Lets back up for a moment in time and pretend. Lets imagine this
hill fort in its glory. It doesnt command that excellent a view, and
even if it were denuded thats not to assume the other local hills were
as well. However, like the most famous of the hill figures, the Uffington
White Horse, this Cambridge group has every necessary element. Both sites
boast a hill fort from the Iron Age. Both sites have a conical, flat-topped
hill beside it, as if for better viewing the hill figure. Both of these viewing
platforms are in some way connected to a dragon. At Uffington the hill is
called Dragon Hill and reputedly St George slew his dragon there (and where
the beasts blood fell no grass will growthis is meant to explain
the large bare patch on the crown of the hill.) At Cambridge, the hill, which
is completely covered with trees, is called Wormwood Hill. Sadly I can find
no local lore regarding its name but even the barest research will tell you
that Worm and Dragon are the same thing.
Last of all, both sites have their chalk hill figure. The Uffington Horse,
however, is on a virtual cliff, and Gogmagogs hill isnt steep
enough to effectively roll down if you were so inclined. (Good pun, no?)
Bottom line? Cambridge, as a comparison, falls flat . . . literally.
The first time I went to the site, back in 1989, it took a bit of time to
locate the figures. We were a party of four and frankly I was expecting something
akin to Uffington. The sad reality was that we had to fan out over the hill
and watch our feet as we walked down, looking for the figure. When we regrouped,
after coming up empty, I asked my little sister, Maggie, what she was standing
in that made her shorter than the rest of us. She leapt straight up in horror
and we instantly realized we were, indeed, standing on the face of the Goddess.
Maggie had been standing in the outline of one of Her eyes. About 20 minutes
later we had flattened enough of the grass to see Her better.
Really, truly, She is lovely. I have visited her many times since that first
day, and I never tire of going. There is serenity in Her countenance that
naturally calms frazzled, jet-lagged nerves. As an object of veneration...well,
yes, my friends and I have left many and various offerings on the site, both
to Her as Genius Loci and as Mother Goddess.
This incarnation of Gogmagog is off the beaten path, in a corner of England
that seldom sees anything other than Roman ghosts and golfers. I dont
wish She had more visitors, as it would take away from my time with Her. I
have no doubt those seeking Her out will agree with me. Let the guidebooks
keep their two line entries and well enjoy the face time with this Goddess
of England past.