The most mysterious man in Britain lives on the South Downs in Sussex, just outside Eastbourne, writes Robin Mead. He is a muscular looking fellow, who spends his time standing with his arms spread wide and gazing across the flat green fields that make up the Weald of Sussex. In each hand he grasps a pole as tall as himself.
That makes the poles 230 feet long. For the Long Man of Wilmington – a towering figure cut into the chalk face of Windover Hill – is not only a mystery man; he is also the largest representation of a human figure to be found anywhere in Europe, and probably in the world.
What makes him mysterious is that nobody knows who created this giant, let alone who he is supposed to be.
The theories are as many and varied as the wild flowers which grow on the hillsides around him. Is he a Bronze Age figure, or a more recent representation of the war god Odin? Is he a message from space, or is he a medieval joke carved by the monks from the nearby Wilmington Priory when time lay heavily on their hands?
The Sussex Archaeological Society, which owns and cares for the Long Man, says that it all comes down to individual interpretation. “From an archaeological and historical point of view, he is similar to one of the Saxon war gods, and the earliest drawing of him shows him with a helmet,” says a spokesman.
“The first written mention of him is in a document dated 1710, so while he might be anything up to 3,000 years old he might equally have been put on his hillside in 1709. We just don’t know.
“But we do get inquiries about him from all over the world, and you have to admit that there is this great air of mystery about him.”
One question is how the Long Man’s shape might have changed over the years. Some scientists think that the staves held by the Long Man were originally a scythe and a rake, and that at some point when the figure was being renovated his feet have been turned the wrong way.
But a first glimpse of him is still one of the most memorable moments of a visit to the countryside of East Sussex.
In many ways the chalk hills of the South Downs are a pathway through Britain’s island history. Once, when the whole of southern England was thickly wooded, the hilltops provided a safe if windy walkway from what is now Eastbourne to Winchester – a route now followed by the long-distance footpath called the South Downs Way.
Villages clustered at the foot of the hills because clean water, filtered by the chalk, appeared there as natural springs: you can still see one in Fulking, bubbling to the surface in the grounds of the local pub.
Beauty spots abound. Beachy Head, the nearby coastal ramparts of the cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, or the emotively-named Devil’s Dyke behind Brighton, all are worth a visit. The Downs hide a secret or two as well: look out for the V-shaped wood planted on the hillside above Plumpton to celebrate Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee.
Visiting this area, there’s no need to go anywhere near the big resort towns of the south coast unless you want to. The villages are far less crowded, packed with history, and are universally attractive as well.
Personal favourites include Alfriston, perched beside the young Cuckmere River; pretty Ditchling, with its tumbledown Tudor buildings; and winding Cuckfield. All have been voted as some of the best places in Britain to set up home. Welcoming restaurants and atmospheric pubs abound.
But hurry, because the Long Man won’t be there for ever. Experts say that although the figure is designed to be in perspective, a geological fault means that he is sliding ever so slowly downhill.
Where to stay:Eastbourne’s seafront Lansdowne Hotel is a comfortable, family-owned alternative to pricier neighbours, and – at from £26 per person per night – is personally recommended.
The Lansdowne Hotel, King Edward’s Parade, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN21 4EE. Tel: 01323 745483. Visit: www.bw-lansdownehotel.co.uk