This Side of the Pond – July 6

We’re only showing you his face, because this is a family publication.


By Sarah Pridgeon

Remember my tale of the town near my childhood home that boasts a fascinating array of museums displaying no artifacts whatsoever? No dinosaurs, nothing from Tutankhamen’s tomb and not a scrap of terracotta warrior?

Well, I forgot about an important attraction near that unique little town and I feel bad about my oversight because it’s something you don’t see every day. It has nothing to do with the planning skills of Dorchester city council or the local chamber of commerce – it was already in place when they got there – but that doesn’t make it any the less peculiar.

To see it, you will need to plan a pleasant drive in the countryside and prepare yourself not to giggle. Carved into the hillside, towering 180 feet over the nearby village, is something I believe to be an early example of what happens if you leave the kids alone for the afternoon with an open box of chalk.

He’s called the Cerne Abbas Giant and the first thing you’ll notice about him is the incongruity of seeing an enormous stick figure on an ordinary grass hill in the middle of nowhere. The second thing you will notice is that the only part of him drawn with any particular attention to detail is the area that can’t be published in a family newspaper.

(Saying that, I am told it’s the only indecent image that Royal Mail will deign to deliver, so apparently not everyone’s gaze is drawn straight to the nether region that Historic England describes as “anatomically impressive”. This is a good thing for local tourism, as the Cerne Abbas Giant adorns almost every postcard you will find nearby, not to mention the usual array of shot glasses, keyrings, pencil erasers and jewelry.)

The third thing you will spot is that the giant seems surprised to be there, waving his mighty club at passers by. He is depicted with cartoonish wide eyes and raised brows and quite frankly wouldn’t look out of place on The Simpsons.

I’m not the only person to think this. In 2007, to publicize the new Simpsons movie, someone painted an equally oversized Homer in his tighty whities waving a donut next to the giant. The locals were angered, but all was deemed well when a group of pagans promised to conjure some rain magic to get rid of him.

(Personally, I think rain magic in Britain is cheating. It’s not exactly the most difficult weather system to come by, but that’s another story.)

You might then wonder how the giant was created – and why. Some say he has been around since ancient times, which would mean he was put there by a mud-caked peasant at the dawn of civilized time.

What strange group sat round the stew pot in their ancient hovel, sipping (probably) on a cup of tea as they decided what the hill really needed if it was going to attract grubby tourists from the next kingdom over was the outline of an unusually tall man?

Whose idea was it to get the chalk out and start scribbling on the grass – and who was commissioned to draw the abomination? He has straight lines for his stomach muscles, two plain circles for nipples, flat little feet and the club he’s waving would best be described as wiggly.

Did one of those ancient men shake their heads as the peasant completed his masterpiece and ask, “Steven, did you learn nothing at all from your art degree?”

Perhaps you’ll then ponder how a carving that seems so fragile has lasted for hundreds or thousands of years. I can’t give you an exact figure, because nobody knows for sure.

Some believe he was drawn as a prank in the seventeenth century to parody Oliver Cromwell, who commanded the Puritans in the Civil War. Others think he might be a depiction of Hercules, though I suspect, were that true, we would see signs of a smiting from the offended Greek gods.

The most common conclusion is that he is an ancient depiction of a fertility god, the Anglo Saxon Helis, carved into the hillside to bless women with many offspring and cure childlessness. Scoff if you wish, but the Office of National Statistics shows that women in North Dorset have nearly double the number of babies as the national average. How many of them followed the guideline to spend a night sleeping on top of the giant is sadly not included in the numbers.

We’re not even sure if he should look the way he looks. A ground survey in the 1980s suggested he was supposed to be wearing a cloak and standing over a disembodied head, while the Victorians appear to have made a mistake while re-cutting the chalk, merged two body parts together and created the startling piece of anatomy the giant is best known for. I guess they weren’t quite as prudish as we all assume.

You may also wonder why such care has gone into preserving an unnatural feature that must have caused thousands of double takes over the decades. Every 25 years, the chalk is completely replaced – and the grass is mown around him all year long.

He’s not the only chalk carving on display in my homeland – he’s not even the only carving in Dorset. There are other giants, horses, kiwis and military symbols, some of them younger than others. In my home county, we have a giant horse carved in honor of a king who visited, which you may have seen in the background if you watched any of the sailing events during the 2012 Olympics.

None, however, have quite the fame of the Cerne giant, the only one still shrouded in mystery and the most eye-catching of them all. He may be an unidentifiable giant with unknown intentions on a hill next to a tiny Dorset village, but I think we can agree he’s still a talking point even today.