Chalk Horses

The chalk hills of old England have had figures cut into them for millennia. Some of these have faded back into the hills others have been recut regularly in order to preserve them.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is carved into the green turf of a steep hill near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. He stands proud at 55m tall holding a club in his right hand. His left hand may also have held a cloak or a dismembered head at some point.

Local legend is that he was a real giant who caused havoc in the area smashing up houses & eating sheep. One day he lay down on the hill to digest his meal & the locals set on him & killed him in his sleep. They then carved out his outline in chalk. This folktale makes no mention of the giant erect penis.

In 1774 in the History of Dorset by John Hutchins this is said of the giant, “I have heard from the steward of the manor that it is a modern thing cut out in Lord Hollis’ time” This dates to between 1641 & 1666. However Lord Hollis may have only recut the figure. In the Churchwardens’ accounts from St Mary’s Church in Cerne Abbas there is an entry for 1694; “for repairing ye giant, 3 shillings”
The earliest known drawing of the Giant appears in the August 1764 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine. By the Victorian period (after 1837) the penis was removed from academic and tourist depictions.

There are several ideas concerning the age of the Giant, and whom he might represent:

One theory is that because there is no medieval documentary evidence, then the Giant was created in the 17th century, perhaps by Lord Holles, who resided in Cerne Abbas, and perhaps as a parody of Oliver Cromwell.

Another is that the Giant dates to the time of the Romans in Britain (i.e. Romano-British), because the Giant resembles the Roman god Hercules, who was based on the Greek god Heracles.

Yet another is that the Giant is of Pagan Celtic origin, because it is stylistically similar to a Celtic god on a skillet handle found at Hod Hill, Dorset, and dated to around AD 10 to AD 51 & of Northern European depictions of gods of the time.

Since Victorian times there has been documented folklore about fertility rituals associated with the giant.

There is a small iron age earthwork on top of Trendle Hill & locals would erect a maypole in the earthwork around which childless couples would dance on May Day in order to promote fertility. The May Pole is a phallic symbol.

Barren women would sit on the giant in the hope of becoming pregnant. The folklore I heard when growing up in Dorset was that if you had intercourse within the penis outline a pregnancy would occur.

In 1921 Walter Long of Gillingham, Dorset objected to the giant’s nudity and conducted a campaign to either convert it to a simple nude, or to cover its supposed obscenity with a leaf. Long’s protest gained some support, including that of two bishops, and eventually reached the Home Office. The Home Office considered the protest to be in humour, though the chief constable responded to say the office could not act against a protected scheduled monument.
Cut into the northern slope of Windover Hill, at the eastern end of the South Downs near Wilmington in Sussex is a giant carrying a long staff in either hand. He is 70m tall. Close to the Long Man are a collection of burial mounds including a long barrow.

He has been variously identified as a local giant, St Paul, a Roman soldier, a Saxon haymaker or as a prehistoric surveyor, or dodman, who used his two staffs as sighting poles. Alfred Watkins came up with the dodman theory. During neolithic times the figure may have been aligned to mark the movement of the constellation Orion over the hill behind it. So he may have been a manifestation of Neolithic astral religion.

The origin is unclear. Up until recently he was thought to have been a neolithic creation as part of the ritual landscape of burial mounds.
More recent surveys have dated the figure to the 16th or 17th century possibly after there was a period of geological instability on the hill.

This is speculation on my part, but I am of the opinion that both the Cerne Abbas & Wilmington Giants are likely to have been older then early modern period based on the style of the figures.

The huge stylised drawing of the White Horse near Uffington in Oxfordshire is dated to between 1740 & 210 BC. It is 110 metres from head to tail & was probably carved by Iron Age Celts. There is an Iron Age hill fort on top of the hill.
The steep sided dry valley below the horse is known as the Manger and legend says that the horse grazes there at night.

Other prominent prehistoric sites are located nearby, notably Wayland’s Smithy, a long barrow less than a mile to the west.

Does this constitute a ritual landscape?

The horse was venerated in Celtic times & may have represented the horse goddess Epona. It may have been a tribal territory marker; the Vale of the White Horse falls at a point where three Celtic tribal zones met.

According to local tradition the horse may actually be a dragon. Close to the horse is Dragon Hill where St George is said to have killed the dragon. No grass grows on the top of the hill where the fabled beast bled out.

Chalk horses & figures stride across the landscape of England & Scotland & we can see them from far away. Some are lost to the hills & forgotten but maybe a sense memory in Plymouth or Gag Magog leaves a faint imprint.

The 5th song on the upcoming Cunning Folk Album is called Chalk Horses…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What Has Been & Gone Before

The 4th song on the upcoming Cunning Folk album; Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground is titled What Has Been & Gone Before, & this is what inspired it.


On the 17th June 601AD Pope Gregory gave a letter to Abbot Mellitus, who was departing for England:
“When (by God’s help) you come to our most reverend brother, Bishop Augustine (in Kent), I want you to tell him how earnestly I have been pondering the affairs of the English: I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water & alters set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well-built temples by purifying them from devil worship & dedicating them to the service of the true God. In this way, I hope the people (seeing their temples are not destroyed) will leave the idolatry & yet continue to frequent the places as formerly, so coming to know & revere the true God. & since the sacrifice of many oxen to devils is their custom, some other rite ought to be solemnized in it’s place such as a Day of Dedication or Festivals for the holy martyrs whose relics are there enshrined. On such high days the people might well build themselves shelters of boughs round about the churches that were once temples & celebrate the occasion with pious feasting. They must no longer sacrifice animals to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the glory of God while giving thanks for his bounty as the provider of all gifts.”
In this letter were the blueprints for the erasure of old ways.
I grew up near Knowlton Church, a ruined church built inside a Neolithic henge monument on Cranborne Chase. The ruin is evidence of the village of Knowlton which was wiped out by the Black Death in medieval times.
As children we would run around the ramparts & hide in the small Yew grove & climb on the ruin. It was rumoured that witches would meet there on dark nights. That would have been a fascinating example of continuity of purpose echoing past beliefs.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Modern Antiquarian



My experience of ritual landscapes of Britain is pedestrian. It is on foot. Maybe these landscapes were meant to be taken in on foot.

I have lost count of the times I have visited & walked the Avebury complex in Wiltshire. You can easily in the space of a day walk down from the Wessex ridgeway into the village & the stone circle, along the avenue of stones,to the Sanctuary, then past Silbury Hill & on to West Kennet Long Barrow.

The act of walking between these places feels significant as it is what the people who created these earthworks & stone avenues & chamber tombs would have done. Avebury is a complex of sites close to each other perhaps with interlocking significances.


West Kennet Long Barrow was built around 3650 BC & used for around 1000 years until it was sealed up, filled to the roof  by the Beaker People with earth & stones. It is a chamber tomb about 25 metres long which you can walk in. Whenever I go I offer a libation before entering the chamber. I pour out the contents of a fine bottle of beer to show my respect to the older ones.
Silbury Hill is the largest man made mound in Europe. It is about the size of a pyramid & was completed around 2500 BC. There is no evidence of human burial associated with the hill.
Built around 3000 BC, the Sanctuary was originally a complex circular arrangement of timber posts, which were later replaced by stones. These components are presently indicated with concrete slabs. Huge numbers of human bones have been excavated from here accompanied by food, suggesting elaborate death rites & ceremonies.
The stones & henges of Avebury were not all constructed at the same time. 3000BC for the central cove, 2900 for the inner stone circle, 2600 for the outer circle & henge & 2400BC for the avenue. This is the late Neolithic period.

The henge, a large circular bank with an internal ditch is over 1000 metres in circumference. Within the henge is the outer stone circle, Britains largest, with a diameter of 300 metres or so. Within the outer stone circle is the inner circle.

The avenue of paired stones leading from the south-eastern entrance to the henge is a designed passage through the landscape leading us from the Avebury stone circle towards Silbury & West Kennet.

There is no written record of what the function of the Avebury complex is. Maybe the stone circles were a representation of the world of the Neolithic peoples. Some historians have speculated that between 5000 to 10000 people would gather regularly at the site to demonstrate tribal loyalty or for religious observance.
Pagan rites seem to have been practiced at the circle as late as the 14th century, for at this time the local Christians considered it their religious duty to fell the stones. One of the Christians was crushed to death by the stone as it fell & his skeleton was discovered in the 1930s pinned to the side of a burial hole. The contents of his purse identified him as a barber surgeon & the stone is now known as the Barber Stone.

With the advent of the modern religions of Druidry & Wicca, Avebury has regained ritual significance & at equinoxes & solstices neopagan ceremonies are performed at the site which is considered to be a living temple.
On a visit in the year 2000 I picked up a book from the village shop in Avebury called “The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain”. It is a poetical gazetteer of scores of barrows, standing stones, megalithic monuments scattered across the British Isles. Written in 1998 by Julian Cope, it is one of my treasured books. It has accompanied me on drives across Scotland to see chambered cairns & carved stones, on hikes across Bodmin Moor & Dartmoor to interlocking stone circles & Arthur’s Hall, & on & on.
It seems fitting that I found it in a bookshop in a village encircled by a living temple.

I take it with me on most journeys. It is a fine sleeved hardcover which is starting to fray & dog. I like the erosion from pristine to decrepit that loved objects undergo. Eventually the spine will crack & the sleeve will split & I am not sure whether I will repair it or let it fall apart. Maybe I should take pages from it & place them on the monuments they have led me to. The stones will be here long after the book has gone & it’s where the book takes you which is important. The pilgrimage to these sites is a ritual in itself, an observance that these places have importance.

The third song on my upcoming album; Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground (released March 24th) is titled The Modern Antiquarian.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Old Straight Track

The second song from the upcoming Cunning Folk album: Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground is called The Old Straight Track. Here is a blog about what inspired it.

I grew up in East Dorset close to Cranborne Chase, a large area of countryside the Norman kings kept clear of habitation to make room for hunting ground. There is plenty of evidence of our ancestors left in the local landscape. 9

There is Badbury Rings, an iron age hill fort reputed in local legend to be the final resting place of King Arthur.

10Knowlton Church, a Norman ruin within a henge complex.
There is Bokerley Dyke, a Saxon defensive ditch running for miles through the countryside & there are countless round barrow tumuli in the corn & barley fields. You can literally see where our ancestors made their mark. I grew up trying to see if there are connections between places, significances.13

A Herefordshire man by the name of Alfred Watkins was a pioneer of trying to make connections between old places on the landscape. He thought the locations of ancient monuments & settlements were very significant. He thought that they were aligned.

15He wrote a book in 1925 called “The Old Straight Track” on the subject. He called these alignments, “Ley Lines”.

Alfred Watkins’ ideas are controversial & influential. They are not taken seriously by orthodox archaeologists but have inspired ley hunters & artists.

17The writer Alan Garner in his book  “The Moon Of Gomrath” portrays the Old Straight Track appearing at moonrise near Alderley Edge.

IMG_1901.JPGI am fascinated by the concept of the ley line; the connection between old places over distance & time. The idea of old, wild magic transmitted through the land between standing stones & hills, along ancient tracks from forgotten settlements to barrows & cursi. Maybe we cross these lines every day.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Is How It Starts

Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground; the Cunning Folk album will be released on March 24 2017. The album is my journey through some of the ritual landscapes of Britain. In the run up to the album release I will be writing a blog about each song & will put out snippets of each song for your listening pleasure.

The first song is called “This Is How It Starts”

We live in a world of rituals.
A ritual is a ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. It may have a religious significance.
If you have been to a wedding or a funeral you have taken part in a ritual.

A ritual can also be an action arising from the habits of an individual or group at work or at home.

For example I have a morning coffee ritual which I start my day with.
I put water in the espresso maker & switch on the machine, spoon espresso coffee into the dripper & get a small cup to place under the dripper. While waiting for the water to heat up I switch on the radio. Naturally I am a Radio 4 listener. The dripper is switched on & I fill my cup & listen to the Today show for a while.

On one occasion, while listening to the radio, I heard a gentleman called Robert Macfarlane reading excerpts of his book, “Landmarks”. Landmarks is a series of essays about folk who have interacted with British landscapes through art, walking, swimming & ornithology. It also has extensive glossaries of language specific to particular geographies.

I found the book relevant because over the past few years I have been troubled by the rise of nationalist identity politics & these essays & discussions felt like a way of finding an identity defined by landscape & our relationship with it. Identity not confined by borders on maps but by shared heritages refined by our environments & how we relate to them.

Those of you who have heard my songs may know that they are often site specific. The first location is my kitchen chair next to the radio at the moment when I decide to make a journey.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ritual Land Uncommon Ground. Album preview at South East London Folklore Society on December 8


For the December South East London Folklore Society meeting, Cunning Folk will be performing songs from the upcoming album, Ritual Land Uncommon Ground, & talking about themes which inspired the piece.

Britain has been settled for millenia. From time to time we leave evidence of our part in this island story. This presentation will  address our relationship with the land, how our identity is shaped by geography & the magic which springs up in forgotten corners as a result

Thursday, December 8 at 8 pm at The Old King’s Head, King’s Head Yard, 45-49 Borough High Street SE1 1NA
Entrance is £3/1.50 concs

you can stroll up on the night or email to guarantee a place


Leave a comment

Filed under Music, South East London Folklore Society



I am currently collaborating with film-maker Richard Mansfield to make a soundtrack for his upcoming folk horror film entitled “Scare Bear”

img_1199Acoustic guitar, electric bass, synthesizers & voice combine into a folk synthesis of strangeness. I look forward to the premiere screening early next year…20160719-1The new Cunning Folk album, “Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground”, will also be released in 2017, with a preview performance in early December…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Congleton Bear

For several weeks now I have been obsessing about this song. It is about a town in Cheshire called Congleton which is about 20 miles south of Manchester.In the 17th century  Congleton also went by the name of “Beartown” as it was famous for bearbaiting (likely) or for a dancing bear (less likely,marginally more humane). It is a matter of public record that on one occasion the town bear died just before one of the annual town “Wakes” (holidays) & money was lent to buy a new bear. The loan to the bearward was 18 shillings & came from the town’s church bible fund!

The song was written by Derbyshire folk artist John Tams in the early 1970s. The version I have included is by a 70s English Folk band called “The Druids”.

I believe this song may find it’s way into the Cunning Folk repertoire…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground

George Nigel Hoyle – Wiltshire, July 2016 from S P Collins on Vimeo.

Cunning Folk, A.K.A George Hoyle, is looking forward to releasing an album of songs about the land we live in. People have made parts of Britain into ritual landscapes: the video shows Cunning Folk walking through Wiltshire in high summer. West Kennett Long Barrow seemed an appropriate place to sing a song about Alfred Watkins. Before entering West Kennett Long Barrow it is advisable to show respect with a libation. A beer which you would really want to drink yourself is poured at the threshold in order to honour those whom have been here before.

Cunning Folk learned this ritual a few years ago when employed to install a sound art project in a catacomb in a London cemetery. None of the electrical equipment would work & the mp3 player was unresponsive for a number of days until a bottle of Old Thumper was bought & brought to the threshold of the catacomb whereupon it either leaped from the hand of it’s own accord & smashed, or was dropped by a nervous fellow hoping to appease restless bones. Whatever the cause of the falling bottle, the desired effect was achieved & the installation worked without hitch for the duration of the art project.

Poetic truth.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cunning Folk Activities


After a busy & successful Bermondsey Folk Festival. Cunning Folk are not resting on laurels. There is a chance to see Cunning Folk perform on the Golden Hinde on Friday October 7th as part of the bill of the wonderful Tiller Flat Folk Club. There is also a talk called “A Beginner’s Guide To Folklore”, promoted by Cunning Folk, on Thursday October 13th. Follow the link for more details…

Leave a comment

Filed under Folk