Wednesday, March 19, 2014
It is not known with any certainty when the Long Man first gazed down from Windover Hill on the South Downs, just north of Eastbourne. Local legend says that the faceless and unclothed figure, supported by two staffs, was a prehistoric fertility symbol sanitised by the prudish Victorians; for some, he was originally a helmeted and armed Roman or Anglo-Saxon warrior; while others insist that he was the work of artistic medieval monks from nearby Wilmington Priory. Whatever the genesis of the Long Man, with his 235-foot frame he is an enigmatic giant, standing guard over the village of Wilmington and travellers on the busy A27 beyond.
Having seen him from a distance many times, I naively thought that his outline was downland chalk; but walking right up to him for the first time last week, I discovered that he is in fact painted concrete. This was confirmed by The Sussex Archaeological Society website: the Long Man has been made from pre-cast blocks since 1969, replacing yellow Victorian brick. Prior to that, he was only visible as a grass outline – another of his names is the Green Man - accentuated in certain lights or by a dusting of snow. This is supported by the earliest pictorial record of the Wilmington Giant, an 18th century illustration by the surveyor, John Rowley. His drawing, from 1710, suggests that the figure was an impression in the grass rather than a solid outline; it also reveals that there were once facial features and a helmet-shaped head gives some credence to the idea of a first millennial warrior.
The most enduring interpretation, though, is as an ancient Pagan site of worship. At dawn each May Day, or Beltane, Morris Men still perform their ritualistic dance, and there are regular gatherings throughout the year to celebrate other festivals in the neo-Pagan calendar. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there was any connection between those who observe pre-Christian rites at the Long Man, and an incident in 2010 when an erect phallus - in the style of Dorset’s Cerne Abbas Giant - was added to the Long Man a few days before the summer solstice with a football pitch marking machine.