Friday, 10 July 2009

What happened to the Great White Man of Pitstone?

As a resident of Ivinghoe, I have often wondered about Mercer's intriguing reference in 1623 to a great white figure of a man cut in the chalk above the village of Pitstone. Possibly it resembled the outline of Hercules at Cerne Abbas (left). By independent evidence, it was also visible in 1580 but had vanished from record by the late 17th century (John Houghton, Manors & Mayhem, 1996: 65).
Where could it have been sited?
To have been visible to Mercer, looking north from Pitstone, it might have been located on the south-eastern scarp of Beacon Hill. However, the elevation is modest and the figure would have been puny. More likely, the site was a mile still further north at the great hill of Whipsnade.
This is precisely the place where Whipsnade Zoo now flaunts a chalk figure of a lion. Local rumour has it that the figure was created during the 2nd World War to warn German aircraft that Here Be a Zoo. And therefore they should not bomb it. I doubt if it worked. Bomber pilots at the time were not noticeably sentimental.
So I would suggest that the modern chalk Lion of Whipsnade Zoo disguises a figure - medieval or earlier - that is possibly that of Hercules. No doubt the diligent volunteers of the National Trust could confirm that in no time, using depth radar. I commend it to their next Funding Application.


  1. Perhaps Shipwash's old man cut the figure on the hill above his house to guide him back from the Bell Inn at Pitstone o'nights?

  2. 'Slid, wench, there is no hill above Pitstone. It lies in a valley. Back to your spinning wheel, malkin.

  3. By your mercy, sir, but Flavia has a point. There was indeed a Bell Inn at Pitstone. Hippo's father, John Yeoman IV refers to it in his diary entry of 1558. Were it on the same spot as the modern Bell Inn, the Swan at Ivinghoe, the Bell, and Shipwash's cottage would all be in one direct line of sight!

    And if a small chalk figure had been cut in Pitstone Hill south east of Pitstone behind the cottage, Shipwash's husband would have seen it clear as he staggered down Ivinghoe hill, even if he were blind drunk.

    He'd just have to head for the little white man, and he'd be home!

  4. A plague on both your houses. Besides, how could Shipwash's husband see a little chalk figure in the dark?

  5. Organic phosphorous? There'd be plenty of it available from the decomposing bones of saints dug up from Ashridge monastery when it was dissolved in the 1540s.

    He'd just have to spread it on the little man on the hill. Then the figure would glow at night like a luminous watch.

  6. Ho! Saints at Ashridge? Read Hippo's chronicle for 14th May 1623. So venial were those randy clerics in the 15th century that they had dug a tunnel from the monastery buttery to the nunnery of St Margaret's! I don't see much saintliness there - or phosphorous. (Though I dare say their noses glowed with joy in the tunnel.)

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  8. Why does that remind me of our last Christmas party, John? (Lewd clerics, things lambent, et alia.) Perhaps we should post Fergal's recipe here for marrow-and-ginger rum.

    Yes? No?

    Beshrew me if I don't. Take a large marrow (squash for our friends in America). Scoop out a deep hole. Fill with brown sugar, raisins and grated ginger. Cover the top against flies. And hang in a warmish place for five weeks.

    Punch holes in the bottom and collect the revolting brown 90% proof goo that drips out. Call it Lambswool (much acclaimed by Thomas Nash circa 1595).

    Serve at office party on Christmas Eve to assembled colleagues, who will shortly thereafter be called the 'luminati' and not reemerge until the New Year.


Read 'The Apothecary's Tales' now


Many have proposed that The Apothecary's Tales is a detective novel in the genre of historical fiction or fictive history set in the Jacobean and Elizabethan era called the Jacobethan (or the age of Shakespeare). Certainly, its tone of mystery, suspense, humour, comedy and ribald sex might suggest that. However, the mystery, detective and thriller elements merely support its presentation as an historical novel; they do not invaidate the possibility that it is a true account originally written in the language of Shakespeare and revised for the reader of modern historical novels.