The history of Chilterns chalk figures

The history of Chilterns chalk figures

With the Chilterns Chalk Festival well underway, we thought we’d share the history behind some of the chalk figures cut into hills across the Chilterns.

A hill figure is a large symbol, often of a human or animal, that has been cut into a hillside. Turf and soil are removed from the hillside to expose the underlying bedrock, often chalk or limestone, so that it contrasts with the surrounding grassland.

Hill figures are often interpreted as religious or ritualistic symbols and vary in date from the Late Bronze Age to the 20th century.

In more modern times, hill figures have been carved for public enjoyment, such as the Whipsnade white lion in the northern Chilterns.

We thought we share more about three of our well known chalk figures: Whiteleaf Cross, Bledlow Cross and the Whipsnade lion.

Whiteleaf Cross

On the western slope of Whiteleaf Hill, overlooking the town of Monks Risborough, sits Whiteleaf Cross, a 100m chalk figure cross and Neolithic barrow (burial mound). First noted in 1742, by Francis Wise, its full history is unknown and the subject of much local speculation. An iconic feature to locals of the central Chilterns, the cross can be seen across the Vale of Aylesbury and as far west as Headington Hill in Oxfordshire.

 

Image: Gerry Whitllow

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Bledlow Cross

A small chalk cross on Wain Hill in Bledlow, Buckinghamshire. Hidden by vegetation for decades, the cross will soon be visible once again when scrub clearance at the site is complete.

Considered by antiquarians to be Saxon in date, there is no material evidence to support this; a restoration project managed by the Chilterns National Landscape and supported by the Carington Estate, Chiltern Society, Chiltern Rangers and Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust is currently in the process of scientifically dating the cross’ origins and hopes to have results by summer 2024.

 

Image: Nick Christensen

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Whipsnade white lion

Ivinghoe Beacon , the oldest hillfort in the Chilterns and the trailhead for the Ridgeway National Trail, offers good views of the Whipsnade chalk lion. Created in 1933 to indicate the location of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, the figure was covered with netting, turf, and paint to obscure it from enemy aircraft during the second world war. The well-maintained chalk lion is home to a small colony of wallabies and often illuminated to celebrate occasions, like the zoo’s 50th anniversary in 1981.

 

Image: Chris Smith

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Chalk figures are an important part of Chilterns heritage, and our Chilterns Heritage and Archaeology Partnership (CHAP) is working to restore and preserve archaeological sites across the Chilterns, including the Bledlow Cross chalk figure.

CHAP will be the driving force in the conservation and sustainable management of heritage and archaeological assets in the Chilterns, working in partnership with organisations and local communities throughout the National Landscape.

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