SPANNING MORE than an acre Britain’s largest white horse cuts a striking image into the Yorkshire countryside.
But wet weather, algae and the passage of time periodically earn the icon the nickname “the old grey mare”.
Thanks to a paint job of epic proportions, however, the Kilburn White Horse is being groomed back to glory.
Using 1,000 litres of masonry paint and a team of ten people, work began yesterday on sprucing up the landmark cut into the hillside in the North York Moors National Park near Kilburn village.
The white horse, which was cut in 1857 and is said to be Britain’s largest in surface area, was last painted four years ago when work had to be suspended owing to torrential downpours during the first day.
Yesterday, the weather was more forgiving.
“The weather was kind, that’s the main thing,” said John Bielby, chairman of the Kilburn White Horse Association. “This is the fourth time we have sprayed it now – we are getting quite good at it. The horse goes with the weather. When the sun shines it dries it out and makes it really white. But when it’s wet and miserable it goes very dark grey and it gets the nickname, the ‘old grey mare.’
“It was getting quite grey again. The chippings turn over and put up the side which has not been painted. We also get algae growing on the chippings so we try to paint it every five years.”
The most northerly of all the figures is not actually built on chalk like its southern cousins. In years gone by chalk chippings were tipped onto the horse and spread by hand.
Mr Bielby’s daughter, Helen Harrison, vice chair of the association, said that if the chalk chippings had continued to be added to the horse, it would have been in danger of slipping down the hill into the visitor car park. So these days the chippings are spray painted with pressurised hoses.
“We would not want to see it disappear but it was very grey,” said Mrs Harrison.
“We rely on public support. A lot of the committee members are local and can see the horse from their homes.
“It would be sad to see it disappear seeing as it has been here since 1857.”
The horse was badly damaged by a hail storm in 1896 and fell into disrepair after the First World War.
It was renewed in 1925 following a newspaper campaign which is commemorated by a memorial in the nearby car park, stating that “the residue of £100 was invested to provide for the triennial grooming of the figure”.
In 1949 a storm almost destroyed the horse again. Local mouse furniture maker Robert Thompson was involved in keeping the horse well groomed until his death in 1955. Mr Bielby has been involved with the Kilburn White Horse Association for more than 40 years since he was drafted in to help do some work on the landmark through the Helmsley Young Farmers.
“It is an icon of Yorkshire and it’s one of those things you get a passion for,” he said.
“It is one of those things – it gets into your blood. I hope my daughter will take the reins when I get too old to walk up and down the horse.”
Three generations of the family are due to help today when Mr Bielby is joined by his son, seven-year-old grandson and nine-year-old granddaughter
Instore Solutions Ltd is painting the horse for a minimal fee and half the paint has been donated by PPG Architectural Coatings UK Limited.