The enigmatic long man
“The Long Man of Wilmington looks naked towards the shires” wrote Kipling of the enigmatic hill figure on the Downs. In the absence of much real information, speculation about its origins and what it represents has been rife. Various origins have been suggested but ultimately “The Long Man asks the traveller – like the Sphinx – to solve the dark mystery of its own origins.
LENGTH – 3 miles
TIME – 2 hours
START – Wilmington Car Park, Wilmington, Polegate, BN26 5SW (O.S. Explorer 16 – NGR 544042)
PARKING – Wilmington Car Park, Wilmington, Polegate, BN26 5SW (O.S. Explorer 16 – NGR 544042)
TOILETS – None
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs in Wilmington village (¼ mile off route).
This walk contains stiles.
Wilmington village has much history to offer in its own right and even the car park is historic, being the remains of the tithe barn attached to Wilmington Priory. A tithe is a tax of one-tenth of all agricultural produce from the parish, which was paid in kind – hence the need for such a large barn.
Wilmington Priory was established about 1215 and enlarged in 1243. Although described as a Priory, its main role was to administer the English estates of the French Abbey of Grestein. In 1414, during the Hundred Years War with France, the land and buildings were confiscated and awarded to the Diocese of Chichester to run and benefit from. History then repeated itself during the reign of Elizabeth 1 when the queen confiscated the Priory from the Diocese and handed it to one of her principal supporters, Sir Richard Sackville. It is from this priory that the theory of the Long Man being drawn by monks with too much time on their hands emerges.
Wilmington Church was once the church for the Priory, but following the demise of the latter it became the parish church. In the churchyard is a huge yew, some thousands of years old and predating the church. The connection of yews with pre-Christian worship and the finding of various carved stone heads in and around the parish, have led to suggestions that the Long Man is some sort of pagan god. However, by the same argument, the finding of occasional Roman coins in the parish with similar figures on their rear (albeit somewhat smaller), has been used to support a Roman origin for the Long Man.
Moving away from Wilmington, a glance to the South Downs reveals various mounds silhouetted on the top of the hill. On both Windover and Wilmington Hills are Neolithic long barrows dating from around 3500 and round barrows of later, Bronze Age, date. This proliferation of prehistoric monuments on the hilltop above the Long Man is also used to support a prehistoric origin for the figure.
On arriving at the small and unspoilt village of Folkington, the similarity in the names is immediately apparent. Both have Saxon origins – the “tun” (settlement of) the “ingas” (followers of) two Saxon leaders, Wilma and Focca respectively. This in turn leads to the identification of the Long Man as a Saxon warrior (with the poles being spears) or Beowulf or various Saxon gods such as Thor or Wodin.
The route leaving Folkington runs along the historic route called “The Old Coach Road”, hugging the base of the South Downs, and the more observant may notice considerable earthworks to keep the route as level as possible. This was replaced in 1759 with a turnpike (toll) road, which is now the A27. The first definite mention of the Long Man is on an estate map of 1710, but following the opening of the turnpike, the better views of the figure from a distance began to excite more interest in its origins.
Seen from close-up the sheer size of the figure (about 240 feet or 73 metres) can be appreciated, but it may be slightly disappointing to note that it is now marked out in painted kerbstones. It was originally constructed of trenches cut through the grass to the chalk bedrock and then filled with fresh chalk, probably from the now disused quarry immediately west of the figure. Lack of maintenance caused it to overgrow until it was restored using painted bricks in 1874 and then in kerbstones in 1969. In the course of these “restorations”, the figure appears to have had his western foot turned to face the other way and a possible cap and scythe head on one of the poles lost.
Archaeological investigations of the figure in 2003 included the use of “optical luminescence dating”. This measured the last time that an excavated surface was previously exposed to light and suggested the figure was first cut as recently as the 16th century. If this is correct “we can at least celebrate the fact that we have our first, unequivocally, Early Modern hill figure, and historians now have to reckon with it” but we are still none the wiser as to who the figure is supposed to represent.
Whilst we have taken reasonable endeavours to ensure the information is up to date and correct, you will be using the information strictly at your own risk. If you come across any inaccuracies whilst you are on your walk, please contact Wealden District Council’s Community and Regeneration team.
The self-guided walk descriptions are provided to help you navigate your way, however we recommend that you plan your route prior to walking the route and that you carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area being walked and follow your position on the map as you proceed.
Please note, we cannot be responsible for the conditions of the footpaths and land and you are responsible for your own safety.