The galloping chalk white horse on Cheriton Hill in Folkestone is the first thing people see if they enter the UK through the Channel Tunnel.
The horse overlooks the terminal and sits on the very steep hill on the Folkestone Downs. It is best viewed and photographed from afar, with an attempt to climb up or down the hill itself, near on impossible, due to the sharp gradient.
Folkestone’s chalk white horse is one of Britain’s largest hill figures and over the years, it has become something of a tourist attraction.
During a visit to Folkestone, even if you don’t see the figure itself, you are bound to see an image of it, as it’s the local council logo, and features on everything from wheelie bins and letterheads to uniforms.
The horse looks like a chalk carving, but it is not actually carved into the hill. It is made of huge chalk blocks, which were placed into small troughs, with the artist and the farmer behind the project not wanting to disturb or damage the plot, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
It is man made like the Kilburn White Horse in North Yorkshire.
It was supposed to be a millennium landmark, but a long battle with English Nature meant it was completed three years later than hoped, in 2003. English Nature was opposed to the project, saying the horse should not be built on a SSSI, with concerns about the environmental impact, with Folkestone Downs being home to some rare flora and fauna. Chalk grassland itself is in decline, the area attracts the rare Adonis Blue butterfly and there are orchids there too.
However, artist Charles Newington and farmer Richard Beaugie were dogged in their determination to make their dream a reality – while causing minimal disruption t to the area – and after several years of petitions, campaigning and finally a public inquiry, they were finally given the go ahead.
They’d first applied for planning permission in April 1998. They put a huge canvas of the design on the hill in August 1999 and English Nature threatened legal action if they did not take it down. The plans went before a public inquiry in 2001. It was finally given the go ahead by Stephen Byers, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
At the time I was a journalist working on the local newspaper, the Kentish Express. The newspaper ran a campaign, backed by readers, in favour of the horse. I presented a reader petition to the inquiry.
The campaign was also supported by the late Spike Milligan, who wrote a poem about the Folkestone chalk white horse, during the planning wrangle.
Building the chalk white horse
Putting anything on a such a steep hill was challenging, to say the least! Charles and Richard wanted the building of the horse to be a community event and to this end they enlisted the help of Gurkha soldiers stationed at the town’s Shorncliffe Barracks. Construction took many weeks, with men and blocks having to be lowered down and pulled back up the hill with a sophisticated and robust rope system. The soldiers used the chalk blocks to fill in a drawn out track of the horse.
The Folkestone chalk white horse is 90 metres long.
This chalk white horse is on Folkestone Down, which is a lovely place to walk, with views across the whole of the town.
Directly below is the Channel Tunnel terminal and you will see the trains arriving and departing. You can also see the sea and the coastline from the top of the hills.
There are many different routes you could take and these are marked with signs and posts along the way. You can walk part of the North Downs Way or the Saxon Shore Way.
If you want to start near the chalk white horse, you can park for free along Crete Road West.
I’m lucky enough to be able to see the hills and the chalk white horse from a bedroom window in my house. It’s a beautiful and inspiring image.
I also have a horse picture painted by the chalk white horse artist Charles Newington, 20 years ago, who told me to add a few noughts to the value once his dream of having a horse on the hill became a reality. I’m not sure if he was correct, but it was a nice thought!
Charles regularly exhibits his work – and his horse pictures – in Folkestone and across Kent, or you can see his works online at Gallery Online.