Alton Barnes White Horse illuminated for Salisbury Festival

2 Jul

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It was, commented our friends from the city, like a scene from The Wicker Man: country folk in a midsummer’s torchlit procession through the middle of nowhere to the sounds of drums and horns to set a horse on fire.

Braving wind and heavy rain, around 100 spectators trudged the mile from the village of Alton Barnes to the foot of Mark Hill – the joint-highest hill in Wiltshire at 294m – where one of the county’s eight surviving landmark White Horses has galloped in chalk for 200 years.

As darkness fell we stood, shivered and prayed to the gods, old and new, for a break in the weather while the 50-metre-long horse was illuminated: first its body in swirling patterns of brilliant white lights, and then its outline in the warm glow of yellow flame.

For observers it was an investment of a couple of post-pub hours. For the organisers it was the culmination of 15 months work – a temporary art installation by artist Dave Chadwick and the West Yorkshire-based pa-BOOM co-operative of artists, sculptors, designers and technicians.

The event was part of the Salisbury International Arts Festival and also marked the 200th anniversary of the carving of the horse at Alton Barnes.

An historic tradition of illuminating the horse on each winter solstice was rekindled in 2001, although not so spectacularly – hardy volunteers use lanterns and tea lights to bring the horse to life.

The illumination, which culminated in an explosion of white fireworks, was one of two in the area – the White Horse at Roundway near Devizes was lit in similar, spectacular fashion at the same time as part of the Devizes Festival.

By Chronicler Pete

WE TWO chroniclers plus three friends debated whether we wanted to leave the comfort of The Barge Inn at Honeystreet (that fantastically named village along the canal from Pewsey, Wiltshire) to join the procession to the illuminations.

It was the first time we’d been in there since it had become a community owned pub (as featured on BBC’s Village SOS) and it was packed. We each had seats, a lovely view of the white horse, good cider was on tap (literally), we were enjoying the crop circle ceiling mural and outside it was alternating between heavy rain splashing into the Kennet & Avon and late evening sun.

However, the live music entertainment wanted our spot so, foisted into the open air, we stuck to Plan A and made for the horse.

Hardy families of old and very young made their way up the hill accompanied by a band. We marvelled over the crop circle – or crop shape – in the wheat field bordering our walk. This may have been our fancy, spurred on by the ambiance of The Barge. The dramatic clouds were fantastic, so much better than a sludgy grey overhanging of rain, and the galloping hill horse already had promising looking circles of white light surrounding it.

After a while, the live music, the lanterns and waiting for the the horse to (very slowly) light up soon lost its appeal in the face of an increasingly soggy coat and a very achey lower back, so I trudged to the car, leaving the others to it.

I was nearly at the bottom of the hill when the fireworks shot up. The finished illumination of reds, whites and blues was quite a beautiful sight. What a delight it must be to unsuspecting passing motorists and local residents. Or maybe those stumbling out of The Barge thought the aliens had moved on from flattening crops.

By Chronicler Louisa

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