Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry
and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and
their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio,
television, books and publications world wide.
A personal journey by Alex I Askaroff
Let me tell you what I know of this old giant that lives a stone-throw from my home of Eastbourne.
Stare toward the rising sun and see me stride,
Six miles north-west of Eastbourne, Ordinance Survey TQ543034. Looked after by the Archaeological Society since 1925 after it was gifted by the Duke of Devonshire and painted regularly by the Long Man Morris men. Right, that's enough of the tech stuff . I also remember the Scouts painting him bright white most years.
The Long Man of Wilmington by Alex Askaroff
I took this photo at harvest time a few years ago. If you would like a better resolution copy just mail me: email@example.com
Firstly let's go up the small hill past the remains of the old Priory to what is now a car park. This is where we get the best view of our white giant clothed in green. After living near him and visiting him all my life I will tell you everything I have ever learnt about the mystical old man of the downs and it's a great tale. Don’t be scared he does not bite!
He always looks his best with the afternoon sun on him. What is his name I hear you ask? He is now called The Long Man of Wilmington. What his real name was has been lost through the folds of time.
What we know of our
local giant is scatty to say the least. There are a hundred different
theories that have come up over the decades and much
has been messed around with. For instance his
outline now is breeze block painted in lime wash. About 150 years ago it
was lumps of brick but before that we just don't know. This constant
preservation of the original idea has caused archaeologists a real
What we know of our local giant is scatty to say the least. There are a hundred different theories that have come up over the decades and much has been messed around with. For instance his outline now is breeze block painted in lime wash. About 150 years ago it was lumps of brick but before that we just don't know. This constant preservation of the original idea has caused archaeologists a real headache.
How Old is the
Long Man of Wilmington
How Old is the Long Man of Wilmington
The first documentation of
him that I have come across comes from an illustration from 1710 and what a different character
he was, hair, eyes, armed with tools and a beard. It
was an artists impression and probably far from accurate.
The first documentation of him that I have come across comes from an illustration from 1710 and what a different character he was, hair, eyes, armed with tools and a beard. It was an artists impression and probably far from accurate.
So we must ask ourselves is he older than that? Because of the regular maintenance of his outline over the years it is impossible to date him using traditional carbon dating or other methods. You almost have to use a Sherlock Holmes approach and take in the whole area to work out a date. In the summer of early 1870's the Archaeological Trust decided to enhance his outline with white painted bricks and re-cut his outline. Did they change it? Yes. More of why later.
The great King is dead. With his
Death of Edward the Confessor
Reading University have dated him to around 1545 but was that just an educated guess? Probably. The area is littered with finds around the Giant from Neolithic times, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman or just about any period. There is no doubt that this area has been inhabited from the earliest human times. Also because what we see today is not the original but inspired and built over the original, it is guess work.
Something of interest is that at the base of The Old Man there are several hand-cut chalk blocks scattered around. they are roughly hewn out in rectangular form and you can make out the chisel marks on a few. They are rare now but in the summer of 2009 there were still a few there. Too heavy for tourists to steal. These were probably from the original Giant and an expert could identify what sort of tools were used to make the block. This would be very useful in identifying the Giants real age.
Before regular maintenance and renovations his form would go unseen for long periods of time. Locals would be working in the fields and the light and wind would be just right, they would look up and see the giant appear then disappear just as quickly. It must have given the magnificent old man of the hills a magical touch.
We must wonder why people would make such a giant.
Lets look at the facts. The facts are simple. He is almost 230 feet (70 m) tall and carved out of the chalk hillside with a significant degree of skill. This only becomes apparent from standing close at the base of our giant. The proportions are so cleverly devised that, from a distance, he is a very good outline of a human and you do not realise how huge he is until you are right next to him. Amazingly as Griff Rhys Jones found out when you are at his feet he is almost invisible.
Standing at his feet looking up you can see that he has been elongated on the sloping hillside. He is the second largest representations of the human figure in the world and the tallest in Europe. Not bad, eh? I thing the largest is in Peru.
Is he an ancient god or a giant that lived long ago? Is he holding staves, divining rods, measuring staffs, or battle staffs? Could he even be holding open the gates to another world? Could he be striding across the swollen River Cuckmere, with his staves for support, to rescue villagers from a great flood? The Cuckmere valley has a tidal river, at its centre, that is prone to flooding. Strangely both his feet used to point outwards but someone moved his left foot!
Was he carved to pacify old demons, an ancient deity or was he carved to celebrate a grand victory or just as a local hero or simply to ensure a healthy harvest? There are certainly many more questions of him than answers available. But if you are ever there as the sun drops, and Windover Hill becomes dark against the night sky, there is a magic in the air, a power, that you can feel through your very bones.
The Long Man of Wilmington is set into an unnaturally flat-topped North-facing hillside that has been flattened and lays at 28 degrees. The Giant lays on a slightly concave mound in concave hillside that has superb acoustics rather like an amphitheatre in ancient Greece. Being concave he is visible from much larger angles than if he were flat. It all looks well to thought out to be a simple piece of work like the White Horse a little further down the lane.
Was it an old flint site of Neolithic man or a chalk pit used by the Romans to make their favourite building ingredient, concrete? There are flint pits above him and even older Bronze age Long-Burrows on Windover Hill. Also to the left of the Giant are chalk pits. So we can see all around human have been busy.
The Long-Burrows above the Long Man are from the Bronze Age. Some say that the largest Long Burrow in Sussex must have something to do with our giant even though that would mean he over 1,500 years older. Makes sense when you think about it. If people were going to take the time to build a great burial mound upon a high place to an ancient chieftain, why not mark the special place with a giant protector of the dead!
Then we have the Romans. Did they make an outline of one of their great emperors to impress the locals? Did a marauding Viking army carve out one of their warring gods to frighten the population for miles around. Did Odin walk amongst us in days of old!
Could the hillside have been dug for chalk and flints leaving a blank landscape just itching for an enthusiastic artist to create a giant? Could a few of the monks from the abbey be filling in some spare time by carving out a giant? Interestingly the Giant does pick up the sun at different times of the year leading a few to surmise that he was actually a solar almanac.
The truth is that the list is endless. You could get a wonderful selection of quite plausible answers by going to a pre-school classroom and asking all the children where he came from.
When the stone blocks were put in they dug up a lot of Roman pottery and that gave some credence to the old legend that the giant was placed above the grave of a Roman general killed in battle. They say that his grave is covered with golden artefacts. hey where's my spade and metal detector!
If this even had an thread of truth the whole place would have been dug to nothing by the Victorians whole loved nothing more than a picnic and a dig, long before the protection of such ancient monuments.
To mention or not to mention!
There is one, rather rude, point worth mentioning. If you happen to see The Long Man early in the morning after a sharp frost, a rather impressive appendage appears, showing that his original form was far more revealing than his present one. It disappears quite quickly. I have only seen it three times in 40 years. Over the years he has often been defaced or rather repainted by visitors in the night that have added his grand assets back. Are they subconsciously putting him back to how he really did look?
If he was originally a well-endowed fellow then he certainly would not have been carved in the prim and proper Victorian era when showing an ankle was deemed inappropriate, let alone his six-foot (2m) attribute! Also, to back this theory up, when the Australian and New Zealand troops were stationed at nearby Peacehaven. Peacehaven was formerly known as New ANZACS -because of the Australian and New Zealand troops. Many of the soldiers who helped clear local scrub and downland went back and told their families of the giant that, when properly cleared, included his full manhood. And why would old descriptions of him say He stands naked before the shires? Even Kipling used this phrase. Now that his ding-a-ling has been removed we can state that the Long Man has had an early sex change?
During WWII our giant was camouflaged to avoid the enemy using him as a landmark but was soon sparkling again with a coat of white road paint. Before he was covered up a reconnaissance aircraft took a picture of him showing his large appendage in its full glory! So it is on record.
In 1874 the Reverend William De St Croix marked out the Giants rough outline in yellow painted bricks but they were replaced in 1891 with white ones. You can get a picture of the amount of work going on here. Every few years thankfully there is someone renovating the old chap.
In 1969, just before earlier bricks were replaced with concrete and breeze blocks, archaeological digs by Reading University pronounced that the old man of the hill could be no more than early 1600's. Can that be true?
Long Man rituals
For every one of these
opinions there is an
opposite opinion, so the quest goes on.
The Long Man also attracts the weird and wonderful, from pagan rituals
to the more painful sight of Morris Men in all their glory.
White witches—the friendly sort that have strong roots with mother earth, Gia—have held ceremonies at the foot of the our Old Man of the downs, as have the Druids. Presently celebrations are held on the closest Sunday to the eight Wiccan Sabbats throughout the year. The biggest are Beltaine or May Day and Lughnasadh or Lammas Day when people give thanks to nature for her bounty and life.
On May Day the Long Man Morris Men mark their dancing season start by a special dance performed at dawn at the foot of the Old Man of the downs.
There are plenty that believe he has healing powers and many have claimed our Long Man as their own. Making love on the Giant is supposed to bring you a child of your choice!
In my mind I have no doubt that he is of ancient origin but proving if he is 500 or 5,000 years old is a impossible task. I have seen him, all of my life, lying quietly in the soft green of the downland and serenely gazing over the farmlands below. He watches us, as we rush through our hectic lives, as no more than ants below his feet.
If you ever get the chance go and stand where the Old Man of the downs is and see what he sees. You will be looking at one of the most beautiful sights in Sussex. Be careful though as it is a steep climb. I remember getting to his head and turning around and a wave of vertigo flooded over me.
All around this area it is rich in pagan history. In Berwick churchyard, hardly a stone’s throw away, stands a pre-Christian worship stone. Neolithic man was known to have flint mines near this spot and their burial grounds along with Bronze Age Long-Burrows are dotted over the high places of the Downs. Ancient man cleared the slopes of forests thousands of years ago for fuel, shelter and tools.
Let us sum up. So far we have Stone Age, Bronze Age, Roman, Viking, Middle Age, Georgian, Victorian and more, all responsible for our grass art!
My favourite fable comes from an early Celtic tale. Two giants, brothers, lived on the highest places of ancient Sussex, and elsewhere going by other tales. One at Firle Point, later to become Firle Beacon one at Windover Hill.
They were jealous and violent always arguing about who had the most land and who was the most powerful. They would grumpily survey their lands from these Sussex high-points. One day a furious row broke out over a grazing cow that had wandered from one giants land to the other. The hills thundered as they fought an epic battle to finally prove who was the most powerful.
The Firle Giant seized his brother after beating him senseless with his hammer and hurled him high into the sky over the downs. He fell onto the side of the hill dead as a doornail. The local villagers, sad at the lose of their protector and scared that they would not have his protection anymore came up with a cunning plan. They painted his outline in the hill to scare away strangers.
The Firle Giant having no one to argue with simply sat on his hill-top and miserably faded away. Today he is no more than a large mound of grass atop Firle Beacon.
Great story. Oh how I love the old stories that flow through this land like well-aged wine.
In my opinion the most likely origin of our giant is Celtic. They had a harvest god called Lugus. He was very similar to our Giant, right down to the staffs and spot on the time when the Celts were in this area. It is also interesting to note that one of their most religious Celtic trees, the yew, is in the churchyard. It is said to be one of the oldest yews in the world. Some say dating back to the fourth century AD.
The yew held great importance in the Celtic year because they believed it held the secrets to immortality and they often buried their dead around them. It has always been thought that the church at Wilmington was placed on a pre-Christian worship site.
I do believe that ancient man gazed upon our giant, as we do today. there is just something mystical about the area where he lays. There is just too much going on there what with ancient burial sites, lay-lines, fertility hot spots, early settlements, Pre-Christian monuments, monks, churches, witches, all set into one of the most beautiful areas on planet Earth.
Although our Giant's origins has been lost to us over the centuries and his secret history hidden for now, there is no doubt that today our Wilmington Giant stands proud as the protector of these superb and ancient lands.
All said and done isn't it better not really knowing.
The Old Man of the Downs holds his secrets close, it's part of his charm.
All said and done isn't it better not really knowing. The Old Man of the Downs holds his secrets close, it's part of his charm.
we are going to leave him to rest now and head forward on our journey.
Come with me for we have many miles to travel and no time to waste.
For the next part of our journey click here:
Al's Alfriston Guide.
Well, we are going to leave him to rest now and head forward on our journey. Come with me for we have many miles to travel and no time to waste. For the next part of our journey click here: Al's Alfriston Guide.
Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.
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