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History of Kent's chalk landmarks: Wye Crown, Folkestone White Horse, Lenham Cross and Shoreham Cross

It can be easy to take Kent's man-made chalk landmarks for granted when you've driven past them countless times.

Standing proudly on the county's rolling green hills, four huge sites including Wye Crown near Ashford have overseen decades of change.

The Folkestone White Horse overlooks the Channel Tunnel terminal, right, Colin Miles from Sittingbourne picked up the Lenham Cross in 2010. Pictures: Ady Kerry and Colin Miles
The Folkestone White Horse overlooks the Channel Tunnel terminal, right, Colin Miles from Sittingbourne picked up the Lenham Cross in 2010. Pictures: Ady Kerry and Colin Miles

But while Wye's white memorial is arguably Kent's best known, a large cross just off the A20 in Lenham and another in Shoreham near Sevenoaks are also full of history.

And in 2003, a huge white horse near Folkestone was added to the hillside - albeit seven years after the idea first went on the drawing board.

Nationally, The Long Man of Wilmington across the border in East Sussex may boast a bigger profile, but Kent's chalky carvings are an important part of the county's look.

Due to their sheer size, they can only be properly appreciated at a distance, adding another dimension to the Garden of England.

Here, we take a look at the stories behind the stark white landmarks...

The Crown in Wye enjoyed a dusting of snow in December 2009, much to the enjoyment of the village's children. Picture: Derek West
The Crown in Wye enjoyed a dusting of snow in December 2009, much to the enjoyment of the village's children. Picture: Derek West

Wye Crown

Nestling at the foot of the North Downs, Wye lies under the crown, a huge emblem cut into the chalk hillside by students of Wye College in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII.

The carving - which was lit up at night to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day earlier this month - can be seen for miles.

Its story started when Lord Abergavenny, Lord Lieutenant of Kent, called for the county to respond with lively patriotic support after it was announced the coronation of the new monarch would be on June 26, 1902.

It was suggested that on Coronation Day a ring of bonfires should line the crest of the North Downs.

Fireworks over the lit-up Wye Crown on the Wye Downs in November 2010. Picture: Richard Earland
Fireworks over the lit-up Wye Crown on the Wye Downs in November 2010. Picture: Richard Earland
An archive photo of Wye Crown in 1902
An archive photo of Wye Crown in 1902

In Wye, a parish meeting to decide how to mark the occasion was held in the Board School.

Apart from a free tea for children and sports, the college principal suggested a more ambitious and permanent reminder of the occasion.

It involved digging out a large design of a crown above a chalk pit to serve as a landmark for miles around.

The view from the top of Wye Crown in 2003
The view from the top of Wye Crown in 2003
Two commemorative plaques and the Compass Rose, which is a heavy piece of Cumberland slate, were unveiled at the top of Wye Crown in May 2003. Picture: Dave Downey
Two commemorative plaques and the Compass Rose, which is a heavy piece of Cumberland slate, were unveiled at the top of Wye Crown in May 2003. Picture: Dave Downey

The Kentish Express of that year observed 'one of the most suitable commemorations in the county'.

The work, contrary to the principal's original notions, occupied a team of volunteers comprising 35 college students.

It took them almost a week but the huge task was finished on time, despite a break celebrating the signing of a peace treaty with the Boers.

A few days before June 26, the King became gravely ill with appendicitis and the coronation ceremony could not be held until August.

The illuminated Wye Crown could be seen for miles when it was lit up on VE Day earlier this month. Picture: Big Welsh Paul Photography
The illuminated Wye Crown could be seen for miles when it was lit up on VE Day earlier this month. Picture: Big Welsh Paul Photography

But the King asked for events planned for June to go ahead.

So the sporting events, the picnic tea and the bonfire by the crown were held on the precise date.

Not many students who had created the crown were still at Wye College when the King, guest of Lord Gerard at nearby Eastwell Park, saw across the valley a second bonfire on the crown on July 4, 1904, which was named in his honour and illuminated.

During the last 100 years, the crown has been a focal point for the celebration of other royal occasions.

At about 180ft tall, it underwent a major restoration between 1991 and 1995 and is still white-washed when it gets grubby, ensuring the bright white landmark continues to stand out.

Michael Rust of Hastingleigh finishing carving the Cumberland slate Compass Rose which was put at the top of Wye Crown in 2003
Michael Rust of Hastingleigh finishing carving the Cumberland slate Compass Rose which was put at the top of Wye Crown in 2003
The high conservation value of the chalk grassland at Wye Crown has long been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The high conservation value of the chalk grassland at Wye Crown has long been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Folkestone White Horse

The controversial Folkestone White Horse was finally completed in the summer of 2003 despite opposition from environmentalists.

Originally it was hoped the figure would mark the millennium, but the plans proved divisive and were delayed by a public inquiry.

Although the landmark was given planning permission by Shepway District Council, an inquiry was held as the government advisory body English Nature - now Natural England - objected.

The White Horse over Folkestone was a little whiter than usual in January 2009. Picture: Chris Denham
The White Horse over Folkestone was a little whiter than usual in January 2009. Picture: Chris Denham
The Gurkha soldiers who helped build the landmark pictured in June 2003
The Gurkha soldiers who helped build the landmark pictured in June 2003

Friends of the Earth and a Welsh MP then took the case to the EU claiming the white horse contravened European laws which sought to protect the environment.

Opponents claimed the area of rare chalk grassland should have been left alone, raising fears tourists might flock to the horse and damage the flora and fauna.

But in March 2002, then transport and local government secretary Stephen Byers gave the project the go-ahead.

The following summer, the figure was completed on Cheriton Hill when the final chalk pieces were put into place to form the animal's eye.

Landowner Richard Beaugie and artist Charles Newington with the horse design in December 2001
Landowner Richard Beaugie and artist Charles Newington with the horse design in December 2001
MP Michael Howard and Charles Dawes - the former high sheriff of Kent - cut the ribbon for the burial of a time capsule in June 2004. Picture: Matt McArdle
MP Michael Howard and Charles Dawes - the former high sheriff of Kent - cut the ribbon for the burial of a time capsule in June 2004. Picture: Matt McArdle

Gurkha soldiers helped build most of the image and spent seven days working on the hill, which overlooks the Channel Tunnel's UK terminal.

As the hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the horse was not cut into the land because carving into the chalk grassland was a bone of contention with English Nature.

Instead chalk blocks were laid on the ground to form the figure, which is based on the tradition of chalk carvings dating back to ancient Celtic times.

Patrick Clarke asked his girlfriend Alison Kirby to marry him in large white letters which he created out of bin bags in 2003. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Patrick Clarke asked his girlfriend Alison Kirby to marry him in large white letters which he created out of bin bags in 2003. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The 'Alison marry me' message on the hillside at Christmas in 2003 - and she said yes! In November that year, efforts to turn the image into a fire-breathing beast were quickly scuppered after two red barrels placed near the horse's nose - to make it look as though it was breathing fire - were removed
The 'Alison marry me' message on the hillside at Christmas in 2003 - and she said yes! In November that year, efforts to turn the image into a fire-breathing beast were quickly scuppered after two red barrels placed near the horse's nose - to make it look as though it was breathing fire - were removed

A time capsule featuring articles from the Kentish Express about the battle to create it was positioned at the heart of the horse 100ft into the hill.

It was claimed at the time that the landmark would become a symbol for Shepway similar to how the Angel of the North has for Tyneside, providing people with a lasting reminder of England before they left for the continent.

Farmer Richard Beaugie, from Ashford and artist Charles Newington, of Lympne, were behind the bold project, which bosses said would help regenerate Folkestone by attracting people to the area.

Nagen Rai about to place one of the chalk slabs on the hillside in June 2003
Nagen Rai about to place one of the chalk slabs on the hillside in June 2003
The horse was hardly visible when this photo was taken in July 2016. Picture: Gary Browne
The horse was hardly visible when this photo was taken in July 2016. Picture: Gary Browne
Artist Charles Newington and sculptor Brian Hall pictured in August 2003 just after installing the eye, which was the final part to be put in place
Artist Charles Newington and sculptor Brian Hall pictured in August 2003 just after installing the eye, which was the final part to be put in place

One supporter of the scheme was comic Spike Milligan, who died in 2002 aged 83 and was a friend of Mr Newington.

The pair had been close friends since Mr Newington bumped into The Goon Show star in Rye and they had chatted about the piece just a few days before the comic died of liver failure.

Close to the horse on the nearby Summerhouse Hill, an area of chalk overlooking both the A20 and M20 is said to resemble an elephant's head.

The 'elephant's head' on Summerhouse Hill just off the A20. Picture: Google
The 'elephant's head' on Summerhouse Hill just off the A20. Picture: Google
The chalk slabs are put into position in June 2003
The chalk slabs are put into position in June 2003
In July 2003, the Royal Gurkha Rifles who helped build the chalk white horse at Folkestone visited the Przewalski horses at Port Lympne, which helped inspire the landmark
In July 2003, the Royal Gurkha Rifles who helped build the chalk white horse at Folkestone visited the Przewalski horses at Port Lympne, which helped inspire the landmark
One of comedian Spike Milligan's dying wishes was to see a chalk white horse in Folkestone
One of comedian Spike Milligan's dying wishes was to see a chalk white horse in Folkestone
The white horse at Cheriton. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The white horse at Cheriton. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Lenham Cross

The cross at Lenham has held a special place in the hearts of residents ever since it was first cut into the chalk downs in 1921 as a memorial to the fallen of the Great War.

Yet until recent years, it had never had any official recognition.

That changed in December 2017 when Historic England registered the cross as a National Monument and War Memorial thanks to the work of parish councillor Mike Cockett.

Loosening the soil around the strawberries under the giant hillside cross at Lenham in June 1946. Picture: John Topham
Loosening the soil around the strawberries under the giant hillside cross at Lenham in June 1946. Picture: John Topham
The view from the cross of Remembrance in Lenham in 2010. Picture: Andy Flood
The view from the cross of Remembrance in Lenham in 2010. Picture: Andy Flood

The monument, measuring 61m by 21m, was once supported by a memorial stone surrounded by iron railings at the base, recording the names of the 42 Lenham villagers who died in the First World War.

A second stone, with the names of the 14 killed in the Second World War was added later, but in 1960 both were moved to the north entrance of St Mary’s Church to make it easier for mourners to visit them.

During the Second World War, the cross was covered over to prevent it being a marker for enemy aircraft.

It 1983, it underwent a major renovation with 40 tonnes of chalk added.

A Remembrance Day service at the Lenham Cross in 1930
A Remembrance Day service at the Lenham Cross in 1930
Lenham parish councillor Mike Cockett worked to get the cross recognised
Lenham parish councillor Mike Cockett worked to get the cross recognised
Hasley Baker of Hubards Hill, Lenham, took this photo of the cross on the North Downs in June 2008
Hasley Baker of Hubards Hill, Lenham, took this photo of the cross on the North Downs in June 2008

Mr Cockett realised the site's lack of official recognition when the village prepared its Neighbourhood Plan in 2014, describing it as "virtually unknown outside of Lenham".

He said: "The cross is always one of the first places we show visitors, so it was a shock to find it was totally unregistered."

He went about sending Historic England pictures of the cross, testimony from villagers and a copy of the book Lenham and the Great War by historian Amy Myers to convince the organisation of its importance.

The white cross standing out on the Lenham hillside
The white cross standing out on the Lenham hillside
A moody sky above the cross in March 2014. Picture: Martin Apps
A moody sky above the cross in March 2014. Picture: Martin Apps

The site is now Grade II-listed and Historic England’s citation states: “The memorial is rather unusual when compared with other war memorials as it was carved by hand directly into the chalk of the North Downs as a hill-figure cross and prominent landmark by Freddie Baldock, with help from volunteers.

“The memorial was designed by the village school headmaster C.H. Groom.

“It is an eloquent witness to the tragic impact of world events on this community.”

An archive photo looking across the fields to the Lenham Cross
An archive photo looking across the fields to the Lenham Cross

Shoreham Cross

Like the cross in Lenham, a similar example in Shoreham - a village five miles north of Sevenoaks - is dedicated to those who were lost in the First World War.

Sunday, May 24 will mark 100 years since the first turf was dug out to make the landmark, which remembers the 50 people from the village killed in the Great War.

Villager Samuel Cheeseman - who had lost two of his sons in the conflict - came up with the idea and it took 16 months to complete.

The Shoreham Cross is a memorial to those lost in the First World War
The Shoreham Cross is a memorial to those lost in the First World War

Due to the curve of the hill, one arm of the cross had to be longer than the other so the perspective looked correct from the opposite side of the village.

The construction of the landmark - which is 100ft in length and 58ft wide - was completed in September 1921.

Thanks to its sheer size, it was hidden by branches and old trees during the Second World War to protect it from enemy aircraft.

For decades, Remembrance services have been conducted at the cross each year.

The people of Shoreham assemble to cut the turf for the cross on the hill in 1920
The people of Shoreham assemble to cut the turf for the cross on the hill in 1920

The tradition comes from Mr Cheeseman himself, who remembered his lost sons by pulling a small cannon up the hill to the cross every year.

He then fired it to signal both the start and the end of the two-minute silence.

In later years, the original sightline from the village war memorial to the cross had become completely obscured by trees.

But that changed in 2010 when trees were cut back to recreate the original view.

An aerial photo of Shoreham near Sevenoaks from September 1947, showing the cross on the Downs
An aerial photo of Shoreham near Sevenoaks from September 1947, showing the cross on the Downs
A close view of the Shoreham Cross
A close view of the Shoreham Cross

The same had to be done in 2018 when branches had grown back and the village prepared to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War.

Shoreham parish council clerk Sarah Moon says the cross is an important part of the village's history.

The construction of the village's cross and this riverside memorial was completed in September 1921
The construction of the village's cross and this riverside memorial was completed in September 1921
Samuel Cheeseman’s annual pilgrimage to the cross on Armistice Day - this is a painting by Richard Ewing, grandson of Mr Cheeseman
Samuel Cheeseman’s annual pilgrimage to the cross on Armistice Day - this is a painting by Richard Ewing, grandson of Mr Cheeseman

She said: "If you're not in the village itself, when you drive on the A225 between Dartford and Sevenoaks, you can get a good view of it.

"And it's the same when you get the train from London to Sevenoaks on the Thameslink line.

"We recently launched a competition to design a village sign and almost everybody included the cross in their entry.

"Everybody knows about it as it's the most iconic aspect of the village."

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