I’m just back from my annual trip to Dorset, so my next few posts will probably feature a few new things I saw for the first time.
One day, while heading somewhere else, I looked at the map and realised we were going to pass by the famous Cerne Abbas Giant, one of those old chalk figures that brighten the area – and this one is famous for being a bit “rude”.
So we pulled off into a special viewing area set aside for tourists off the A352. This car park was developed in 1979 by the Dorset County Planning Department, the National Trust, Nature Conservancy Council (now called English Nature), the Dorset Naturalists Trusts, the Department of the Environment, and local land-owners.
It was quiet there in the sunshine, with just the sound of baa-ing sheep and crying birds, including a bird of prey, perhaps a buzzard or sparrowhawk. I can’t recall the call now, just that I felt it was a bird of prey.
I had seen images of the giant before, but I have to say it was a bit disappointing. Although it was re-cut in 2006, I think it may need another clean-up as the outline was hard to make out.
The Cerne Abbas Giant is to the north of Dorchester, near the village it is named after. The figure is about 180ft (55 metres) tall and 167ft (51 metres) wide. It is carved into the white chalk rock on a west-facing slope. The outlines cut into the turf are about 2ft (0.6 metres) deep, filled with crushed chalk.
Some say it is an ancient Celtic figure, but the earliest mention anyone can find is from the 17th century. The giant has been described as a giant wielding a club and closer inspection in 1996 revealed he once had a cloak over his arm, reinforcing one theory that the giant was a representation of Hercules, who sometimes used the skin of the Nemean Lion as a cloak.
A 1617 land survey of Cerne Abbas doesn’t mention the giant, so it may not have been there yet or it might have been overgrown. The earliest known written reference is a 1694 entry in the churchwardens’ accounts from St Mary’s Church in Cerne Abbas, which says “for repairing ye Giant, 3 shillings”.
It’s therefore suggested by some people that the giant was carved during the English Civil War (1642-1651) by servants of the Lord of the Manor, Denzil Holles, a Presbyterian who hated Oliver Cromwell. Enemies sometimes mockingly called Cromwell “England’s Hercules”.
Even if it does date from such a recent time, it has already built up its own folklore, often as a fertility symbol. Since Victorian times dancing around a maypole in a nearby earthwork, sleeping on the figure (if you are a woman) or having sex on the naughtiest feature of the giant have been believed to promote fecundity.
According to the National Trust, the grass is trimmed regularly and the figure is fully re-chalked every 25 years. Traditionally, the trust has relied on sheep from surrounding farms to graze the site. Cattle would just make a mess of the figure. But in 2008 a lack of sheep and a wet spring, causing lush plant growth, meant the giant had to be brightened up, with 17 tonnes of new chalk being poured into the outline and tamped down by hand.
The (faded) information panel at the viewing point was put together by the National Trust and Dorset County Council.
Just above the giant is a small rectangular Iron Age earthwork known as the Trendle or Frying Pan. Medieval sources call the whole area Trendle Hill.
Unlike the giant, the Trendle earthworks belong to Lord Digby, not the National Trust. Some say it is Roman, or perhaps even an Iron-Age burial mound containing the tomb of the man represented by the giant. Some folk stories say the image is an outline of the corpse of a real giant. One story says the giant led a coastal invasion from Denmark and was beheaded by the people of Cerne Abbas while he slept on the hillside.
In 2006, the National Trust carried out the first wildlife survey of the giant, finding wild flowers including the green-winged orchid, clustered bellflower and autumn gentian, which are uncommon in England. Meanwhile more common species mentioned on the information panel includes early purple orchid, yellow-wort, bird’s foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and kidney vetch, plus the chalkhill blue, marsh fritillary, silver-spotted skipper and even the rare Adonis blue butterfly.
And finally, the picture I would have wanted to take…
Most of the background information above comes from Wikipedia. Find more here.