A relaunched book on the White Horse of Kilburn contains some gems of historical information, writes Hannah Chapman

Much is made of the sheer scale of the White Horse of Kilburn, with the proud boast that, at 67 metres high, it is the largest single hill figure in Britain due to its vast surface area of 6,475 square metres. But arguably, more than its size, its most impressive attribute is its longevity.

Cut into a remote hillside, on an extremely steep slope, with unsuitable soil and the wrong colour rock, the fact that it still shines so brightly above the vales of Mowbray, York and Pickering, is testament to the dedication of its keepers to its maintenance – often by hand.

Darlington and Stockton Times: From left, launching the revised book, Joe Brookfield of the North York Moors National Park Authority, Graham Matthews, vice chair of Kilburn Institute, Alison Porter, chair of Kilburn Institute, Philippa James, Sarah Banks and Peter Wright

The history of the horse goes back to the 1850s when Kilburn native Thomas Taylor came across some similar figures cut into the hills of Berkshire, and wrote of his discovery to friend John Hodgson, the schoolmaster back in his home village, and suggested Roulston Scar would be a suitable site for a Yorkshire version. Hodgson took up the scheme with great enthusiasm, surveying the cliff side, and using his pupils to help plot out the shape. Volunteers from the village cut away the scrub to expose the rock, and the horse came into being in November 1857.

The stories of its creation, and the herculean efforts of villagers over the years to maintain it, are told in the book Kilburn's White Horse. An updated third edition has just been published to raise funds for the refurbished Village Institute in Kilburn.

Its foreword has been written by Michelin-starred chef Tommy Banks, who grew up in the area, and whose late grandfather Fred was one of the leading lights in both the horse's preservation, and the recording of its history. "Just as the creation and the care of the horse has passed down the generations, so does the curation of the story of its making," writes Tommy.

One of the major challenges during the horse's lifetime has been the weather, with parts washing down the hillside during storms – at one point in the 1960s it appeared one morning as a grey giraffe when its legs were stretched into the car park below by a particularly heavy downpour.

Major fundraising appeals to rejuvenate the horse often took place prior to a coronation, the book recounts, while also telling of how it owes its existence to Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn, and of how its huge popularity used to see special bus trips run from across Yorkshire.

Darlington and Stockton Times: An old advert for bus trips to see the famous White Horse landmark

In the 1960s and 70s it was popular to have a picnic in the horse's vast eye, a pastime that fell by the wayside when walking on the horse itself was banned due to erosion. It has also been the subject of many practical jokes over the years, including being dressed as a zebra using strips of black plastic, while several jokers turned the mare into a stallion.

Speaking at a launch event for the revised book, Sarah Banks, who, along with Philippa James and Graham Matthews worked on the new edition, tells how funding was so scare for the maintenance of the horse that her father Fred would sell pin badges in the car park at its feet to raise money – and tell all-comers of its history.

She adds: "Above all, it was rather a folly to put it there. It's a wonderful position, but nothing else was in its favour in terms of the soil type and the colour. It was a constant burden for the people of Kilburn, but it was the pride that kept them going."

The preface to the original 1995 edition was written by James Herriot author Alf Wight just days before he died. He described the White Horse as a "most magnificent enterprise" and added: "I find it difficult to describe the thrill I felt at the time, and it is something which has remained with me over the years."

Peter Wright, star of Channel 5's the Yorkshire Vet, who was mentored by Alf Wight, and has been helping to promote the book, says: "He came here in 1940 and didn't expect the wonderful countryside. He knew what the Dales were like, but when he came to Kilburn to see a client for the first time, he realised that we had such magnificent countryside on our own doorstep, and particularly remarked on the White Horse."

Darlington and Stockton Times: Yorkshire Vet star Peter Wright at the launch of the re-issued book on Kilburn's White Horse

Forestry England took over the landmark's direct management from the volunteer-run White Horse Association in 2018 to address health and safety concerns over the work needed to keep it in good shape. In August last year, Forestry England oversaw the first painting of the horse since it became responsible, with the application of 2,000 litres of paint.

So while the burden of its care has been lifted, the pride in its existence remains for the community.

"Coming back north on the train, if I've been away, when I see the White Horse, I breathe a sigh of relief and say 'I'm home' – and I probably always will," says Peter. "I consider myself very lucky to be born three miles from here in Thirkleby – I haven't gone far. I'm very biased, but it's such a wonderful part of the world."

The third edition of Kilburn’s White Horse is on sale at White Rose Books in Thirsk, and the visitor centre at Sutton Bank.