Brilliant Bank Holiday weather brought the crowds out in force, queuing up with their buckets and spades to scratch the surface of our old white horse in the traditional ‘Scouring’ ritual.
It is often said that the people of Uffington feel such a deep attachment to their mystical and mysterious charger, they eagerly perform the grooming job themselves. Perhaps this was true when Scouring was an excuse for a party with much drinking, dancing and cheese rolling. But the Victorians considered the terrain too steep for safe merry-making, and the party aspect of the event was discontinued. All that remains is the need to whiten the horse from time to time. Luckily there are plenty of parents keen to find things for their children to do over the Bank Holiday. Scouring used to be done once every seven years. The National Trust now welcomes its volunteer army of scourers every year. Things just don’t last the way they used to.
Mons Albi Equi. as an 11th century Abingdon chronicle calls it, is of uncertain significance, but science tells us the horse goes back to the Bronze Age. “3000 years, children: that’s 1000 grandmothers,” said the National Trust woman who supervised the operation with her two Labradors – off the lead, I was pleased to note – and explained the task: scrape away any stray soil and vegetable matter and make a firm bed on which loosely crushed fragments of new chalk can be spread. In this way rain water will filter and trickle through the chalk, not run down the horse’s spinal trench in a stream.
“Don’t you mean 100 grandmothers?” someone protested; or even 50, since one grandmother presumably means two generations. Perhaps the National Trust attracts operatives who are less good at maths than removing litter bins, driving anti-parking stakes in to the ground and putting up bossy notices saying ‘Passing Place, No Parking’ … ‘Keep your dog on a lead’ ….. ‘Keep off the horse’ … ‘No cycling’ etc
When we moved to Uffington ten years ago, there was none of this furniture on the hill, a gloriously open and uncluttered space considering its fame. The road was there, admittedly, cutting an ugly scar across the escarpment between the horse and the flat-topped spur known as Dragon’s Mount. But that was all. A few people parked in the small disabled car park at the top, but most used the main car park which is nicely tucked away behind a screen of trees.
Then came the moment when the National Trust convened a meeting to consult the village about its plan to start charging for the car park and defray its costs in looking after the hill. “Do not do this!” the villagers replied, with one loud and unambiguous voice. The machines will be vandalised. Extra maintenance will cost you more than you raise. Motorists will stop using the car park and park along the road instead, ruining the natural beauty of the site, destroying the grass verges, blocking the passing places and obliging you to install signs and preventive rocks and stakes. Why not just leave the hill alone?
Having consulted, the National Trust ignored. And the consequences have been exactly as predicted. Cars line the access road on a sunny day, as illustrated. In the absence of litter bins, the more conscientious members of the dog-owning public leave plastic bags full of excrement hanging from the anti-parking stakes and barbed wire fencing.
Still, we have much to be thankful for. The National Trust shows no sign of giving in to the loony lobby that wants to dig a horn and turn the horse in to a unicorn.