Alex has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide. Here is a little snippet of a very special place in his world.
Harvest Time at the Long Man By Alex Askaroff
I took this picture just as the harvest was completed in August 2007. It shows the Wilmington Giant in full splendour. I Have a lot of history on the Giant in my Alfriston Guide. Much of it personally researched and unique. It is well worth a read if you love ghosts and history. The Neolithic flint mines and long Barrows are just above his head over the brow.
The Long Man of Wilmington
Six miles north-west of Eastbourne, Ordinance Survey TQ543034. Looked after by the Archaeological Society since 1925 after it was gifted by the Duke of Devonshire and painted regularly by the Long Man Morris men. Right, that's enough of the tech stuff I remember the Scouts painting him.
I am going to take you up the small hill past the remains of the old Priory to what is now a car park to describe our local giant. This is where we get the best view of our white giant clothed in green. After living near him and visiting him all my life I will tell you everything I have ever learnt about the mystical old man of the downs. Don’t be scared he does not bite! He always looks his best with the afternoon sun on him. What is his name I hear you ask? He is now called The Long Man of Wilmington. What his real name was has been lost through the folds of time.
Stare toward the rising sun and see me stride,
What we know of our
local giant is scatty to say the least. I have to ask
many questions in this piece but I do answer most of them.
What we know of our local giant is scatty to say the least. I have to ask many questions in this piece but I do answer most of them.
There are a hundred different
theories that have come up over the years. The first documentation of
him discovered so far comes from an illustration
in 1710 and what a different character
he was, hair, eyes, armed with tools or weapons and a beard.
There are a hundred different theories that have come up over the years. The first documentation of him discovered so far comes from an illustration in 1710 and what a different character he was, hair, eyes, armed with tools or weapons and a beard.
So we must ask ourselves how old is our mighty man? Because of the regular maintenance of his outline over the years it is impossible to date him using traditional methods. Also, in the summer of early 1870's the Archaeological Trust decided to enhance his outline with white painted bricks and re-cut his outline. Did they enhance or change it?
Reading University have dated him to around 1545 but it that really just educated speculation?
The great King is dead. With his
Death of Edward the Confessor
There are so many clues to our Giant. I mean, you could date the local finds from the Neolithic, Bronze, Iron, Roman or just about any other age. Because what we see is not original but inspired and built over the original. Consequently it is mostly educated guess work. The famous actor Dirk Bogarde spent several happy years around this area as a child as in his biography, Great Meadow, he puts the Long Man of Wilmington as seventh century.
Something of interest is that at the base of The Old Man there were several hand-cut large chalk blocks scattered around. they were roughly hewn out into a rectangular form and you can make out the chisel marks on a few. They are rare now but in the summer of 2009 there were still a few there. Too heavy for tourists to steal. These were probably from the original Giant. In 2012 there were just two left that I could find.
Before the renovations The Long Man of Wilmington would go unseen for long periods of time as the grass grew around him and hid him. However this is magical... When locals would be working in the fields and the light and wind would be just right, they would look up and see the giant appear and disappear with the breeze; it must have given the magnificent old man of the hills a truly mystical touch. Can you imagine an early pilgrim on his way to one cathedral or another monument looking up as the wind moved the grass away from his outline on the hill revealing a huge giant. Then no sooner than he stares in amazement it is gone!
We must wonder why people would make such a giant?
Lets look at the facts. The facts are simple. He is almost 230 feet (70 m) tall and carved out of the chalk hillside with a significant degree of skill. His West Staff is actually five feet longer for some reason. His amazing shape becomes apparent from standing close at the base of our giant. The proportions are so cleverly devised that, from a distance, he is a very good outline of a human and you do not realise how huge he is until you are right next to him. When you are at his feet he is almost invisible against the hillside. Who managed to carve that so beautifully?
Standing at his feet looking up you can see that he has been elongated on the sloping hillside. He is one of the largest representations of the human figure in the world and the tallest in Europe. Not bad, eh?
Is he an ancient god or a giant that lived long ago? Is he holding staves, divining rods, measuring staffs, or battle staffs? Could he even be holding open the gates to another world? Could he be striding across the swollen River Cuckmere, with his staves for support, to rescue villagers from a great flood? The Cuckmere valley has a tidal river, at its centre, that is prone to flooding. Strangely both his feet used to point outwards but someone moved his left foot!
St Christopher, the Roman saint, used staves to cross swollen rivers and in May the light is perfect for our giant. May is the traditional celebration for St Christopher and the Cuckmere basin regularly floods.
Was he carved to pacify old demons, an ancient deity or was he carved to celebrate a grand victory or just as a local hero or simply to ensure a healthy harvest? There are certainly many more questions of him than answers available. But if you are ever there as the sun drops, and Windover Hill becomes dark against the night sky, there is a magic in the air, a power, that you can feel through your very bones.
He is set into an unnaturally flat-topped North-facing hillside that has been flattened and lays at 28 degrees. The Giant lays on a slightly concave mound in a larger convex hillside that has superb acoustics rather like an amphitheatre in ancient Greece. Being concave he is visible from much larger angles than if he were flat. It all looks too well planned to be a simple piece of work like the White Horse carving a little further down the lane.
I love this image that I took. Someone has added a smile, eyes and a little willy then had a fire to celebrate! The local council soon removed the extras.
We know that just above The long Man of Wilmington there are old flint pits used by Neolithic man and a chalk pit used by the Romans to make their favourite building ingredient, concrete. There are flint pits above him and even older Bronze age Long-Barrows on Windover Hill. Also to the left of the Giant are more chalk pits. So we can see all around that humans have been busy.
The Long-Barrows above the Long Man of Wilmington are from the Bronze Age. Some say that the largest Long Barrow in Sussex must have something to do with our giant, even though that would mean he over 1,500 years older than some say he is. This makes sense when you think about it. If people were going to take the time to build a great burial mound upon a high place to an ancient chieftain, why not mark the special place with a giant protector as well.
Then we have the Romans. Did they make an outline of one of their great emperors to impress the locals? Did a marauding Viking army carve out one of their warring gods to frighten the population for miles around. Did Odin walk amongst us in days of old!
Arthur Beckett studied the Giant in great detail and surmised that he may be from the ancient Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Apparently there is a great similarity between our giant and the figure of Beowulf on a bonze in Torslunda, Sweden. In the Beowulf saga he fought a she-wolf armed with a spear in each hand.
Could the hillside have been made so flat while flints were mined, leaving a blank landscape just itching for an enthusiastic artist to create a giant? Could a few of the monks from the abbey be filling in some spare time by carving out a giant? Interestingly the Giant does pick up the sun at different times of the year leading a few to surmise that he was actually a solar almanac.
The truth is that the list is endless. You could get a wonderful selection of quite plausible answers by going to a pre-school classroom and asking all the children where he came from.
J E Ray suggested that the earliest known drawing, in The Burrell Museum, of our Giant shows him holding a scythe and stave and may be a depiction of a Saxon haymaker.
When the stone blocks were put in they dug up a lot of Roman pottery and that gave some credence to the old legend that the giant was placed above the grave of a Roman general killed in battle in Anderida. They say that his grave was covered with golden artefacts. hey where's my spade and metal detector!
If this even had an thread of truth the whole place would have been dug to nothing by the Victorians whole loved nothing more than a picnic and a dig long before the protection of such ancient monuments.
Fertility rites at the Long Man
There is one, rather rude, point worth mentioning. If you happen to see The Long Man early in the morning after a sharp frost, a rather impressive appendage appears, showing that his original form was far more revealing than his present one. It disappears quite quickly. I have only seen it three times in 40 years. Over the years he has often been defaced or rather repainted by visitors in the night that have added his grand assets back. Are they subconsciously putting him back to how he really did look? He was not as prominent as the Cerene Abbas Giant but not bad!
If he was originally a well-endowed fellow then he certainly would not have been carved in the prim and proper Victorian era when showing an ankle was deemed inappropriate, let alone his six-foot (2m) attribute! Also, to back this theory up, when the Australian and New Zealand troops were stationed at nearby Peacehaven (Peacehaven was formerly known as New ANZACS -because of the Australian and New Zealand troops), many of the soldiers who helped clear local scrub and downland went back and told their families of the giant that, when properly cleared, included his full manhood. And why would old descriptions of him say He stands naked before the shires? Even Kipling used this phrase. Now that his 'ding-a-ling' has been removed we can state that the Long Man had an early sex change?
During WWII our giant was camouflaged for a period to avoid the enemy using him as a landmark but was soon sparkling again with a coat of white road paint. Before he was covered up a reconnaissance aircraft took a picture of him showing his large appendage in its full glory! So it is on record.
In 1874 the Reverend William De St Croix marked out the Giants rough outline in yellow painted bricks but they were replaced in 1891 with white ones. You can get a picture of the amount of work going on here. Every few years there is someone renovating the old chap.
In 1969, just before earlier bricks were replaced with concrete blocks, archaeological digs by Reading University pronounced that the old man of the hill could be no more than early 1600's. However in near Lake Onega in Russia there is a bronze age rock sculpture of similarity.
Some say the giant is non other than Odin, others call him Baldur, son of mighty Odin (Woden in Saxon).
Interestingly many Roman coins depict a similar giant!
For every one of the
names and opinions there is an opposite idea, so the quest goes on.
White witches—the friendly sort that have strong roots with mother earth, Gia—have held ceremonies at the foot of the our Old Man of the downs, as have the Druids. Presently celebrations are held on the closest Sunday to the eight Wiccan Sabbats throughout the year. The biggest are Beltaine or May Day and Lughnasadh or Lammas Day when people give thanks to nature for her bounty and life.
On May Day the Long Man Morris Men mark their dancing season start by a special dance performed at dawn at the foot of the Old Man of the downs.
There are plenty that believe he has healing powers and many have claimed our Long Man as their own. Making love on the Giant is supposed to bring you a child of your choice!
In my mind I have no doubt that he is of ancient origin but proving if he is 500 or 5,000 years old is a impossible task. I have seen him, all of my life, lying quietly in the soft green of the downland and serenely gazing over the farmlands below. He watches us, as we rush through our hectic lives, as no more than ants below his feet.
If you ever get the chance go and stand where the Old Man of the downs is and see what he sees. You will be looking at one of the most beautiful sights in Sussex. Be careful though as it is a steep climb. I remember getting to his head and turning around and a wave of vertigo flooded over me.
All around this area it is rich in pagan history. In Berwick churchyard, hardly a stone’s throw away, stands a pre-Christian worship stone. Neolithic man had their flint mines near this spot and their burial grounds, along with Bronze Age Long-Barrows which are dotted over the high places of the Downs.
Ancient man cleared the slopes of the forests thousands of years ago for fuel, shelter and tools leaving us the South Downs.
Let us sum up. So far we have Stone Age, Bronze Age, Roman, Viking, Middle Age, Georgian, Victorian and more, all responsible for our grass art!
My favourite fable comes from an early Celtic tale. Two giants, brothers, lived on the highest places of ancient Sussex, and elsewhere going by other tales. One at Firle Point, later to become Firle Beacon one at Windover Hill.
They were jealous and violent always arguing about who had the most land and who was the most powerful. They would grumpily survey their lands from these Sussex high-points and often hurl boulders at each other.
One day a furious row broke out over a grazing cow that had wandered from one giants land to the other. The hills thundered as they fought an epic battle which would finally prove who was the most powerful.
The Firle Giant seized his brother after beating him senseless with his hammer and hurled him high into the sky over the Downs. He fell onto the side of the hill, dead as a doornail. The local villagers, sad at the lose of their protector and scared that they would not have his protection anymore came up with a cunning plan. They painted his outline in the hill to scare away strangers.
The Firle Giant having no one to argue with simply sat on his hill-top and miserably faded away. Today he is no more than a large mound of grass atop Firle Beacon. Both Firle Beacon and Windover Hill have burial mounds or Long Barrows! How's that for a strange coincidence. Long Barrows were often called 'giants graves'.
Great story. Oh how I love the old stories that flow through this land like well-aged wine.
In my opinion the most likely origin of our giant is Celtic. I mean they had a harvest god called Lugus. He was very similar to our Giant, right down to the measuring staffs and spot on the time when the Celts were in this area. It is also interesting to note that one of their most religious Celtic trees, the yew, is in the churchyard. It is said to be one of the oldest yews in the world. Some say dating as far back as the fourth century AD.
The yew held great importance in the Celtic year and it has always been thought that the church was placed on a pre-Christian worship site. Because the yew berries are so poisonous yew trees were never planted where animal ate, leaving sacred sites like burial grounds one of the only places that these ancient trees flourished.
I do believe that ancient man gazed upon our giant, as we do today. There is just something mystical about the area where he lays. There is just too much going on there what with ancient burial sites, lay-lines, early settlements, Pre-Christian monuments, monks, churches, witches, and all.
our Giant's origins has been lost to us over the centuries and his secret history
is hidden, today our colossus stands proud as the
protector of these superb and ancient lands.
Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work.
I spend countless hours researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from
people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought.
Also if you have your own ideas I would love to hear them as well. What
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Fancy a good read: Ena Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires
All Alex's books are now on: www.crowsbooks.com
Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom