Address: Dorchester, Dorset DT2 7AL

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Cerne Abbas Giant History

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a figure carved into chalk ground on a hill in Cerne Abbas, near Dorchester. The name of the place being derived from the River Cerne, the river that runs through the village, and ‘Abbas’ referring to the local Abbey that originated in 987.

The Giant depicts a naked, club wielding man and is 180ft (55m) tall, 167ft (51m) wide and his club is 120ft (36.5m) long. The figure has been made using a series of trenches a foot wide and a foot deep that cut through the soil and which have then been infilled with chalk. It is one of only two ancient human hill figures in the country, the Long Man of Wilmington being the other.

The age of the Giant is uncertain and has caused much debate. Some historians believe it to have come from prehistoric times and cite the evidence of a severed head beneath his left hand, this being an old Celtic symbol. Others suggest Roman origins as their famed hero Heracles was often depicted as naked, with a club in his right hand and a Numean lion skin draped over his left shoulder. Archaeological findings show evidence of the Giant having a skin or cloak draped over his left side.

But whilst it’s easy to come up with all manner of reasons and theories about ancient origins, logic dictates that it was created in the 1600s and there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, no reference was made to the Giant until 1694 when the churchwarden’s accounts show an expense of 3 shillings for ‘repairing ye giant’, this in contrast to the ‘Uffington White Horse’ that has been well documented from medieval times. John Hutchins seemed to confirm this timeline when writing in his 18th century book ‘The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset’. He remarked that the Giant had only originated in the previous century.

Above the Giant’s left shoulder is a square earthwork called the ‘Trendle’. It’s widely thought that an ancient temple once stood there, with the area being known over the years as Trendle Hill. This earthwork is well documented from ancient times and there would surely have been a reference to the Giant if it had existed in earlier times.

Some suggest that the Giant was built by the enemies of Oliver Cromwell in a bid to ridicule him. Cromwell was known as the British Hercules (Heracles) and the suggestion is that it was created by the servants of Denzil Holles, who was Lord of the Manor during the English Civil War.

It has also been suggested that it is unlikely that the Abbey, originating in 987, would have been built in the shadow of such an unchristianlike image. So all in all, its origins point to a timeline of mid 17th century.

The Giant has long been a symbol of fertility due to its large penis. Some believe that this was lengthened over the years to connect it to his navel or belly button. For hundreds of years it was a tradition for childless couples to dance around a maypole that had been erected on the Trendle in an attempt to boost fertility, an event that is now re-enacted on May Day.

The one acre site was acquired in 1920 by the National Trust and declared an ancient monument in 1924.

 

Cerne Abbas Giant Visit

Whilst it’s a figure of legend and history, it’s the kind of attraction that most visit simply for the novelty and curiosity. It certainly draws people as it attracts thousands to this sleepy village every year.

But when you arrive and look a little deeper you find the whole area is steeped in history and a great place to explore. You see many mentions of the Giant when walking around the village.

Such is the interest in the Giant that a fairly sizeable car park and viewing area has been built, this situated just off the A352. It gives the perfect view, from the perfect distance – any closer and you lose the elevation that allows you to see the whole figure. If you go up close, the height of the grass and a degree of curvature in the field again makes it hard to see the full image.

From the car park, there’s a lane on the right hand side that takes you to the Giant – you don’t have to walk over the fields. En route, you’ll see a picnic area and a stream, and this could form part of a pleasant couple of hours, or longer if you explore the whole area.

There’s certainly an instant wow! as you suddenly see it perched on the hill as you pull in to the car park. 

 The Giant was constructed with the idea that it is best viewed from a distance, but small details can be equally fascinating. His nose is a mound of earth, and you look at his fingers and there looks to be a degree of shaping of the soil – both things that would be missed if only viewed from afar.