‘I feel sick’.
We stepped onto the station platform at Liss with our bikes, the sky a non-committal slosh of grey, damp air pungent with the possibility of some real rain. Ten minutes on the train had cut out an hour on busy main roads but I wondered if I might have felt better cycling, even with exhaust fumes blasting into my face. Probably not.
The combination of Chinese takeout the night before – I suspect msg – and mixing red and white wine had created the perfect storm of shattering headache and churning stomach that made levering myself out of bed unthinkable. But we were due to head back to Canada in two days and this was the last chance to head to Selborne, a pretty village (is there any other kind in the South Downs?) and lifelong home of the Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793), considered England’s first ecologist and revered ‘founding father’ of modern scientific recording – Darwin claimed he ‘stood on the shoulders’ of White. He’s probably best known for the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a publication that has never been out of print. That’s quite something.
‘I think I have to sit down’. Steps away from the station, we spotted a wooden bench set on a tiny triangle of grass. A scattering of trees swayed in the gentle breeze, a small stream flowed by under a bridge. Soothed, my stomach slowly settled down. Gingerly I remounted my bike and we headed out of town, looking for our turn-off to the village. We overshot it, but not by much, and once we’d doubled back found ourselves once again on narrow, quiet lanes.
Thankfully it was one of the easiest days of riding we’d had in over two weeks of cycle touring in England last June. The hills were gentle, the route easy to find, the temperature neither too warm nor too cold despite the low clouds. It was all very bucolic. We inhaled the scent of wild garlic growing in clumps by the road and occasionally stopped to look at the view across fields and woods. We barely saw any cars. A cyclist waved as he rode past in the opposite direction. Reassured by the relative solitude of our ride I climbed over a five-barred gate for a quick nature break in a field behind a sheltering hedgerow.
It was just as peaceful when we arrived in Selborne and stashed our bikes outside The Wakes, once the home of White, now a museum dedicated not only to the pioneering naturalist and ornithologist, but also somewhat oddly to Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and his nephew Captain Lawrence Oates, a member of the catastrophic Antarctica expedition led by Captain Robert Scott. When a public appeal failed to raise enough money to secure the house as a museum commemorating White, Robert Washington Oates, cousin of Captain Oates, offered to buy the house on condition that there should also be an Oates Museum within the building. Somehow the juxtaposition of the two elements didn’t feel as jarring as it had seemed at first.
In a very English manner we refuelled with quiche, sandwiches and a pot of tea in the genteel Tea Parlour before wandering around the house and gardens. The sense that this was a home that had been much loved, unpretentious, lived in and peaceful permeated throughout. Sweeping lawns flowed down to grassy fields, themselves backed by ‘hangers’, ancient wooded hillsides. Vegetable patches, flower beds and an orchard made up the rest of grounds – with design curiosities tucked away here and there, like the ‘statue’ of Hercules, actually a picture painted on board.
We spent a peaceable time ambling around the grounds, quietly exploring in a way that I silently speculated to myself White would have approved of. Inside the house we read about his life, peeked into his sparse bedroom and at the original manuscript of a Natural History of Selborne on display. We paid a visit to the local church just across the road from his home where White is buried. A simple grave in a simple churchyard overlooking the countryside White loved so much.
It was an unhurried visit to the home of someone who lived their life with great sensitivity and a keen observation of their surroundings. By the time we left for the ride back I felt restored. A day spent riding country lanes and wandering around a garden will do that.
It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined ~ Gilbert White