John Rocque, one of London’s most famous cartographers, had a print shop near White Horse Street in Mayfair. The street takes its name from a royal emblem used in tavern signs; this was from the royal house of Hanover, which adopted a galloping white horse, dating from the accession of George I in 1714. The sign itself, however, was in use long before that as the emblem of ancient Saxons and, later, the emblem of Kent.
There are several chalk figures – mainly horses – in the UK, carved into hillsides; although they are not uncommon, only a handful have been dated before 1700. One of the oldest (possibly the oldest) and most famous is in the Vale of the White Horse at Uffington in Oxfordshire.
The age of this horse is uncertain: it was once said to commemorate the victory of King Alfred over the Danes in 871, but it dates back long before that – some say to at least 50 BC. It does not look very much like a horse, and its lines are suggestive of prehistoric cave drawings.
Two notable points about the white horse are that it is the only hillside figure to face to the right, and one of its legs is in the wrong position. Because it is cut on a slope, the earth continually moves from the top of the horse and settles at the bottom, giving rise to the legend that ‘While men sleep the horse climbs up the hill’.
Two of the most famous authors to have immortalized this horse were GK Chesterton and Thomas Hughes. Chesterton wrote the ‘Ballad of the White Horse’ which draws on the story of Alfred and the Danes. Alfred rides past the hill,
“And when he came to White Horse Down
The Great White Horse was grey
For it was ill scoured of the meed,
And lichen and thorn could crawl and feed
Since the foes of settled house and creed
Had swept old works away”
Hughes mentions the horse in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and it is the centre of his 1857 book The Scouring of the White Horse, which describes the festivities surrounding the cleaning of the figure. The tradition of scouring is an old one whereby the neighbouring residents were responsible for keeping the grass from growing over the horse; when Hughes wrote about it in 1857 it was a revival of the old custom.
One of the stories behind the horse is that it commemorates St George’s slaying of the dragon; a smaller mound near to the horse – Dragon Hill – is free of growth on its top and has twisting trails of chalk down the side which are equally bare. This is supposed to be where the dragon’s venomous blood was spilled and trickled down the side, so that nothing could grow there.
Not related to the street, but to white horses: it was at an country inn called the White Horse that George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, spent his last few years.