Re-chalking the Giant - the Cerne Abbas experience
by Ian (Vinny), September 2008
When sixteen West Yorkshire folk book 2 or 3 days off work, it may seem nothing out of the ordinary but when those folk are members of WYNTV, you can be sure that it will be something extraordinary …
The story of WYNTV and the Giant begins in 2007; when, whilst holidaying in Dorset, Pete, Liz, Colin & Sue stopped off to view the Cerne Abbas Giant. They noticed that he was becoming covered in grass and other flora, and literally fading into the hillside; the contrast with the temporary doughnut-wielding Homer Simpson in the neighbouring field making this even more apparent.
The famous four left a comment card saying that the Giant was looking a bit jaded and if West Dorset NT needed help in re-chalking him, that WYNTV would be happy to help.
They heard nothing for a few months, until Rob Rhodes, the West Dorset head warden, contacted them in April 2008 saying that he planned to re-chalk the Giant over the period Saturday 13th September to Sunday 21st September and that he would appreciate help from WYNTV. Rob expected that the Dorset Countryside Volunteers (DCV) and locals would be available over the two weekends, so WYNTV agreed to assist with the re-chalking on Thursday 18th & Friday 19th September. Rob advised that this would be one of the major face lifts which take place every 20 years or so (whereas every 7 years or so the Giant has a minor face lift, when only the top layer of chalk is replaced).
In addition to managing the Cerne Giant, the West Dorset warden team manages 6,000 acres of coast and countryside which includes 22 properties; the largest estate being Golden Cap (2,000 acres).
The Giant’s refurbishment started as planned on Saturday 13th September with the DCV and locals re-cutting the edges to restore the minimum trench width of 40cm. They then used mattocks to remove 10cm of the existing discoloured chalk, ensuring that all flora (and roots) had been removed. The discoloured chalk was bagged up, carried to the top of the hill, loaded into trailers, and then used to fill potholes in tracks around the Giant site.Rob’s team of wardens (Peter, Michael, Jon & Sarah) assisted by some locals, including some school children, then continued to work on the Giant during the first half of the following week. Once the trenches had been cleared, the warden team had started the re-chalking process (details below).
At 0900hrs on the Thursday morning the intrepid WYNTV 16 met Rob and his team at the Giant viewpoint. Sarah, one of the Golden Cap wardens, delivered an extensive risk assessment and background briefing. She outlined some of the Giant’s key statistics – he was 180 feet tall, with a 30 foot phallus, a 120 foot club and was at least 300 years old (but could be up to 1,500 years). We were then warned of the reputed effects that standing on the Giant’s organ could have on one’s fertility (should this have been included as part of the risk assessment?). Rob concluded the presentation by letting us know that a German TV crew and a Time magazine reporter would be visiting us during the day. Whatever we physically achieved over the coming two days, we knew that we would put our collective efforts into dreaming up some quality (although not necessarily original) innuendo and double entendres.
Before we ascended Giant Hill, warden Sarah invited us to see her puppies. Half our number flocked over to admire them and take turns to hold them.
(I hate to spoil one of Vinny’s double entendres but the puppies were actually warden Peter’s – Ed).
We then started the mile walk to the head of the Giant. At the bottom of Giant Hill we were confronted by the 35° slope (it seemed steeper); because of the incline some of our number decided that it was easier to snake their way up the hill.
Depending on our method of ascent we either arrived at his left heel or his waist. Issy was so overcome when she first encountered his appendage she momentarily fainted (or she tripped). Fortunately Jaimie was on hand to photograph (and then revive) her. Unfortunately the photo was much more compromising than I remembered, so has been omitted in the interests of good taste and decency – a first for me!
Michael (East Properties Warden – responsible for the Giant) demonstrated the re-chalking/tamping method; by distributing 2.5cm (approx) across a 2m length of trench and then using the tamper to flatten lumps and compact the chalk. The process was then repeated until the required 10cm tamped depth had been achieved.
Due to the remote location of the Giant, the 17 tonnes of new chalk required for the task was delivered to a field approximately 1 mile away. The chalk was then hand shovelled onto trailers towed by LandRovers across fields to the Giant site. Once at the site the chalk was shovelled into plastic sacks and carried down onto the Giant for laying and tamp(er)ing.
The German TV crew arrived just before morning break, and were initially more interested in taking footage of us drinking “tea” than any chalking. After obtaining our permission to film they proceeded to discreetly (NOT) move around the group. Post tea break, the TV crew interviewed us undertaking our various tasks. During filming, the majority of the tampering team was working on the nipples, so many of interviews included phrases similar to, “I’m working on/tampering (with) his nipples”. We are still awaiting a translation of our “15 minutes” of fame video, so don’t know if any of our quotes actually made it to the final copy. The final footage (all 110 seconds of it) can be found at http://wstreaming.zdf.de/zdf/300/080919_walde_h19.asx.
Throughout the afternoon under the hot sun, the exhausting work continued - chalk sacks were filled, carried down the hill, poured into the trenches, and then tamped down. To finish our first day in style, Sarah suggested that we memorialise our contribution to this event by using our bodies to spell WYNTV on the hillside. (In case you are wondering why you haven’t yet seen the photo of this artistic endeavour, taken from the observation point, it’s because we are still waiting for Rob to email it to us – Ed).
Some of our top tamp(er)ers? Clock-wise from above, Steve (who warden Sarah said she wanted to keep – strictly for tasking purposes, I think), Issy and Jaimie, Vinny (our Cerne Abbas correspondent) and Pete, with wardens Michael and Sarah – Ed.
We started our descent of Giant Hill using methods similar to those we used to ascend. All of us with the exception of Sue that is; she decided that – after carrying out an extensive risk assessment – bum tobogganing was the preferred option. I was concerned about the additional risks posed by this method as the slope was littered with nettles, holly and hawthorn bushes. At the bottom of Giant Hill, a Time magazine reporter was lying (well ok, not exactly lying) in wait for us. He managed to ensnare Chris “a grass, chalk and sweat stained computer programmer from Leeds” and then received a couple of choice comments from Sarah Powers (?) who assured the journalist that she would not be going anywhere near the Giant’s prize asset. The time article can be found at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1844513,00.html.
Little did we know that the following day Sarah Powers would have conquered her fear and spent most of her time in the place that she said she would never go! Sarah’s courage inspired many of the women in the group, who willingly jumped in to join her on the Giant’s key feature.
Day 2 continued much in the same vein as day 1, except we were now experts at tampering etc. Apparently the previous nights festivities had not adversely affected performance (I must have been the exception that proves the rule). The air was still and hot, the only sound being the rhythmical thudding of the tampers echoing across the valley. It was as if the heart of the Giant had started to beat again – as he was slowly brought back to life from obscurity.
At the end of Friday, 343m of trench had been re-chalked. Approximately 198m of that had been re-chalked by WYNTV, leaving 119m to be re-chalked over the final weekend. The Giant was completed to plan on Sunday 21st. (A great time was had by all - Ed).
Photos by Stuart, Colin, Vinny and Issy/Jaimie