Among Britain's plethora of archaeological treasures, the Cerne Abbas giant uniquely stands out . . . quite literally.
Carved centuries ago out of the chalky rock of a steep hill outside the 900-year-old village of Cerne Abbas, the 180-foot giant stands proudly naked, wielding a wicked-looking club and boasting an enormous, fully-erect penis. The well-endowed giant draws thousands of gawking tourists, who each year head to this otherwise quiet corner of Dorset in southern England.
Local folklore has it that the "Rude Man," has he is known, is also a powerful fertility symbol. Legend has it that any woman struggling to get pregnant simply has to sit on the, ahem, giant, to overcome the problem, while if she is lucky enough to be impregnated on that very spot, she would be blessed with many children. And sure enough, maintenance crews from the National Trust regularly find evidence that couples still occasionally put the legend to test, says Rob Rhodes, a warden for the nonprofit organization that owns the giant.
Recently, however, the big guy seemed to be on the skids literally, he was slowly disappearing into the hillside, covered in an overgrowth of lichen, algae and weeds, after two wet summers in a row. The hillside was too steep for mowers, and an economic downturn had wiped out the preferred local method for keeping the vegetation at bay: allowing sheep to graze around the statue. "It's not profitable to be a sheep farmer any more," Rhodes explains, and none were locally available.
Rhodes responded by bringing forward the giant's scheduled rechalking usually done every decade by two years. And when he put out word he was looking for volunteers, the country responded. Crews of volunteers arrived from cities as far-flung as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Over a ten-day period this month, teams of 20 to 30 volunteers dug up 18 tons of old chalk and replaced it with a similar amount of new chalk, tamping it down into the 3-inch-deep ruts.
"It's hard work, but it's not often you get to work on an icon," says Chris Irish, a chalk-grass-and-sweat-stained computer programmer who was part of a 16-member group of volunteers that had driven 250 miles south from Leeds to spend two days helping to reinvigorate the giant.
Though clearly well-cared for, the giant has certainly suffered his share of ignominies. Two years ago, producers of The Simpsons Movie got permission from the owner of an adjacent field to paint a huge, underpants-clad Homer offering the giant a doughnut. That same year, Fathers for Justice, a stunt-driven fathers'-rights group, painted the giant's penis purple. A few years earlier, students from a local university painted a naked giantess on the grass next to him. The giant has also been featured in ads for products ranging from bicycles to condoms.
Indeed, if Stonehenge is the ancients' gift to New Age mysticism, the giant may be their offering to the contemporary nudge-nudge wink-wink joke that is, if he is indeed the work of ancients. Popular legend claims the Rude Man is more than 1,500 years old, but some researchers believe he probably dates to 1694, suggesting he was the creation of local landowner Lord Denzil Holles as a tart taunt to Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. But Cerne Abbas resident Nick Atkinson, an electrical engineer, doubts that theory, too. "It's too simplistic for 17th Century art," he maintains.
Many locals, however, aren't overly impressed with their naughty neighbor, mainly because despite his allure to outsiders, he hasn't exactly been a stimulus to the local economy. Plenty of Rude Man souvenirs are certainly on offer in the village his likeness adorns everything from T-shirts to mugs, and a clock with a spinning member as a sweep hand but there are few takers. That's because most of the tourists who come to gaze at Mr. Big don't bother visiting the village.
That's a shame, since Cerne Abbas is a picturesque as it sounds. Located in the heart of Thomas Hardy country, the village has been used as the location for several movies based on his novels, including 1967's Far From the Madding Crowd which brought Julie Christie and Alan Bates to town. But there's not much commerce left, just a few shops and three pubs. Many businesses, including a bank and a drug store, closed long ago. "We're like a museum here, we're old and decrepit," Shelia Lamkin, owner of The Old Saddlery gift shop, says with a smile.
Even as she spoke, however, the giant appeared to be regaining his vigor. The Leeds volunteers were pounding fresh chalk back into his arms and nipples, and would rechalk the more famous aspect of his anatomy the following day although one volunteer, Sarah Powers, admitted she might choose another area to work on, in deference to the myth. "No way I'm going anywhere near it."