Part One: In Search of Gogmagog
by Pattie Lawler

The topic of hill figures, for anyone who has looked into them to any degree, is a bittersweet theme. When I began my own research I was, frankly, uneducated. I learned about hill figures as I learned how to research. Removed from my subject by an entire ocean made any mental images I had lush and inviting. Yet nothing can prepare a person, laboring in obscurity, for the mental, as well as the physical, reaction when confronted by the object of your desire live and in person.

White Horses abound in England’s chalk-rich Salisbury Plains, and a slim finger of this chalk reaches as far afield as Cambridge to the west, and Plymouth to the south. Both of these two cities have had their own hill figures, but both had Giants, not Horses. Sadly, both have also lost their chalk figures to the whims of time and fashion. The two figures purportedly in Plymouth were of Romano-British folklore, but the ones in Cambridge were pure British.
When I first learned of the figure in Cambridge I could not find an exact location. I have a friend in the area, and I questioned her, but she also had no clue. When I finally did find a reference in a guidebook, the book was more interested in the local golf course than in mentioning the figures so the entry was only 2 lines long. But it was enough.

The figure of Gogmagog, now lost, once stretched Her/His length on the side of a hill that was, at one point, part of an Iron Age hill fort. The area has had an active history and its fame doesn’t end with the hill figure—Lord Godolphin, famed for the Goldolphin Arabian, housed his horses on this reclaimed hill fort. The impressive stables still stand but the only mention of the lost figures is on the first placard you encounter when entering this National Trust site.

In the early 1950s a ‘maverick’ archaeologist named T.C. Lethbridge went on a private quest to locate and reclaim the figure. His method was considered unorthodox in the extreme and as a result the scientific authorities largely ignored his research. While I find this both sad and understandable it doesn’t lessen the impact his giant’s lovely figure has on the casual visitor.

Described as ‘moon faced,’ Lethbridge’s Gogmagog gazes out at you from Her hillside as if you just startled Her. One of Her hands stretches gently forward, to touch the head of the horse She is riding, and the other seemingly wraps around what has been called both an apple and a breast. Lethbridge said he found remains of offerings at the base of this curve, mostly in the form of libations which stained the white soil.
You may, at this point, be wondering why this figure is still considered ‘lost.’ What Lethbridge discovered/created began wonderfully well as Iron Age art goes. I have portrayed this mesmerizing Goddess to Her waist (see cover), which is pretty much where Her loveliness ends. Convoluted lines, which were described even at that time as resembling runoff tracks, make up Her lower limbs, as well as the horse’s legs. Over Her head shines a huge, canoe-like crescent ‘moon’ and beyond that a man, bare to the waist, brandishes a sword. To say this hill is populated is an understatement.

Let’s back up for a moment in time and pretend. Let’s imagine this hill fort in its glory. It doesn’t command that excellent a view, and even if it were denuded that’s not to assume the other local hills were as well. However, like the most famous of the hill figures, the Uffington White Horse, this Cambridge group has every necessary element. Both sites boast a hill fort from the Iron Age. Both sites have a conical, flat-topped hill beside it, as if for better viewing the hill figure. Both of these viewing platforms are in some way connected to a dragon. At Uffington the hill is called Dragon Hill and reputedly St George slew his dragon there (and where the beast’s blood fell no grass will grow—this is meant to explain the large bare patch on the crown of the hill.) At Cambridge, the hill, which is completely covered with trees, is called Wormwood Hill. Sadly I can find no local lore regarding its name but even the barest research will tell you that Worm and Dragon are the same thing.

Last of all, both sites have their chalk hill figure. The Uffington Horse, however, is on a virtual cliff, and Gogmagog’s hill isn’t steep enough to effectively roll down if you were so inclined. (Good pun, no?)
Bottom line? Cambridge, as a comparison, falls flat . . . literally.

The first time I went to the site, back in 1989, it took a bit of time to locate the figures. We were a party of four and frankly I was expecting something akin to Uffington. The sad reality was that we had to fan out over the hill and watch our feet as we walked down, looking for the figure. When we regrouped, after coming up empty, I asked my little sister, Maggie, what she was standing in that made her shorter than the rest of us. She leapt straight up in horror and we instantly realized we were, indeed, standing on the face of the Goddess. Maggie had been standing in the outline of one of Her eyes. About 20 minutes later we had flattened enough of the grass to see Her better.
Really, truly, She is lovely. I have visited her many times since that first day, and I never tire of going. There is serenity in Her countenance that naturally calms frazzled, jet-lagged nerves. As an object of veneration...well, yes, my friends and I have left many and various offerings on the site, both to Her as Genius Loci and as Mother Goddess.

This incarnation of Gogmagog is off the beaten path, in a corner of England that seldom sees anything other than Roman ghosts and golfers. I don’t wish She had more visitors, as it would take away from my time with Her. I have no doubt those seeking Her out will agree with me. Let the guidebooks keep their two line entries and we’ll enjoy the face time with this Goddess of England past.

Next Issue—Part Two!