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A Visit To Gilbert White’s House

A photograph of Gilbert White's house from the gardens

If you are driving with an aim to pass Winchester, coming from the west, you are shown directions to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. If you are travelling with an aim to pass Winchester, coming from the east, there are two options – Jane Austen’s house and Gilbert White’s house. Why the discrepancy I’m not sure.

All this to say that once we were driving through the area and came across one of the signs for White’s house, looked him up, and decided to make a detour. The house turned out to be a hidden gem and as such I would like to share it with you.

Located in the village of Selborne in Hampshire, a place where the majority of buildings are old – many thatched – and where any new ones are built to match, is this Gilbert White’s house. Known to those in the village as well as likely those who study the same field, White has been largely forgotten otherwise.

A man of the Georgian period and slight of stature if the supposedly life-scale model is anything to go by, White was a person who favoured details, the little things most people don’t consider, or at least didn’t in his time. It was he who first noted differences in bird songs, categorised breeds. A naturalist and priest, he was educated at Oxford’s Oriel College and was born and died in Selborne. The reason, perhaps, for his being forgotten lies in the name of his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne – it’s specific.

In the house also is the Oates’ collection. The Oates family were later owners of the house and very into nature themselves. More on that in a while.

A photograph of the tea room

You can visit Gilbert White’s house to see the house, gardens, and tea room, or if you wish you can skip the house and go straight for the coffee. Choosing to go to the tea room is obviously free; you have to walk through the hallway to get there so it’s down to you to be polite and not go wandering into the rooms themselves without having paid entry.

We went to tea first, or, rather, lunch. The tea room is situated in the old dining room so it’s rather apt; I must say the food was lovely. My coffee was brought to the table in a small French Press which is particularly nice as asking a coffee shop or restaurant for decaf so often results in an overpriced instant or an overly-milky espresso-based drink. The soup was superb, the sandwich good, too, and the hot chocolate boasted clotted cream on top.

A photograph of the interactive room

Back to the entrance hall and to pay for admission to the house, we visited all the rooms we’d passed on our way to lunch and went upstairs. About 60% of the house is decorated in Georgian style, the remaining 40% given over to the Oates family. The downstairs is all Gilbert’s: a room dedicated to information about his life is the first one off the hallway. Painted in an alternative frieze are quotes from famous people about White, including one from Virginia Woolf. Here are a few of them:

“He… raises his eyes to the horizon and looks and listens.” — Virginia Woolf

“From reading White’s Selborne… I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.” — Charles Darwin

“Selfishly, I, too, would have plumbed to know you: I could have learned so much.” — W H Auden

A photograph of the library

The next room is a library of sorts. This is where you start to notice the quirk of the house. Every bookshelf you see in the rooms dedicated to Gilbert, every single shelf, holds copies of the same one book, his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. The copies are different editions ranging from the first, published in his time, to fairly modern copies. We spotted a few Japanese editions. There are hundreds of this one book in the house; it’s really quite something. It sounds like a project and indeed it was; between 1986 and 2010, one Ronald Davidson-Houston went around buying up all the copies he could, including ones at auction, for the house to have. One might call it mad but in this place you can understand it – we’re not talking Jane Austen here; the lady who lived down the road a little later on is far less likely to find her work thrown in the bin, I’d say, than a person who wrote of a village relatively unknown.

A photograph of Gilbert White's study

The next room is the parlour, where the hallway opens out, the main stairs play host to the model of Gilbert White, and you can choose between the tea room and the rest of the house. When we visited said main stairs were not open for use – whether they are usually I don’t know – so we followed the room round and used what were likely the servants’ stairs. On the landing are lots of drawings of birds and a fair view of the gardens. Gilbert’s bedroom is shrouded in darkness to preserve the fabrics and thus I did not take a photograph (photography is permitted barring flash). Up another set of stairs is a small library room that can be used for meetings, then there’s Gilbert’s study, and that’s it for the Georgian decoration.

The rest of the upstairs is dedicated to the Oates’ family. The reason for the exhibitions and the walls being whitewashed accordingly is that two members of the family were explorers.

Frank Oates, a Victorian, was, like Gilbert White, a naturalist. An explorer in Africa, he made a long expedition, travelling from Southampton to the then south African colony of Natal further north over the course of nine months. During a visit to Pretoria – then a town, now a city – he’s quoted as having been upset at the lack of a bookshop in the area. He also explored the Americas. The rooms dedicated to his travels are full of stuffed animals, showing the efforts, in a time without photography, to bring findings home. It’s an uncomfortable few rooms to stand in, certainly.

Lawrence Oates, whose exhibition is completed by the sounds of high winds, was Frank’s nephew and also an explorer. He travelled to the Antarctic at a time when little was known about it; those on the return journey perished eleven miles from one of their last storage depots. Sadly, Lawrence himself had already chosen self-sacrifice; suffering badly from gangrene and frostbite and knowing he was slowing the men down he told his crew he was going for a walk and never returned. Photographs showed lack-lustre accommodation, there were references to poor food planning – like most firsts, this one ended badly. In this case at least remnants, research, were recovered – the exhibition includes photograph negatives, stuffed penguins.

At the end of this floor a modern staircase has been added, I expect so that on busy days people can move in a linear fashion. They take you back to the lobby and gift shop.

Would you believe none of what I’ve spoken of acted as the reason I wanted to visit the house? Here is my reason for visiting:

A photograph of the grounds

As far as you can see, to those trees, and likely beyond if the information board I saw beyond the fence is concerned, the grounds belong to the house. They haven’t always, but as time has moved on so the grounds have extended. We aren’t talking lots of gardens here – there is a kitchen garden or two – as most of the grounds is simply fields. But it’s stunning. I expect that on busy days they feel smaller but when we were there there were few people and the fields went on and on.

Just outside the house is a lawn kept very short. A ha-ha signals the relative end of it and then the fields are less groomed and ripe for walking. There is a seat nestled in a barrel that I believe was for Gilbert’s perusal of his garden. Seemingly far in the distance is a statue of ancient design. Once you get closer its true nature is revealed – you’ve just been tricked into walking up to a large painted board. The fact it looks like a statue from afar is the very point it exists – there wasn’t enough money for a statue so Gilbert bought something that would look luxurious from the green.

A photograph of the grounds

Undoubtedly there will be flowers here in the summer but this isn’t somewhere you go for colour, rather a place for walking and just enjoying nature.

I highly recommend getting off the beaten path and visiting this house. The building is small enough that you could do it on the same day as your trip to Chawton. And because it can and does make a difference I’ll say that the staff are awesome.

Are there any books you’d ever collect a lot of?



April 18, 2016, 3:54 pm

Unless it a series of books, I don’t collect books as one copy is enough of a single book for me. However I think it is really cool that this house has collected different editions of his book.

My mother lives in Hampshire so I will have to keep this place in mind. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and lovely photos :-)

Tracy Terry

April 18, 2016, 4:05 pm

Thank you for this wonderful guided tour.

With not enough space to keep all of the books I read as it is, I’d love to have the space to keep more than one edition of my favourite books. I think the nearest I ever came was with two different editions of TS Elliot’s Cat Poems.


April 19, 2016, 4:38 am

Oh Charlie, you did Gilbert White and the village of Selborne proud with this review. What a wonderful day! I really love that someone took the time to buy up all those copies of a forgotten author and his work!

I often go to the Huntington Library in San Marino (California) and in one of the permanent collections about Charles Darwin, all along the walls are hundreds of different editions and languages of the Origin of the Species. I paid more attention to it the last time I was there and found it fun to look at them all in their different shapes and covers.

As for my own collection? I have two copies each of Jane Eyre and The Well of Loneliness only because I have given them away and didn’t realize I’d replaced them, so bought another :)

What I would like to do is to collect all the available books of a single author, of whom I’ve not decided, yet!


April 25, 2016, 9:44 am

Jessica: I’m with you; I’ve a few duplicates for a couple of specific reasons only – change of translation the most major – otherwise one is enough. (I always think multiple are a nice idea but you could get a completely different book instead of using shelf space for another of the same.) I’d definitely suggest you both going there – if you’re looking to go out whilst having plenty of space to catch up it’s a good choice.

Tracy Terry: With a book like that, those must have been very nice copies. I remember one from the 50s or 60s a member of my family had which was lovely.

Laurie: Yes, it was one of those ‘am I seeing this correctly?’ moments but it’s a nice tribute and brought a uniqueness to the house. That sounds awesome; I suppose there would be even more variety and so forth at a library. I’ll have to look up The Well Of Loneliness; new title to me. You’ve reminded me of my second purchase years ago of a favourite – I lent my copy to something thinking they were going to read it overnight but they took it back home with them, far away, and after a few years and knowing it wasn’t a famous book I thought I better get another before it went out of print completely. (I really should review it, I’ve read it three times…) Yes to collecting all the books. One of moderate output, perhaps?



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