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The White Mark, with Watlington in the background.

The White Mark, with Watlington in the background.

The White Mark of Watlington Hill

11 January 2023 (Updated 6 October 2023)

While Watlington's own chalk hill carving might not rival that at Wilmington or Uffington, it has an amusing story behind it that deserves to be more widely known.

About the Watlington White Mark

The 'white mark' is a 82m tall elongated triangle cut into the side of the steep hill half a mile to the East of Watlington. Its close proximity to the Icknield Way, the ancient trackway that follows the chalk escarpment from Norfolk to Wiltshire, has led some to assume that the white mark may be an ancient fertility symbol along the lines of the Cerne Abbas giant.

The precise origins of the white mark are disputed, but the most widely accepted explanation is that it originated in the sense of humour of an eccentric local squire.

The White Mark of Watlington

The White Mark, viewed from the top. Credit: "Watlington Hill" by Amateur with a Camera is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Squire Edward Horne's folly

Edward Horne was the local squire who owned the manor of Watlington in the year 1764. According to the story, Horne was disappointed that the parish church of St. Leonard lacked a spire.

Rather than paying for one to be built on top of the existing tower, Horn instead paid for a spire-shaped chalk carving to be cut into the hill in the background. When viewed from a certain angle, this gave the illusion that the church tower has a white spire on the top!

Some versions of the story state that the chalk carving was placed in such a way that the carving and church lined up with Horne's own house, so that the optical illusion would be visible from his window but I've not been able to identify the location of Horne's house in Watlington. In fact, his home address is usually stated as Greenfields, up on the Chiltern hills above Watlington.

Sadly, trees have now grown up around the church, blocking the ability to view the church/chalk carving illusion as Edward Horne intended. However, the hill on which the chalk carving stands is owned by the National Trust, preserving the white mark for posterity and making the land around it open for all to enjoy.

St. Leonard's Church, Watlington

The disappointingly spire-less church of St. Leonards, Watlington. Credit: Shaun Ferguson / St Leonard's Watlington Church / CC BY-SA 2.0.

The World's End at Watlington?

The Reader's Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain mentions an alarming belief held at one time in Watlington that if the ancient Icknield Way was followed further southwest along the Chiltern Hills, the route would eventually lead you directly to the world's end, and from there onward directly to hell!

Apparently, a Watlington man once set out to test the truth of this and returned claiming that after walking a considerable distance he had found himself greeted by fiery mountains and a smell of burning sulphur. From the description, one wonders if the poor man may have strayed as far as Swindon?

Bizarrely, it is actually possible to reach World's End from Watlington. In fact, if you start at Watlington and head about 20 miles southwest along the Chiltern range and cross the Thames into Berkshire, you will eventually reach the evocatively titled village of World's End!

World's End, Berkshire