The Discovery of Gilbert White’s Garden
A spirit of adventure hovers over the Hampshire village of Selborne. Perhaps the majestic beech ‘Hanger’ that runs behind it generates an unusual energy? It nurtured Gilbert White (1720-93), that great explorer of local natural history, and boasts a link with the Oates family whose adventurous spirit led them to some of the most inhospitable corners of the planet.
This unlikely duo of adventurers was brought together in 1955 when the Gilbert White Society wanted to buy The Wakes, Gilbert White’s Selborne home, to establish it as a small museum. Help was offered by Robert Washington Oates on condition that his family memorabilia could also be kept there. The joint venture has been a great success and ‘The Wakes’ is now much more than a museum. Its lively Field Studies Centre encourages explorations of the Hampshire countryside. In its partly restored garden, David Standing, the Head Gardener, and his team are half-way through another journey of discovery.
Gilbert White is best known as the author of ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’. Less well known, is ‘The Garden Kalendar’, the record he kept of the day-to-day activities in his garden. In the absence of any plans, the Kalendar provided David with the raw material he needed for the restoration of White’s garden. By the early 1990s he had gained an excellent understanding of the plants the great naturalist had used and a rough idea of where they might have grown. It was at this point that a landscape architect was brought in to help create the garden we see today. The result is what David describes as ‘an approximate garden’. All the features and plants that Gilbert White described in his Kalendar are included; from the fruit and vegetables grown in the Kitchen Garden to the wooden statue of Hercules that is seen in perspective through six ‘Field gates’. However, given the limited information on which the design had to be based, David was aware that the lay-out might not be quite as White intended.
More recently, with the help of a local historian, David had the opportunity to compare the deeds of ‘The Wakes’ with the copyhold survey. After studying both carefully, he realized that one of White’s fields had been in the middle of the park, rather than off to one side as he had thought. Copies of Samuel Grimm’s watercolours of Selborne from Harvard University enabled David to uncover yet more information. But his real ‘Eureka moment’ came in 2003 during one of his regular walks up Gilbert White’s zig-zag path to the top of the Hanger. On this one occasion, The Wakes, which was undergoing building work, was swathed in plastic sheeting. For the first time, the position of the house was clearly visible in the surrounding landscape. David could see that the layout of the ‘approximate garden’ is ‘slightly skewed’.
Views, both within a garden and beyond, were very important to 18th century garden owners and were incorporated into their designs. To some extent, Gilbert White produced his own ‘approximate’ landscape garden; a cut-price and possibly humorous version of those owned by his wealthier contemporaries. Rather than investing in an expensive statue of a classical figure he put up a painted board figure of Hercules. He didn’t have vast acres on which to build eye catching follies so he built two hermitages on the Hanger instead, land that didn’t belong to him at all. White put a great deal of thought into the design of his garden. He placed a barrel seat on a mound in The Great Mead so that he could enjoy the view he had created. If we are to make sense of his creation then it needs to fit precisely with the landscape around it just as he intended.
There is one feature of Gilbert White’s garden about which David and his team can be completely confident. The site of the Fruit Wall, which White built in 1761, was thoroughly investigated by archaeologists in 1995. As a result, part of it was restored in 2000. Fundraising is now underway to restore the remaining section so that vines, nectarines, and apricots can be planted on it once again.
‘The Wakes’ is one of the few gardens that remain open throughout the winter. Why not go along and see what is happening? You could visit the church and find the stained glass windows that commemorate Selborne’s famous naturalist. Perhaps you will be tempted to sign up for the ‘The Wakes Weeders’, David Standing’s team of volunteer gardeners and join in the adventures in this engaging garden?