longman1Who is this mysterious naked man carved into the green folds of Windover Hill on the South Downs in East Sussex?  No-one knows for sure who he represents or how long he’s been there. His very existence offers up more questions than there are answers. It is obvious that the people who originally etched him into this steep, north-facing hillside did so for some specific reason; his form and placement are not random.

He is known as the Long Man of Wilmington and now looked after by the Sussex Archaeological Society. At 230ft from head to toe he is the second largest hill figure in the world after the 393 feet high Giant of Atacama, in Chile.  But for much of his historical life he was no more than an indentation in the hillside grass, only visible after a light fall of snow in winter and picked out by a different shade of green in summer, earning him an alternative name of Green Man. This was an apt title that perfectly fitted during WW2 when he was painted green, wiping him out as a landmark that could have been used by enemy aircraft.

The earliest known drawing of the Long Man is a rough sketch by surveyor John Rowley in 1710, which showed that the figure once had a face, crude helmet and outurned feet. There was no indication as to the sex, but this region, known as Dicker Country, was special to Strict Baptists, who may well have wanted to erase any indication of sexuality.

In 1873/4 a group of volunteers, led by the vicar of Glynde, Reverend William de St Croix, worked to save the Long Man from deterioration by marking the indistinct outline more clearly with yellow bricks cemented together. The Sussex Archaeological Society stated, ‘Despite popular legend there is no evidence, historical or archaeological, to suggest that prudish Victorians robbed him of his manhood.’

longman2The outline that we see today differs from previous forms. The current design holds a stave in each hand, or ‘skis, so he can ski down the hill when it snows,’ as one joker put it. Over the years, previous ‘restoration,’ had varied his implement selection from a scythe blade, flail and rake to a sword and shepherd’s crook. His feet, too have been moved about a bit, there is evidence that he has been going left, right and at one time forward.

Other parts of his anatomy have been interfered with over the years. In 1939 it was reported that, ‘Five local youths had done wilful damage to this very ancient monument, to which they pleaded guilty at Hailsham Police Court. Their destructive idea led them to take out some of the bricks…..and throw them downhill. Happily, they were observed. …. each was ordered to pay thirty shillings of the total damage estimated at £7.10s.’

On the 1st May 2002, the Long Man Morris Dancers arrived at the site to perform their traditional May Day dance at the foot of the figure. In the dawn light they discovered that pranksters had hauled up a football pitch marker and cheekily used it to decorate the figure with an oversized willy, causing laughing tourists to photograph him in his new, well-endowed glory and one local newspaper to head a report, ‘The Long Man Gets Longer.’

Norman Hopson, then Squire of the Long Man Morris Men said, ‘We went into our first dance and then we noticed it, the lads were laughing so much we had to stop. I don’t know who would have done such a thing, but it certainly wasn’t us.’ An anonymous writer commented on the Internet, ‘Personally, I think it was an alien crop circle gone wrong.’ White Witch Kevin Carlyon angrily remarked, ‘I am up in arms over this because I have always said the Long Man was a woman. I am going to put a spell on whoever did this, but I would not be surprised if there were quite a few naughty romps at the Long Man on this May Day night.’

longman3In 2007, TV celebrities Trinny and Susanna held an ‘Undress the Nation’ programme here and changed the Long Man into a Long Woman by using the bodies of 100 women to add pigtails, breasts and hips. Although ITV were given permission to film there from the Sussex Archaeological Society, and took ‘the utmost care to protect this historical site,’ local Druid Greg Draven protested about the filming, and the Druid Society said, ‘This had dishonoured an ancient pagan site of worship.’

A local folk legend listed by the Society of Ley Hunters records that a downland shepherd could recall the Long Man having a giantess girlfriend who lay on his right; locals dubbed them Adam and Eve, but she has long since disappeared. Interestingly, a 17th century plaque discovered in Torslunda, Sweden, shows two figures in combat. The form on the left, carrying a stave in each hand, bears some passing resemblance to the Long Man and was identified as Beowulf, a Nordic hero. The second figure was named as Grendel, a she-wolf, who, according to an old Anglo-Saxon epic poem, fought with Beowulf. Was the Wilmington Giant a representation of Beowulf and was Grendel the figure that vanished?

Many Sussex people believe ‘their’ giant is prehistoric and lies on a sacred site; there are indications that this area was of some importance, with a nearby Neolithic barrow cemetery, and, the discovery of a large hoard of axe heads supported the evidence of a bronze foundry. But there are endless theories about the presence of the Long Man on Windover Hill; was he of Roman origin, cut by soldiers of the Second Legion in the 4th century A.D. who were camped in the district?  Here again there is a striking resemblance between the Long Man and the design on the reverse side of some Roman coins bearing the heads of Vetranius, Constantius ii and Constantius Gallus.

longman4Was he a god wearing a winged helmet?  Was he once a depiction of a Saxon haymaker when he was holding a hay rake and a scythe?  Is he in any way associated with the smaller sized, attention arresting ‘Rude Man of Cerne,’ a similar hill figure near Dorchester that has an exceptionally large willy?

Although lacking evidence that he is definitely male, the Wilmington Giant has a long and constant association with the primitive cult of fertility. This view still holds strong today; many childless couples hope that a romp in the grass inside the boundary of the giant’s outline will give them the longed for baby. One young mother commented, ‘I only went up there to say a prayer,’ and, pointing to her new offspring, ‘look what happened.’ Some modern British pagans and heathens perform annual fertility rites within the figure’s perimeter and the locals have got used to seeing naked figures wandering around the hillside or indulging in sex sessions in the grass.

Another local tale suggests that this is a depiction of a living giant who met his death at this site. He seems to have perished in a variety of different ways; tripping and breaking his neck, murdered by pilgrims, or, being on the receiving end of a dinner thrown at him by a shepherd!  A popular far-fetched story records that there were two giants; one lived at Windover Hill, the other three miles away, on Firle Beacon. The tale goes that they quarrelled, and ended up throwing large boulders at each other. Indentations on the hill are said to be craters formed by the hurled missiles. The Firle Giant finally scored a hit, killing the Windover Giant. longman5The locals carved an outline around his huge corpse and then buried him in the long barrow that lies above the giant’s head. There is no record of how they got his enormous body into an equally enormous grave! Exaggerated tales suggest he lies in a solid gold coffin surrounded by priceless treasures.

Folklore abounds that the Long Man may have alien connections. Was there any relationship between the figure and two sighting in the 1990’s of space craft over the area and the appearance of nearby crop circles? Or was the presumed attraction not the Giant but an ‘official’ ley line, a long strip of energy, running through the ground SSW-NNE that passes right underneath the carving.

Or was the Long Man laid out on this spot, to confirm a macabre theory that this was a sacrificial site? Was there a custom held here of crowding victims into human shaped, large wicker and brushwood enclosures, which were then set alight? On such a steep slope the flames would have roared up the hill. Because of an acoustic anomaly caused by the curved shape of the hill, the dying screams of the burning captives would have resounded around this natural amphitheatre.

A more practical suggestion came from  A. Baines, from Hastings, writing in a local magazine, ‘ The eighteenth century was notorious for freak landscape gardening,, artificial ruins, gazebos, towers erected for no particular purpose, except to satisfy the whim of builders. …if truth were known, it would be revealed as a result of a whim of some former owner of the hill, who had a taste for the artificial landscape gardening of his day and rather more eccentricity than most of his contemporaries in the art of decorative gardening.’

longman6Still searching for some answers, Professor Martin Bell of Reading University, and a group of local volunteers from the Sussex Archaeological Society, carried out excavations at the site in 2003. Their efforts were featured in BBC 2 programme, ‘Figures in the Chalk,’ from the series ‘Landscape Mysteries,’ presented by Aubrey Manning. The team studied the area, picked over hundreds of pieces of flint, pottery and brick and came to the conclusion that the Long Man was cut into the hillside in the 16th century, during a time of social conflict and civil war. But by whom and for what reason?

The Rev. A. A. Evans from Chichester so aptly commented, ‘The Giant keeps his secret and from his hillside flings out a perpetual challenge. Who is he?’

Useful Information:HOW TO FIND THE LONG MAN.
The Long Man of Wilmington is situated 6 miles north-west of Eastbourne, East Susex, England. It is signposted from the A27, 2 miles west of the junction with the A22 at Polegate and 10 miles east of Lewes and located south of the village of Wilmington. Buses serve the A27 and rail stations served direct from Eastbourne, Lewes, Hastings and London are at Berwick (3 miles) and Polegate (2.5 miles.)There is a public car park (with height restrictions) just south of Wilmington Priory (not open to the public) with excellent views available within a few yards walk.The Long Man may be reached by public footpaths to the base and the top of the figure and interpretation boards are located at the car park and at the bottom of the hill showing details of these. The rights of way to the base of the figure are reasonably easy for walkers, but are probably not suitable for wheelchairs.

About Elizabeth Wright

Managed a Pet and Garden Centre in Eastbourne for 38 years. Holder of City and Guilds Certificate in Pet Shop Management/Animal Care. Past pupil of The Writers Bureau and The Bureau of Freelance Photographers. I have been writing feature articles for forty years and have been published in a wide variety of popular magazines ranging from Sussex Life, Aspect County and The Lady to Landscape, Bird Keeper and Your Cat. Author of Made in Sussex. (S.B.Publications) Belle Tout – The Little Lighthouse That Moved. (My Voice Publishing). From Fancy Pants to Getting There. Paperback (My Voice Publishing) From Fancy Pants to Getting There. Kindle (AndrewsUK publishing) Full member of The Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Membership Secretary of Anderida Writers, Eastbourne and was awarded their Anderida Accolade for services to the Club.