HANNAH CHAPMAN looks back at the history of a much-loved local landmark

MUCH is made of the sheer scale of the White Horse of Kilburn, with the proud boast that, at 67 metres high, it is the largest single hill figure in Britain due to its vast surface area of 6,475 square metres. But arguably, more than its size, its most impressive attribute is its longevity.

Cut into a remote hillside, on an extremely steep slope, with unsuitable soil and the wrong colour rock, the fact that it still shines so brightly above the vales of Mowbray, York and Pickering, is testament to the dedication of its keepers to its maintenance – often by hand.

The history of the horse goes back to the 1850s when Kilburn native Thomas Taylor came across some similar figures cut into the hills of Berkshire, and wrote of his discoveries to friend John Hodgson, the schoolmaster back in his home village, and suggested Roulston Scar would be a suitable site for a Yorkshire version. Hodgson took up the scheme with great enthusiasm, surveying the cliff side, and using his pupils to help plot out the shape. Volunteers from the village cut away the scrub to expose the rock, and the horse came into being in November 1857.

The stories of its creation, and the herculean efforts of villagers over the years to maintain it, are told in the book Kilburn’s White Horse. An updated third edition has just been published to raise funds for the refurbished Village Institute in Kilburn.

Its foreword has been written by Michelin-starred chef Tommy Banks, who grew up in the area, and whose late grandfather Fred was one of the leading lights in both the horse’s preservation and the recording of its history. “Just as the creation and the care of the horse has passed down the generations, so does the curation of the story of its making,” writes Tommy.

York Press: The White Horse of Kilburn in 1963The White Horse of Kilburn in 1963

One of the major challenges throughout the horse’s lifetime has been the weather, with parts washing down the hillside during storms – one morning in the 1960s it appeared as a grey giraffe when its legs were stretched into the car park below by a particularly heavy downpour.

Major fundraising appeals to rejuvenate the horse often took place prior to a coronation, the book recounts, while also telling of how it owes its existence to Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn, and of how its huge popularity used to see special bus trips run from across Yorkshire.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was popular to have a picnic in the horse’s vast eye, a pastime that fell by the wayside when walking on the horse itself was banned due to erosion. It has also been the subject of many practical jokes over the years, including being dressed as a zebra using strips of black plastic, while several jokers turned the mare into a stallion.

Sarah Banks, who, along with Philippa James and Graham Matthews, has worked on the new edition, tells how funding was so scare for the maintenance of the horse that her father Fred would sell pin badges in the car park at its feet to raise money – and tell all-comers of its history.

She adds: “Above all, it was rather a folly to put it there. It’s a wonderful position, but nothing else was in its favour in terms of the soil type and the colour. It was a constant burden for the people of Kilburn, but it was the pride that kept them going.”

York Press: A 2014 paint job on the White Horse of KilburnA 2014 paint job on the White Horse of Kilburn

The preface to the original 1995 edition was written by James Herriot author Alf Wight just days before he died. He described the White Horse as a “most magnificent enterprise” and added: “I find it difficult to describe the thrill I felt at the time, and it is something which has remained with me over the years.”

Peter Wright, star of Channel 5’s the Yorkshire Vet, who was mentored by Alf Wight and has been helping to promote the book, says: “Alf came here in 1940 and didn’t expect the wonderful countryside.


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“He knew what the Dales were like, but when he came to Kilburn to see a client for the first time, he realised that we had such magnificent countryside on our own doorstep, and particularly remarked on the White Horse.”

Forestry England took over the landmark’s direct management from the volunteer-run White Horse Association in 2018, and in August last year, took on its first painting of the horse, which required the application of 2,000 litres of paint.

So while the burden of the White Horse’s care has been lifted from the community, the pride in its existence remains.

“Coming back north on the train, if I’ve been away, when I see the White Horse, I breathe a sigh of relief and say ‘I’m home’ – and I probably always will,” says Peter.

“I consider myself very lucky to be born three miles from here in Thirkleby – I haven’t gone far. I’m very biased, but it’s such a wonderful part of the world.”

The third edition of Kilburn’s White Horse is on sale at White Rose Books in Thirsk, and the visitor centre at Sutton Bank.