The Wakes is an historic house in the village of Selborne that was once home to the pioneering 18th century English naturalist Gilbert White. Besides being dedicated to White’s life, The Wakes is also home to the personal collections of Frank Oates, Victorian explorer and naturalist, and his nephew Captain Lawrence Oates, whom we all know of as the hero of the ill fated Antarctic expedition of 1912. This is a fantastic museum and one definitely not to be missed.
It seems a little incongruous to have an 18th century naturalist sharing a museum with a 20th century heroic explorer, Captain Lawrence Oates, and his uncle Frank Oates. Gilbert White is famous for his seminal work, Natural Histories and Antiquities of Selborne, the fourth most published book in the English language, after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. His house, in the village of Selborne, is now home to their shared museum.
Selborne, Hampshire, in the south of England, is a quintessentially English village. Deep in the countryside and full of beautiful quirky old houses, Selborne has a Grade I listed church and is a stop on the Writers Way, which also features Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, just a ten minute drive away. The museum is on the one main road straggling through the village, a busy and traffic filled road which seems incompatible with the peaceful houses and expansive countryside on either side.
The house is called ‘The Wakes’, and was where he spent most of his life, as well as where he wrote Natural Histories.
The house was on the market in the 1950s, an appeal was issued in The Times for funds to pay the house to turn it into a museum to Gilbert White.
The appeal was seen by Robert Oates, a cousin of the Captain, who agreed to fund the museum if there would be a space for his extensive Oates collection. So the three of them now share a museum space, and although it seems an unlikely combination, it also sounded intriguing, and I just had to go and see it for myself.
GILBERT WHITE, GEORGIAN PASTOR-NATURALIST
The museum starts in a large room filled with paintings, exhibits and information panels which acts as an introduction and an explanation of why all three men are together in the same museum. It then leads through to the house as it would have been when Gilbert lived there, starting with a charming little parlour, which dates from the 15th century. With a fire in the grate and fresh flowers on the polished round table, the room contains some of his bird specimens and portraits, and sets the ambience of a civilised, rural environment.
A long corridor leads to the ‘Exploration Room’, a large sunny room with balloons descending from the ceiling, interactive panels where you can listen to different types of bird song and watch a BBC video about the life of Gilbert White.
A large table in the centre is filled with kids activities for all ages, all connected to The Wakes and its outside areas, as well as a play area with cushions, books and more under the huge bay window, to keep children occupied while you watch the video, listen to the bird calls, and read all about Gilbert White’s life on the information panels around the room.
Gilbert White is known as the world’s first ecologist and the man who invented birdwatching. He was born in Selborne in 1720, the eldest of 11 children, spending his childhood outdoors, in a woodland area known locally as ‘The Hangers’.
The Hangers was where Gilbert White spent much of his childhood. ‘Hanger’ comes from the Anglo Saxon word, ‘Hangr’, which simply means ‘woodland’.
After gaining a degree at Oriel College, Oxford, he returned to live at The Wakes, which was his grandfather’s house at the time. He was ordained in 1749 and undertook several curacies, riding around the countryside on his pony and recording his observations of the world around him.
Always a keen gardener, in 1751 he started recording notes about the weather, his garden, details about the soil and seed germination in what he called his Garden Kalendar. He recorded scientific details about the weather using a thermometer, weather vane and barometer, the results of which are still invaluable to scientists today.
He developed the 20 acre gardens at The Wakes within a budget, building a ha-ha and growing huge amounts of vegetables with which to feed his neighbours; he was the first man to grow potatoes in the area, recognising them as an edible crop that would feed the poor. He grew formidable quantities of food – 650 kale plants are recorded in one of his journal entries.
He baptised, married and buried the villagers, gave money to the poor, paid for road upkeep and worried about how the weather would affect the harvest. He held frequent parties for his neighbours and friends, was obsessed with growing cucumbers and melons in his hotbeds and would spend his time pickling and brewing his own ale and wine.
The next room, the dining room is a space of beautiful proportions. Filled with sun, it contains bookshelves with every version of his text ever published, as well as his original manuscript, a huge sepia tome with every bit of paper covered in his neat, copper script handwriting. It is rather awe inspiring to see it there, the foundation of modern ecology, ornithology and naturalism, in the place where he wrote it.
Described by Coleridge as a ‘sweet, delightful book’, it is compiled of his letters to other naturalists, and is said to give a wonderful picture of a pre-industrial England, where White ‘simply observed nature with a sharp eye and wrote about it lovingly’ (Durrell). Published in 1789, it has been continuously in print ever since, and is considered a masterpiece of literature as well as science. You can read it for free on Project Gutenberg >>
With a red brick fireplace, a massive scrubbed kitchen table covered in game, a dresser full of Wedgewood and glassware, the kitchen is a delightful room, full of charm and with a real feeling that this could be a place of busy food preparation, bottling, pickling and preserving. It is painted a bright indigo blue, which they believed would ward off the flies in Georgian times.
The small writing table comes from Oriel College in Oxford, where Gilbert White did his degree, as well as becoming one of the senior proctors. The chair belonged to White.
Upstairs is his bedchamber, the only room in the house that is kept shrouded in darkness. This is to protect the embroidered bed hangings, made for Gilbert White by his four aunts, all hand stitched with naturally dyed yarns onto a woolen background. He kept his wine in this room, in a cupboard, to keep it warm. The small writing table comes from Oriel College in Oxford, where Gilbert White did his degree, as well as becoming one of the senior proctors. The chair belonged to White.
Gilbert’s study is a surprisingly small room, painted a deep pink colour and filled with heavy, dark wood furniture. A view over rooftops rather than his beautiful garden seemed surprising, but then I couldn’t help thinking he had chosen it deliberately, to avoid the distraction of always looking out of the window when he was meant to be writing. His study has been recreated to show his many and varied interests. It is believed that the desk was actually his.
We then headed out to the gardens, the place he studied nature in such depth that it provided the details and inspiration for his book. With the trees of The Hangers as the elevated background, the gardens have been re-created to follow his descriptions. There’s a vegetable garden, orchard, shrubbery, flower gardens and a landscaped garden.
We walked around, exploring all of the areas, watching the butterflies drifting through the September flowers, the yellow leaves softly falling to the ground below, listening to the sounds of birds rustling in the undergrowth, watching squirrels foraging and charging up and down trees. It is very pretty yet very practical, and feels so much more productive than other gardens still preserved from that time.
His landscaped garden was laid out to mimic the great landscaped gardens of his day, and it is recorded that he had visited some of the grandest ones of the time, but he didn’t have the extensive budget required for one of his own.
He used the same principle of drawing the eye to a focal point in the distant garden, but where the wealthy would use a series of elaborate features to draw the eye, he had 6 simple five-bar gates in a line, a symbol of rural ordinariness rather than extravagance. Where they had huge marble statues as the focal point, he used a flat one made of wood, and he used oil jars instead of marble urns. I couldn’t help but feel he was gently mocking the wealthy landowners, as if he was telling them that it was nature that mattered, the changing natural world of the garden, not the adornments and embellishments that they could impose upon it.
The gardens, the parlour, the kitchen, the dining room, his study, all of the most beautiful rooms, so perfectly proportioned, all so comfortable yet modest, practical and functional yet elegant. I loved them all. I hadn’t known what to expect, having arrived with no assumptions, but was so impressed by what I saw.
I found his kindness and gentle humour shone through. A man who can call his pony ‘Mouse’ and who after being horribly travel sick on a coach trip to Oxford, gifted his companion a huge china tureen as way of apology, is a man of subtle wit, and it is so apparent in this wonderfully curated museum.
His modesty is verified by his gravestone, which we found in the churchyard opposite. Requesting to be buried outside rather than in the church, he has a low, humble grave in the shadow of the church, becoming a part of the earth he nurtured, studied and wrote so lovingly about.
Having known next to nothing about the man before I visited The Wakes, I left with a lasting memory of his beautiful home, his kindness to his neighbours, his gentle humour and above all, his love for nature.
I liked the man enormously.
FRANK OATES, VICTORIAN NATURALIST AND EXPLORER
On the top floor of the house, is the Frank Oates Gallery. A naturalist too, he was the Uncle of the Antarctic explorer, Captain Lawrence Oates. Born in 1840, he suffered ill health whilst doing his degree at Oxford, and had to leave. He went on several expeditions to warmer climes to improve his lung problems, and was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society due to the specimens and knowledge he acquired.
Always a keen adventurer despite his health, he undertook ‘a little trip’ in 1873 to Africa. A massive expedition, he was one of the first Europeans to see Victoria Falls when it was in full flood. Unfortunately he died of fever on his way home from this trip, buried by the roadside in the only soft bit of ground his companions could find. Continuing their journey, the rest of the expedition noticed that Frank’s dog was missing, and they found him waiting at the grave, a full 80 miles away from where he had escaped.