On Windover Hill
Deep in the Sussex Downs lays the white outline of a figure. Expressionless, the figure clasps a pole in each hand and “looks naked toward the shires” (Kipling, 1902). Taller than the Statue of Liberty, no-one knows exactly how old the figure is, or even who created it, and just who or what the figure represents has been cause for discussion for hundreds of years.
Who is the Long Man of Wilmington?
Originally cut into the smooth turf on the hillside, the Giant is located on a curiously flat area of hillside, at an angle that seldom catches direct sunlight. It bears many similarities to the Cerne Abbas Giant (though is much larger than his Dorset cousin), though its age is far more questionable. Is it a Roman signpost, an Anglo-Saxon representation of Beowulf or, slightly more sinister, a site of human sacrifice?
The earliest sketch of the Giant only dates to 1710 though it is widely accepted as being significantly older; around the figure’s head are prehistoric tumuli and an impressive long barrow, said to be the burial chamber of the giant itself, slain by a fellow giant from nearby Mount Caburn. The figure itself has changed shape over the centuries - the latest outline dating from a restoration in the late 19th century. The Giant features in early 20th Century literature including Eleanor Farjeon's Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field, and appears in many poems, particularly of the early 20th century. There are also several theories about the Giants' significance of being on a Ley-Line, and to this day, it is treated with a great deal of respect and reverance by the druid community. Does it relate to Wilmington Priory - the nearby 13th Century cell of a Benedictine Abbey in Normandy? Does the fact there is a Long Barrow to the right of its head and a Priory at its feet link it to its famous cousin at Cerne Abbas, Dorset, which shares these unlikely features?
There are many more questions which we can only tease ourselves with possible answers. Is there a gold Roman coffin buried at the Giant's feet; does is represent a doorway to another realm; did it ever have a companion, or is it in fact, a woman? Or in fact, do any these questions actually matter?
Left: The Long Man depicted in a mosaic along with part of Doreen Valiente's poem, by Lynette Thomas of Artkore Mosaics.
What is the Giant’s relevance today?
What interests me is the way in which we, in the 21st Century, relate to such an archaeological phenomenon. It is clear that the figure still means a great deal to us today, from the Pagan and archaeological communities, to the local population, and the many tourists who visit him each year. It has inspired numerous artists and poets over the years, but there is a distinct lack of folklore surrounding the figure other than a ghostly black dog supposedly roaming the site. The only folk song that directly links to the figure was written in 1996 by Maria Cunningham! I have been inspired by interpretations in particular by Philip Carr-Gomm and Justin Hopper who offer a fresh and diverse views on the meaning of the figure. My passion for this project has also introduced me to such incredible and talented artists as Anna Dillon, Catherine Greenwood, Ashley Hylands, and Christine Masters who all interpret the landscape in beautiful and stunning ways and I felt it was therefore natural to present as many of these interpretations and views at the premiere of On Windover Hill in March 2020.
Above: members of the Kibbo Kift on Windover Hill in 1929.
“And the great Long Man of Wilmington gleams white against the green of whale-backed hills that stretch and bend with the marshes in between, and the winds are singing stories of a long-forgotten day, when the Downs were red at Senlac where the Saxon leader lay”.
G. D. Martineau, 1924.
What have I written?
On Windover Hill is a cantata for chamber choir and orchestra, which explores the Wilmington Giant through a variety of historical and contemporary texts. These texts were written predominantly in the early 20th Century and link directly with the South Downs, Sussex, and the Long Man of Wilmington. These represent contemporary feelings towards the Giant and the significance in which we hold it. However, the choir also sing much older texts that explore the Giant’s place in history, set the figure in its landscape, and present some of the myths that may explain its creation, including extracts from the Hymn of Aten (1340 BC) and Aeterne rerum conditor by St Ambrose (c.1350 AD). Through the cantata, the audience is invited to join the performers on a journey through time to discover what the Long Man means to them today.
What are the specific aims of the project?
Inspire creative and artistic interpretation of an archaeological phenomenon
Evoke relationships with the Wilmington Giant through examining its place in our social history
Contribute to the genre of contemporary classical music with a piece of music promoting strong themes of time and place
Explore the role of myth in explaining the Wilmington Giant through music
Draw on current social themes by considering the sex of the Wilmington Giant through the musical setting of texts
Enhance the reputation of the Wilmington Giant beyond those in its locality and the archaeological community
Educate audiences through the setting of a wide variety of ancient and contemporary texts
Contribute to the artistic responses of the Wilmington Giant
Include the works of neglected 20th Century female composers from Sussex at the premiere of On Windover Hill, specifically Avril Coleridge-Taylor, and Ruth Gipps.
Support for this project has come from Arts Council England, The RVW Trust, and numerous private individuals, to whom I'm all incredibly grateful.
“A fascinating and tremendously worthwhile project”.
Rodney Castledon, author of ‘The Wilmington Giant’,
Turnstone Press, 2012.