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Restoration of the Osmington White Horse, Dorset

Background

The Osmington White Horse is the only chalk-cut white horse in England that also has a rider. It lies on the south face of the South Dorset Ridgeway about 5km north-east of Weymouth, and though it takes its name from its location above the village of Osmington, it is a major landmark of the Weymouth area. The figure is protected as a Scheduled Monument (Dorset M746).

In the late 18th century Weymouth was a popular holiday destination for King George III and his court, and their presence spurred the development of the town as a resort. In consequence, in 1808 John Ranier (brother of Admiral Peter Ranier), James Hamilton (a local architect), and local landowner Robert Serrell Wood decided to honour the king by creating a figure on the hillside depicting him riding his favourite charger. Sadly, due to illness, the King was unable to return to Weymouth and therefore did not see this mark of loyalty by his subjects.

Project initiation

Concerns about the condition of the Osmington White Horse had been raised by many parties over the years, and there was a realisation that the Monument would be in the limelight when Weymouth and Portland hosted the sailing events of the 2012 Olympics. So, in 2008 John Hayes, Senior Ranger of the Dorset County Council Countryside Service, formed a small group to discuss how best to restore the Monument. It was soon realised that there were many others who wished to be involved, and indeed had been discussing the matter themselves, and in 2009 the Osmington White Horse Restoration Group was formed. This group’s current members include representatives of the Osmington Society, West Dorset District Council, English Heritage, the Dorset AONB Partnership, Dorset County Council’s Countryside and Historic Environment Services, and the Monument’s owners, Mr and Mrs Critchell.

Funding sources

The work was largely made possible by a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme grant given by Natural England to the site’s owners , and their own work in the introduction of grazing on the hillside around the monument has helped to keep scrub growth in check and reduced the spread of the greyish Tor Grass which was having an adverse impact on the definition of the Monument against the hillside. English Heritage also contributed funding through the Dorset Monument Management Scheme. All bodies involved also made significant contributions of staff time to the project.

Aims

To restore the figure, and ensure its long term management.

Work done, results and lessons learned

The Group took the approach that in order to ‘restore’ the figure, it was first necessary to understand how it had changed. A call was sent out to local people for old images of the White Horse, and a sequence of postcards and other pictures, together with maps, gave a chronology extending back to the 1880s. In summary, this showed that although there had been various minor changes, the Monument had retained its shape well from the 1880s until the Second World War. An eccentric ‘restoration’ that involved the addition of lots of extra features took place around 1950, but these features were removed within a decade or so. The White Horse then began to lose its shape around 1980, and had generally deteriorated since.

Osmington White Horse - cadets removing limestone scalpings. Permission S Wallis, Dorset CC.

Comparisons were also made with other chalk-cut figures, but it seemed that each was a unique case. Lessons could be learned from them, but there was no easy-to-follow blueprint that could be used for the Osmington White Horse.Research showed that keeping the figure visible has entailed management work by many different people and organisations over the two centuries of its existence. There are references to ‘scouring’ the figure, and presumably for much of its history local people ‘weeded’ it, ‘freshened’ its appearance by scraping the surface, occasionally added chalk from elsewhere, and cut back any vegetation impinging on the edges. Those undertaking the work did not necessarily have the knowledge and expertise to ‘restore’ the figure to an exact earlier shape, and in some cases they added their own interpretations to it.

The best-known and most recent ‘management event’ took place for the ‘Challenge Anneka’ programme in 1989. On this occasion, the figure was covered in Portland stone scalpings, provided by a Portland quarry. This work has been much criticised since, but discussion with those involved has shown that much prior research was undertaken, current expert opinion was followed and that there was a precedent in a similar exercise in the 1950s.

There were past references to limewashing of the figure, but in early 2010 a trial involving the application of limewash to selected small areas showed that this was not now useable. It was difficult to apply limewash to the surface, and it was susceptible to damage by grazing cattle (and probably vandalism).

Osmington White Horse - removal of limestone scalpings. Permission: S Wallis, Dorset CC.

The Group agreed that the limestone scalpings should be removed. They were often grey, especially when wet, which worsened the definition of the figure, and some had trickled down the hillside, further distorting the outline. During summer and autumn 2010, 160 tonnes of these scalpings were removed from the figure. This was achieved with assistance from local businesses and by volunteers from a local Royal Engineers Training Unit, Dorset Army Cadets and a RN Sea King helicopter, along with contracted helicopter and ground removal services. It then became clear that further expertise was needed to define the exact outline to which the figure should be restored. The Ordnance Survey and the English Heritage Archaeological Survey & Investigation team kindly offered their expertise in the matter. So, during the first half of 2011, experts from both bodies carried out extensive research on the monument’s original outline using sources including oil paintings from the Georgian period, old photographs and Ordnance Survey maps dating back to 1883, on-site analysis of earthworks, and use of the latest GPS and mapping technologies. A very clear 1947 aerial photograph was chosen as the blueprint for the outline restoration.

The ‘restored’ outline was located on the ground using GPS technology, and was marked out in yellow eco-friendly paint. In parts this outline differed significantly from the present figure, and during summer 2011 a wide variety of volunteer groups was involved in cutting back (and occasionally infilling) of the White Horse’s outline. The Ordnance Survey has now included the restored outline on its official maps.

Redefining the figure July 2011: Pete Addison (EH), Jon Horgan (OS) and Stewart Ainsworth (EH) removing the eye. Permission: S Wallis, Dorset CC.

From the start, the Osmington White Horse Restoration Group wanted not just a temporary solution to the restoration, but to get the Monument into a condition where relatively limited, but regular, maintenance could keep it in good condition. The Group believes that this has been achieved, and a management plan for future maintenance is almost complete.

The Group has undertaken a variety of related work. Much additional research on the history of the figure has been undertaken, most by a local historian. It is hoped that a new viewing point can be constructed beside the A353 that runs north-east from Weymouth. Also, there has been a great deal of outreach – the Osmington Society covered the work in great detail and with a considerable professionalism on its website, and walks and talks are given.

A significant element of the Group’s work now and for the future has been to give people reasonable expectations of the restoration. Removal of the scalpings showed that the surface beneath was not pure white chalk, but a mix of chalk and various subsoils of a variety of hues from near-white through a variety of greys and browns. Despite what was etched in many people’s memories when they saw the horse on sunny days during childhood holidays, it is only from certain angles and in certain lights that the White Horse looks white, and it will always be so.

Further information

For more details and photographs see the restoration web site.

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