The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Gilbert White's Selborne.
by The Editor.
[Charlotte Mason was The Editor of the Parents' Review. Gilbert White, 1720-1793, was a naturalist living in Selborne, a beautiful area in Hampshire, and only three miles from Jane Austen's house in Chawton. Gilbert White's home is a tourist attraction.]
Hampshire hardly affords a more delightful expedition than that from Alton to Gilbert White's Selborne.
The high road from Alton carries you first between high banks, opening now and then and giving you glorious views, now over hills cultivated to the summit--and valleys spread with corn, and now up the wooded valley of a brook that joins the infant Wey [River]. Next you trudge laboriously uphill with an ever-widening view. You are mounting the back of a "hanger." Hanger appears to be a quite local name applied to the step face of a chalk hill which rises with a gradual slope, and then descends with a sudden fall, presenting a sharp escarpment to the valley: or rather to the "hanging" woods which usually clothe this sharp descent. The "Hanger" we are mounting extends in a pretty regular curve to Binstead, where it is known as the "Binstead Hanger," then, a double curve brings it to Selborne, where it is the celebrated "Selborne Hanger," from whence it goes on to Hawkley, forming between Binstead and Hawkley an irregular crescent, walling in on the west the great basin of sand and gravel which includes the ancient royal forests of Woolmer and Alice Holt.
Gilbert White gives a charmingly graphic account of a great landslip which occurred here in the March of 1764, too long, unfortunately, for us to quote. It appears that a hard winter had been followed by "vast gluts of rain," and great melting snows, so that the land springs or levants (called lavants in Sussex, where they give their name to more than one village), were in flood. Then, in the month of March, a considerable part of the great woody hanger at Hawkley was torn from its place and fell down, leaving a high free-stone cliff, naked and bare, resembling the steep side of a chalk pit. This huge fragment, sapped by the waters perhaps, foundered and fell plump, planting a gate and its posts so true that the gate opened and shut in its new situation just as it had done in the hill top, forty feet above; while several oaks, as suddenly transplanted, continued to grow as before in their new place. About a hundred yards from the foot of the hanger stood a cottage by the side of a lane.
White is inclined to think that the event affords some clue to the character of this romantic district: he says, "I begin to suspect that the ends of many of our hills have slipped and fallen away at distant periods, leaving the cliffs bare and abrupt. This seems to have been the care with Nore and Whitham Hills, and especially with the ridge between Harely and Ward-le-ham, where the ground has slid into vast swellings and furrows, and lies still in such romantic confusion as cannot be accounted for from any other cause." A remark of [William] Cobbett's supports this theory. He notices that spurs run out from this main chain into the valley like piers into the sea, and that the ends of these promontories are nearly perpendicular, and their tops so high in the air that you cannot look at the village below, without a sort of fear that it may be overwhelmed.
[William Cobbett, 1763-1835, was a politician and social reformer who "was inspired to visit Selborne after being given a copy of Gilbert White’s book."]
After this long digression let us return to the point of the road which brought us to the brow of the long hill. Here it is the Worldham Hanger, taking name from the village at its foot. A road is carried along the top of the hanger, and almost in whole extent, from Binsted to Hawkley, from every point of which you get a magnificent view, and what a walk you have along the top of the ridge, with glorious and most diverse country at your feet on either side, your lungs filled with the keen sweet breath of the downs!
A short interval of poor tillage, one of the reclaimed fragments, divides the heath from Woolmer Forest, a tract of land some seven miles long by two and-a-half in breadth, consisting of sand covered with heath and brake-ferns, "without having one standing tree in the whole extent," says White, though plantations have been made since his day. The ferny brakes of the forest were once well stocked with red deer: and White tells delightfully how Queen Anne did not think the Forest of Woolmer beneath her royal regard, "For she came out of the great road at Liphook, which is just by, and reposing herself on a bank smoothed for that purpose, lying about half-a-mile to the east of Woolmer Pond, and still called Queen's Bank, was with great complacency and satisfaction the whole herd of red deer brought by the keepers along the vale before her, consisting then of about five hundred head. A sight this, worthy of the attention of the greatest sovereign!" And the historian of Selborne knew this for a fact, because he had it from an old keeper named Adams, whose father, grandfather, and great grandfather had held the head keepership of the forest in succession. He himself saw something of the grand hunts, when a royal huntsman and six yeoman prickers in scarlet jackets laced with gold, attended by the stag hounds, came down to carry all that was left of the red deer in carts to Windsor, and the neighbourhood was entertained with many a "most gallant scene."
It is to be hoped the delight of their final hunts made up to the naturalist for the honour and renown to the parish of Selborne which departed with the red deer: he admits that, for the morals of the parish, they were better away: for "all this country was wild about deer-stealing;" and though he shews a certain tenderness for the poachers, "the temptation being almost irresistible, for most men are sportsmen by constitution," he admits that the "hunters," as they called themselves, especially the "Waltham blacks"--young men with blackened faces from the Waltham Chase--had run to such lengths in lawlessness and idleness, as proved that the red deer had been their ruin. So great were the enormities committed here and elsewhere, that the Government was forced to interfere with the famous Black Act (George I.), "which comprehends more felonies than any law that ever was framed before."
Though the red deer are lost to it, the solitudes of the forest attract many kinds of wild fowl, lapwings, snipes, wild ducks, partridges in "vast plenty" on the verge of the forest, and within the memory of man, black grouse. "Bin's Pond," which White notices as a favourite breeding place for the wild fowl, is now drained; but Woolmer Pond, a "vast lake for this part of the world," fully a mile and a half in circumference, is still a great breeding place. "On the face of this expanse of waters and perfectly secure from fowlers, lie all day long in the winter season, vast flocks of ducks, teals, and widgeons [dabbling ducks], of various denominations, where they preen and solace and rest themselves till towards sunset, when they issue forth in little parties--for in their natural state they are all birds of the night--to feed in the brooks and meadows; returning again with the dews of the morning." The other two "considerable lakes " of the forest, Hogmer and Cranmer--(Woolmer, i.e. Wolf Mere gives its name to the Forest, Cranmer is Cranemere, and Hog mere requires no explanation ["mere" is a standing expanse of water]) are still stocked with carp, tench, eels and perch, but the fish do not thrive because "the water is hungry, and the bottoms are a naked sand." Our road skirts the edge of the forest which stretches to the left out of sight; the air is delicious; your veins tingle with a sense of joyous exhilaration; your eye revels in the rich harmonious colouring--the duns and purples, the chocolates, the olives and dusky browns, which melt into one another like the tints in an eastern rug. The bees swarm here, getting in the heath honey for which Hampshire was famous in Fuller's time: though he says, by the way, Hampshire honey is "worst on the heath, hardly worth five pounds the barrel." Towards the lower end of the forest you come to Woolmer Pond, quite a large pond, as we have said, with an island, and a margin of pollard alders.
At the foot of the forest is the beautiful church of Blackmoor, built by Lord Selborne. An inscription on the south wall states that this church is the offering of a parishioner; and we were told that from his earliest boyhood it had been Lord Selborne's great desire and ambition to be able some time to build a church. When he found himself duly prospered in store and basket, he came here, raised this church for his altar, built a parsonage, schools and cottages, and last of all his own home in a clump of firs, on a site where Roman remains have been found.
We approach Selborne through one of the rocky, hollow lanes which now, as in Gilbert White's time, "are among the singularities of the place;" lanes cut out of white chalk-like freestone of the district, bare as a stony water-course, and as deep, worn down by the "traffic of ages and the fretting of water," until they are sometimes sixteen or eighteen feet below the fields--hop plantations for the most part, for we are on the malmy ground dear to the hop.
White describes these lanes as grotesque and awful in times of flood when the torrents rush down the broken sides of their high banks, making cascades among the tangled and twisted roots of the hedge-trees; but nothing can be lovelier than they are in the summer, with their high, ferny, mossy banks, kept cool and green with trickling water.
At last we come in sight of Selborne--a snug, warm village at the foot of a long green beechen "hanger," with a streamlet, crossed by a foot-bridge, running through its one straggling street. You approach between hop-lands and corn-fields; you are among snug farm-houses and pretty cottages; there is the white tower of the village church, and, in a low dell by its side the parsonage, and, over the way, the object of your pilgrimage, the house of Gilbert White. Who, born twenty miles from the spot, would have ever heard of fair Selborne, if he had not chatted of its "natural history" with a tenderness, grace and faithfulness which would be the making of any English village? And yet, "fair" it is, occupying a lovely and very fertile valley, backed by the Hanger and by the Nore Hill, a noble chalk promontory, remarkable for sending forth two streams into two different seas. In the crowded tumbled churchyard is an old yew, a vast tree, twenty yards in girth, and spreading its heavy branches out a great way; and under it is a bench, where the "rude forefathers of the hamlet" have gathered, no doubt, for untold generations, for this yew is supposed to be much older than the church. You look long in vain amongst the weather-worn head-stones for that marking the grave of Gilbert White, but at last, near the north wall of the Chancel, you come upon one, with--
And that is all there is to shew that this swell in the turf under heavy grass is the grave of the gentle naturalist. Within the church is a more imposing monument. But this is almost the only memory of his virtues that Selborne retains: an admirer of his, who came hither on pilgrimage long enough ago to unearth "an old dame who had nursed several of the family," could learn no more than that the quaint old bachelor was "a still, quiet body," that, "there wasn't a bit of harm in him, I'll answer you Sir,--there wasn't, indeed."
And this of the man who filled the common room at Oriel, on the occasions of his yearly visits by his inimitable way of telling a story! Opposite the church, where the village street forks, are two fine ashes planted by White, and behind them is his house, grown by degrees into a long house of considerable size, and with various joins, but all in keeping. Entering, you pass through a quaint hall, dark with old oak, and lined with cases of stuffed birds--most fit furnishing for this house--and there hangs the shell of "Timothy" [a tortoise].
Above the kitchen, looking south towards the Hanger, is the pleasant room in which Gilbert White read and wrote, and from whose windows he had good opportunity to consider the ways of the "winged people," more especially of the swallows, whose "placid and easy flight," draws much attention here for the sake of him who made their habits a life study. You may see the room where Gilbert White was born, in the July of 1720; not that his father lived there at the time: he was born in the house of his grandmother, whose husband a former Gilbert White, had been Vicar of Selborne. Mr. John White, the father of the naturalist, was a barrister of the Middle Temple; but the metropolis was less attractive to him than his native village, and when Gilbert was eleven years old he came with his family to live in the old home, the abode of several generations of Whites.
Then began such a searching into the history and habits of every living creature in earth, air or water, which made the parish of Selborne its haunt, that one son at least was fascinated. Bog and heath, meadow, hedge and beech wood were explored by the father and his four boys: they were a family of out-door naturalists; but one son says of himself--
"Me, far above the rest,
That son was Gilbert, who, notwithstanding several offers of College livings, chose to settle himself in his native village, that he might study the behaviour of the chaffinch and the cuckoo, the kite and sparrow hawk, and all the tribes of the "winged nation," which sought the precincts of Selborne; nor did he confine himself to birds; mice and moths, sticklebacks and spiders, oaks and ants, and fairy rings, there is scarce a natural object about Selborne, animate or inanimate, which he has not made interesting to the world by the charming record of his observations. He remained a bachelor all his life, but one wants to know why the attachment, which led to the long and bright correspondence with Miss Mulso, of which we are told, did not end in marriage. The gentle bachelor was not lonely however; his neighbors loved him, and probably he was seldom without one or another batch of his numerous nephews and nieces. Certain of the nieces were prime favourites, witness his characteristic invitation to Selborne:--
Return, dear nymphs; prevent the
Return, blith maidens; with you bring along
His peas and his cucumbers, the vagaries of Timothy, his pet tortoise, the rural affairs of his neighbours, the chronicling of daily observations about the weather, the keeping of a calendar which shewed when every wild flower blossomed, afforded him manifold interests--until he died, in the house where he was born and had lived, in the 73rd year of his age--a pure and gentle spirit, who has inclined many to the pleasant ways of the home naturalist.
The gardens are delightful, and a broad lawn, well sprinkled with trees, reaches up to the very foot of the Hanger. We looked over into the well stocked kitchen garden, of which "Timothy" writes to Miss Mulso, "In my present situation I enjoy many advantages, such as the range of an extensive garden, affording a variety of sun and shade, and abounding in lettuces, poppies, kidney beans, and many other salubrious and delectable herbs and plants, and especially with a good choice of delicate gooseberries!" and beyond was the "neighbouring meadow" where Timothy lost himself for eight days, "for my fancy represented to me that probably many agreeable tortoises of both sexes might inhabit those extensive plains." We asked after the summer-house where the merry tea-drinkings took place; alas, there was little but a round site overgrown with beeches, and a few chips (we carried off one or two) which told of recent havoc. No longer even--
"Its haunts forsaken, and its feasts forgot,
There before us, leading from the summer-house, was the brick-path which Mr. John White had made that he might go dry shod to the Hanger in wet weather, and accommodation which his son Gilbert, no doubt, made free use of. There it is, leading right up to the Hanger, a red path, three or four bricks wide, placed end to end, and not too close together, so that the water can escape between them. We followed this footway to a sheltered wood path, where the light fell green through beech boughs, and then, up the Hanger, dry and brown underfoot, carpeted with beech-mast and fallen leaves of many years, lines of grey satin trunks about and above, a roofing of fairy green fingers: "The most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage or graceful pendulous boughs," says Gilbert White of the beech.
The whole of the "vast hill of chalk," rising 300 feet above the village, is popularly known as the Hanger now, but Gilbert White divides it into "a sheep-down, the high-wood, and a long hanging wood called the Hanger." The prospect from the top is glorious, reaching to the Sussex and Surrey Downs, and covering much of Hampshire; and though the beech does not favour a prolific undergrowth, in the earliest spring the bare woods are odorous with the delicious scent of the mezereon [a fragrant shrub]; and you may find here the spurge laurel, and the autumnal gentian, the lesser periwinkle, and truffles--if you know how to get at them.
In the centre of the village is a square open space where the children and young people play, called, not the village green, but the "Plestor;" which appears to be a corruption of Pleystow, the play place (White). This common was granted for the use of the people to the monks of Selborne in the year 1271, by Sir Adam Gurdon and his wife Constantia. At the south corner of the Plestor there used to stand a "very old, grotesque hollow pollard ash, which for ages had been looked upon with no small veneration as a shrew ash." A shrew ash is not an ash tree of a particular sort, but one which had a deep hole bored into its trunk, into which hole a luckless shrew mouse was thrust, and plugged in! To what end? Why, these shrew mice were looked upon as baneful little beasties which brought terrible pains to the horses and cattle by running over their limbs or bodies; but have a shrew ash handy, and your horse or cow might be restored by gently rubbing the ailing part with a twig of the precious tree! No wonder the Selbornians were in arms when
"The late vicar stubl'd and burnt it,"
in spite of all they had to tell of its efficacy. White has other local superstitions as extraordinary as this of the shrew ash but we have not room for them here. We hope we have said enough to induce some of our readers to make a pilgrimage to a site so full of pleasant memories.
Proofread by LNL, July, 2023
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