Although lacking the phallic endowment of Dorset’s more famous Cerne Abbas Giant, Wilmington’s Long Man is larger, more elegant, and more dramatic in his understated but powerful simplicity. Appearing ‘long’ from the air, his proportions are corrected when viewed from the ground, and it is by walking past at the foot of the South Downs escarpment that his majesty and mystery is best appreciated.
His origins are now lost in myth and folklore. Bronze and Iron Age history haunts this sharp crest of the downs, and a major Iron Age hill fort can still be made out on Mount Caburn, back towards Lewes. However, the earliest clear reference to Mr Wilmington is in a surveyor’s drawing from 1710. At that time he is likely to have been made of packed chalk, grassed over, and only visible in certain lights or after snow.
Any prehistoric creation is mere conjecture. Even Roman coins (not local) showing a similar figure holding two staves prove nothing – the image of a man holding two weapons, or two tools, is commonplace. One theory suggests monks from the local priory cut him some time between the 11th and the 15th centuries.
In 1874, his shape was highlighted with yellow bricks, but later archaeological surveys suggest facial features and a helmeted head have been lost. The present white outline is a series of 770 painted concrete blocks, laid out in 1969. But there is still debate as to which way his feet should point, or whether the poles were hammers, sickles, spears or rakes.
A delightful way to appreciate the giant’s pagan symbolism is to combine him with a walk past some of the hidden villages, with their ancient churches, which richly punctuate the area.
The stout, broad, unbuttressed, square tower of St Andrew’s church in Jevington used to be thought Saxon, but may have been greatly altered after the Norman Conquest. In the 1970s, it used to house a feral honeybee colony. Like all the old buildings in this area, the red Sussex tiles contrast with the pale mortar and flint walls. Backtrack up the road north and take the Wealdway, across the foothills of the downs.
The tiny St Peter ad Vincula in Folkington is a typical squat flint and stone Norman church, with a small and slightly lopsided wooden tower. Dating, mostly, from the mid 13th century, it has been added to and adapted over the centuries. It is set in an equally tiny graveyard, with leaning stones and, during summer, a riot of long grass and wildflowers.
The way now heads east through woodland at the edge of Folkington Manor. Skirting the low edge of the steep downland slope, it turns the corner after a mile or so, and his mysteriousness, the chalk man, comes into view.
The path then heads away, north, into Wilmington village. Paradoxically, the further away from the figure you get, the more imposing he becomes.
The old priory
The remains of Wilmington Priory are now incorporated into a private house, owned by the Landmark Trust and not open to the public, but the 12th- and 13th-century church of St Mary and St Peter is close by. Its low flint walls are topped by another short wooden, but more regular, steeple. A severe fire in 2002 destroyed some of the interior, but restoration is still ongoing. The ancient yew in the graveyard, supported by many wooden props, is claimed to be 1,600 years old, possibly predating the famous chalk giant.
The walk back takes the tail end of the South Downs Way, right across the tops of the hills and past the equally mysterious tumulus burial mounds and long barrows of Windover Hill. They are, perhaps, more ancient still.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ten miles from Lewes; take the A27 Eastbourne Road, go straight across at the Alfriston roundabout, and after 1½ miles the Wilmington turning is to the right. Alternatively, on a further mile is the Folkington turning, which dead-ends at the village church. For this walk, continue into Polegate, take the A2270 Eastbourne Road, but almost immediately take a right on to the Friston road, and pass through Filching to Jevington.
FIND OUT MORE
The Long Man of Wilmington
Discover more about the history of this mysterious figure.
The Sussex Ox
Image: © Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence