Gilbert White, Selborne and a hangover

‘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.

English country lanes

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.

Museum of Gilbert White

Gilbert White's house and gardens

‘The Wakes’, Gilbert White’s home.

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.

cardboard cutouts for statues, Gilbert White

Ingenious ‘statue’ of Hercules

Gilbert White gardens

A very English garden

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.

Gilbert White's bedroom

Bedroom of Gilbert White. The embroidered bedspread and bed hangings were stitched by his aunts.

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.

A statue in the gardens of Gilbert White

‘Hercules’ backed by a hanger

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

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Dorset Idyll. A Trip to Thomas Hardy’s Cottage

‘The sky was clear – remarkably clear – and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse’ – Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
A Dorset Idyll. Thomas Hardy's Cottage

Hardy’s Cottage. View from the garden

Tears welled up a little as I leant over the pretty green gate at the side of Thomas Hardy’s cottage. I was actually here, standing where once he must have at some point in his life, looking out from the garden in front of his house to the lane that ran alongside.

Yup, geeking out on Thomas Hardy. If pressed I might also have to admit to Hardy being my favourite author. I may even have reread Under the Greenwood Tree recently and Far From the Madding Crowd for the first time (how did I miss that before?). I’m planning to revisit The Mayor of Casterbridge and at some point tackle his poetry, although I have to admit I’m more of a prose fan than a poetry fan. Don’t judge me.

My emotion leaning over the gate of course may also have had something to do with the fact that it had been a long, hot day – we were still riding in the midst of an unusual heat wave in England – and just standing in the garden of the house where Hardy was born, grew up and wrote some of his most famous work – Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd for instance – felt like a wonderful reward for our efforts.

Sunny day at Thomas Hardy's cottage

Idyllic summer day at Hardy’s cottage

Concerned by the oppressiveness of the heat and the fact everywhere we rode took far longer than we expected, English hills being a wildcard factor an’ all, we had got up early in West Sussex to ride to the train station a couple of hours away; we planned to travel via train to Dorset, so cutting out a big chunk of riding via busy Southampton and Bournemouth, saving our limited time for exploring more of the county Hardy called Wessex in his novels.

We arrived at the small, neat train station of Dorchester and struck out into the city itself; it’s of a manageable size whilst still feeling bustling and vibrant. What I saw of it as we passed through I liked, a lot. As ever it still took a while for us to find and pick up the Sustrans cycling route but we eventually stumbled across it and navigated country lanes to Higher Bockhampton and the cob and thatch cottage.

Roses over front door of Hardy's cottage

Roses over front door

Before we even attempted to explore we recouped with tea, sickly sweet coffee cake and cold cider outside the National Trust reception and tea room (Hardy’s cottage, like many historical sites, is managed by the NT) sheltering from the sun under nearby trees. It was all very English and a bit of a stomach churning mix of food and drink, but when you’ve been sweltering on bikes you’ll vacuum up just about anything.

Once again, as was becoming the norm on this trip, I had to fend off the overtures by  National Trust staff to buy yearly memberships. Their persistence was dogged but a small price to pay for their unfailing courteousness and helpfulness. We wheeled our bikes up the gravelled lane towards the cottage and were allowed to shovel our bikes, panniers and helmets along the side of a small kiosk at the entrance to the gardens where a staffer kindly volunteered to watch over our gear.

Map of Hardy's Wessex

Hardy’s Wessex

A flower-lined path led to the rose festooned front door of the cottage. Inside we bowed under low door frames into sparsely furnished small rooms that still smelt of smoke from many, many years of wood fires. An almost impossibly narrow stairway led up to the bedroom where Hardy wrote. Reproductions of his maps and writing artifacts are carefully placed throughout (the originals are on view in the Dorset Museum in Dorchester). It all effectively conjured up the life of rural simplicity that  Hardy loved and was reflected in his writing, even in his darkest novels.

The bedroom where Thomas Hardy wrote

Thomas Hardy’s bedroom

We emerged to wander the forested grounds, ponds and surrounding heathland, all inspiration for his work. It’s nice to know that from humble beginnings Hardy enjoyed success in his lifetime ultimately moving into the home he designed and had built, Max Gate, just outside of Dorchester.

view into garden from front door of Thomas Hardy's cottage

View from front door of Thomas Hardy’s cottage

We finally tore ourselves away from this idyll, retrieving our bikes and setting out for another hour or so of riding surrounded by sun-drenched countryside. In the evening, as the day cooled, we wandered down to a gate in the garden of the latest B&B and gazed across a heritage orchard as the light dipped. I was in Hardy country, I couldn’t have asked for much more.

Looking across an orchard in Dorset

Gate to orchard, Dorset

‘To dwellers in a wood almost every tree has its voice as well as its feature’ – Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy.

 

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