"The parish I live in is a very abrupt, uneven country, full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds,” wrote the Reverend Gilbert White in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. It’s a tempting introduction. The approach to this Hampshire village from the direction of Alton keeps the anticipation simmering nicely. The brooding, steeply wooded hillside known as the Hanger comes into view some way off, the dominant feature in an intimate landscape crammed with diversity – chalk hills, soggy clay meadows, streams and greensand outcrops.
My exploration begins at The Wakes, White’s former home. In its Great Mead, White watched house martins, swifts and swallows, while experimenting with picturesque landscape effects. The Hanger looms above (‘hanger’ means ‘wooded slope’), and at the base of the Zig-Zag, the playfully winding path cut by a youthful White in the 1750s to ascend the 90m (300ft) scarp, I meet Chris Webb, National Trust head warden for East Hampshire.
From a long-standing Selborne family, Chris is the perfect custodian of the Trust’s estates here. His sense of place is instinctive, but he knows it’s not a museum landscape, preserved in aspic. Modern patterns of land use, the drive for agricultural efficiency and better communications have, as throughout Britain, come at a price. “The pattern of the landscape is broadly the same, but if Gilbert were to come back, he would find much has vanished,” Chris reflects. “The hop gardens have gone, the swallows are fewer. Nightingales were last seen in the 1970s. We’re left with remnant patches which we are trying to preserve and slowly extend.”
Restoring the vistas
We climb the Zig-Zag, which Chris’s great-great-grandfather helped re-engineer in the 1880s, the views more impressive at each turn. The Great Storm of 1987 left an opportunity to restore the wider vistas of White’s time. “He recorded autumn gentian on the Zig-Zag, a sign it was more open, with sheep grazing,” says Chris. “But the gradual decline, throughout the last century, of commoners keeping livestock up here meant scrub and trees closed in. People were coming all the way to the top and would say “It’s not much of a view.”
But things are improving. While the Lythes, visible through the trees below, are being restored as species-rich wildflower meadows, less intensive management of blackthorn, a host species of the larvae of brown hairstreak butterflies, has encouraged the latter’s return to the Zig-Zag. Duke of burgundy butterflies have been seen for the first time since the 1980s.
At the top of Selborne Hill, we follow the path heading right, passing through a gate on to the Common, to White, a “pleasing, park-like spot,” with clearings enough for two cricket pitches. Keeping to the widest path through the centre, we pass veteran beeches, now being pollarded for the first time in a century, as part of the return to wood pasture and glade-like habitats. Patches of cowslips are testimony to the effectiveness of the renewed low intensity cattle grazing. The path leads down into the village of Newton Valence, but we turn left to wander along a wooded track, a footpath to the right heading out over fields to Noar Hill.
Parting company with my companion, I head back along lanes and paths, past Lower Noar Hill Farm and Homestead Farm to the village, where it’s time for a spot of lunch. High Street supports two fine old pubs, the Selborne Arms, and the Queens, and both have pleasant beer gardens if the weather is fine.
A short wander up High Street will bring you back to White’s beautiful house, The Wakes. This atmospheric vicarage is a fascinating place to visit, with interiors restored to resemble tastes in White’s day. The pretty garden, with its views of pasture and the Hanger, is an idyllic place to relax for a while.
After some refreshment at the house’s elegant tea parlour, it’s time to explore again. Almost opposite The Wakes lies the Plestor (9), a small village green, the scene of social gatherings in White’s day. It seems lonely now, but is graced by a sycamore of great local significance, possibly planted by White’s brother Thomas.
In the churchyard, White’s grave is marked by a simple headstone by the chancel of Selborne church; “G.W. 26th June 1793” is all it says. Past the gravestones, there’s a gentle descent into Church Meadow where stands a huge oak with the broadest canopy you could hope to see. An elevated 18th-century sketch looking back towards the village seems to show the tree in the middle distance, and a similarly venerable one near it, large even then. The view is from the Short Lythe, a sun-filled “pasture field with furze” more than 200 years ago, where White made studies of field crickets. It’s wooded now, the crickets long gone, but as I pass through it into the adjoining Long Lythe, a cuckoo can be heard nearby, answered by another from the depths of Dorton Wood, across the stream to my right.
Crossing the stream to eventually enter the wood, greensand stones protruding through the mud are slippery underfoot. I emerge in Huckers Lane, one of the holloways that White described as “gloomy enough to affright the ladies and make timid horsemen shudder.” Exposed roots of overhanging trees make for a striking spectacle.
To the right, a gate leads you back across the field to the serenity of Church Meadow and one last return to the grave of the father of nature writing. This is a place of pilgrimage for naturalists from all over the world, but White was not a man of great ambition or vanity. He’d have asked for no more than to be laid here, serenaded on an afternoon in summer by a song thrush and the far-off calls of rooks.
But no one doubts his legacy. As Chris White says: “He made a very fine record of a countryside which was to change very quickly over the next century or so.” A snapshot of a period that, if not quite the Garden of Eden of simplistic presentation, remains a source of inspiration two centuries after its passing.
Britain’s first great naturalist
The Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793) was born in Selborne, Hampshire, and lived at The Wakes for most of his life. Although holding the curacy of the nearby village of Farringdon, he only became co-curate at Selborne in 1784, but his undemanding duties left ample time for studies of the local wildlife, gardening, and his interest in landscaping effects.
Correspondence with fellow naturalists formed the basis of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1789. Because his writing was based upon first-hand observation and fieldwork, he has been called England’s first ecologist.
Most of his recording was done within the confines of Selborne – in the “parkland” of The Wakes, on the Lythes, the slopes of the Hangar, up on the “sheep walk” of Selborne Hill, or in the lanes – so the work has a peculiarly personal touch. White’s blend of impersonal science, remarkable at a time when nature observation was largely based upon broad philosophising, and a simple delight in nature’s spectacle – particularly the swallow family, or “hirundines” – means his work appeals to readers of all backgrounds.