Over 250 years ago, the Hampshire village of Selborne and its surrounding landscape inspired Gilbert White’s life-long investigation of the natural world, culminating in his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne– which, according to some, conferred upon White the title of “the world’s first ecologist”.
In 2020, there is every chance that most people in the UK will become familiar with the name of the man whose 300thbirthday will be celebrated in a series of events across the UK, and especially at Gilbert White’s House & Gardens in Selborne.
White’s story, which began on 18 July 1720, is told within the walls of his family home and its 18th century garden. Holding centre stage there is the original manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne, along with many other treasures.
This will be one of the focal points for a nationwide tercentenary programme of events and activities aimed at celebrating the life and work of the man who has become a hero amongst naturalists.
A keen gardener from his youth, White took an increasingly close interest in the natural world around him, and grew a wide range of traditional and experimental fruit and vegetables. He was the first person in the area, for example, to grow potatoes; and it was this keen interest in gardening that led him to begin his first written work, of recording methodically what he sowed and reaped, the weather, temperature and other details. This was what he called his ‘Garden Kalendar’.
The Reverend Gilbert White is famous in three ways: as author of one of the most published and popular books in the English language; as a pioneering naturalist who hugely influenced the development of the science of natural history; and as a gardener.
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbornewas published in 1789, just four years before White’s death. Since that time, it has never been out of print, is reported to be one of the most published books in the English language as well as being translated into several other languages.
During the years when Gilbert White lived at The Wakes (1730-1793), the garden grew in size from a small plot next to the High Street to a much larger estate. Historic features of the garden that can still be seen include the original Haha, Sundial and Fruit Wall as well as the Great Oak planted in 1730.
Visitors to the House have an opportunity to see the garden, as well as the world-famous manuscript of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. More recently, its content became freely available online as a text version, which allows everyone the chance to uncover the meticulous thought that went into the book’s creation. Further details can be found at https://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/manuscript/.
VisitHampshire, meanwhile, has also added a Gilbert White walk to its website: https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk/things-to-do/gilbert-white-circular-walk-p361031.
This figure-of-eight route can be followed in two parts: the first circuit is through the churchyard and Lythes to Priory Farm and back to the village through the beeches of Dorton Wood; the second, and more adventurous circuit, is up the “zigzag” and along footpaths through Selborne Hanger and Common to Coneycroft and the northern end of the village. The full route is about 6 miles, the first circuit 2.5 miles and the second circuit 3.5 miles.
Other places of interest in the village include St. Mary’s Church, off the Plestor where you’ll find Gilbert White’s tombstone is in the churchyard. Inside the church are windows commemorating bicentenaries of his birth and death.
Further information can be found at https://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk, and at https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk/things-to-do/gilbert-whites-house-and-garden-and-the-oates-collection-p1415531.
Full visitor information, meanwhile, can be found at https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk.