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Interview with Rosemary Irwin.


Between 27th April and 5th May 2015 Rosemary will be following in the footsteps of the great pioneering eighteenth century naturalist and writer, Gilbert White. Rosemary will be walking the 74 miles from Gilbert White’s former home in Selborne to Oriel College, Oxford.


Tell me why you have planned this walk and what it will involve ?

Although the main purpose of the walk is to commemorate the great 18th century naturalist the Reverend Gilbert White and to make him better known, it is also all about raising valuable money for the Gilbert White and the Oates Collections project to renovate the Museum in Selborne and create new exhibitions. The route starts at his former home, The Wakes (now the Museum) and takes in the counties of Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Over 80 people have so far signed up to walk in the footsteps Gilbert would have taken at least once a year to fulfil his role as fellow of Oriel College, and more have sponsored.
What’s the connection with Captain Oates – why is it the Gilbert White Museum and Oates Collection?

Because the museum was founded by a member of the Oates family, Robert Washington Oates, whose uncle, Captain Oates, accompanied Captain Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole in 1911 – 1912, he is commemorated alongside Gilbert White in an imaginative exhibition about great explorers.

Gilbert White is much less well known than Captain Oates and yet he deserves to be equally famous. Why is that?

Gilbert was a great and very appealing man, an author, scientist and a naturalist and this walk is to allow more people to get to know of him and understand him. He is known as the founder of ecology because he observed the nature that he saw and how the different species and growing things interacted with each other. He ‘observed narrowly’ on his travels and made detailed notes . Nowadays naturalists can base their research on his findings, which act as a benchmark. Even more important, he was an author of genius, of one of the greatest and most well-loved books in the English language. Never out of print and translated into numerous languages, his Natural History of Selborne is a wonderful bedtime read, full of anecdotes about 18th century life in an English village.

But why are you so passionate about Gilbert White, enough to walk 75 miles in his memory?

Not only because he was a great man, a scientist, a writer of genius, a lover of nature and gardens, someone who could classify ‘little brown birds’ by their songs into different species (imagine doing that without a taperecorder). But I also think he was so human and lacking in pomposity, in an age when it was very easy to be pompous. He was very popular in his village, loved by his enormous family and he delighted in all wild and living things. In addition to his marvellous book he has also left his diaries and we have the letters he received from his friends, so we know a great deal about him and he comes to life as a hugely engaging character over the space of nearly 300 years (he was born in 1720). He also had a delightful sense of humour and cared deeply about the poor.

Tell us more about the Natural History of Selborne?

It is made up of letters written by Gilbert to two naturalists of the day, and which his brother Benjamin published in 1789. He described indexing the book as ‘an occupation full as entertaining as that of darning stockings, though by no means as advantageous to society’. He was very nervous about its publication and how it would be received ‘ like a schoolboy who has done some mischief, and does not know whether he is to be flogged for it or not’. But it was a huge success. Here is a photo of the manuscript which is the Gilbert White’s House most prized possession. ‘Mr. White’s book is excellent; for I beheld the end of it with the pensive regret with which a traveller looks upon the setting sun’. Review of Selborne in The Topographer, April 1789

And what about his concern for the poor of Selborne?

Gilbert was always very concerned about the poor – whether they had enough to eat, whether they had warm clothes in the winter, whether they had a sound roof over their heads. He often gave money to the poor and in his 1750s account books there is a note ‘ A petticoat for Tull’s naked wench, 2s.6d’. But he was essentially a humble man too, and when he died he left instructions that he should be buried outside the church in Selborne that he served for so long, and that he should be carried there by ‘6 honest day labouring men’.

Tell us about Gilbert the gardener?

In addition to his achievements as an author and a naturalist, Gilbert White was also a prolific gardener. On his move to The Wakes, in Selborne, he quickly became a formidable producer of flowers and vegetables, and he must have fed many of his poor neighbours. He made many of them aware of the potato, which became a staple crop for the poor and saved many from near-starvation.

Why are you walking to Oxford?

Gilbert White made the journey to his old college, Oriel, regularly, battling out through the sunken lanes which in winter were often so flooded that Selborne was nearly cut off. He was a fellow of the college, dean for a year, and university proctor, so he had to be there a good deal. But he loathed coaches and was often coach sick – indeed we know that he was very ill en route to Oxford in 1752 and he gave his travelling companion, Jenny Croke, the daughter of his Oxford landlady, a present in recompense. So he would have made the journey on horseback, and his pony was called Mouse. Gilbert would have probably gone by what are now major roads, and we could do the same but it wouldn’t be much fun.