Every day, driving home from work on the A3, I see a sign to Selborne and Gilbert White‘s House. At a loose end one day, I determined to visit this little Hampshire village and just see what all the fuss was about – I’m very glad I did.
When you enter the house, it’s modest facade does not prepare you for the 20 acres of ancient parkland and carefully restored gardens behind, for Gilbert White was one of our first natural historians and an experimental and enthusiastic gardener.
White was born in Selborne in 1720 in the village vicarage and he died at The Wakes (the original name of house housing the museum) in 1793. During his life, he recorded his observations on the natural history of Selborne and is best known for his book, Natural History and Antiquties of Selborne (1789). The natural history section of the book is one of the most published in the English language, having been re-issued over one hundred times and in several languages.
What was unusual about White and so notable was that he studied living birds and other creatures in their natural habitat rather than examining dead animals, as his contemporaries were doing. In working in this manner, he identified several different species of birds, largely on the basis of their birdsong, observed the harvest mouse and the noctule bat along with other insects and mammals – recognising the inter-relationships of animals, plants and their environment – what we now term “ecology”.
After his death, the house changed hands a few times and it was after the war, in 1954, that a public appeal was started to save it for the nation. Not realising enough capital to buy the house outright, a white knight came onto the scene in the form of Robert Washington Oates, a relation of Captain Lawrence Oates, the Antarctic explorer. He provided the shortfall to purchase the house on the proviso that his own Oates collection could also be housed here.
So it was a happy surprise and an unexpected bonus for me that I also visited the Oates Collection on that same day. This collection features the adventures of two members of the Oates family – Frank Oates, another natural historian – and perhaps his better known nephew, Captain Lawrence Oates. He was part of Captain Robert Scott‘s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12 and gallantly gave up his life in the hope his comrades might live, leaving their tent in a blizzard with the immortal words, “I am just going outside and may be some time”. His body was never found.
Do visit this house soon – it is a superb museum, gorgeous grounds, the village is charming and all in all, it makes for a very enjoyable day out. If you are in need of sustenance, I would suggest eating at the nearby Queen’s Selborne.
Gilbert White’s House & Garden, including the Oates Collection, High Street, Selborne, GU34 3JH. Entrance currently stands at GBP8.50 for an adult. Follow them on Facebook – Gilbert White’s House & Garden and The Oates Collection.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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