First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The natural world was a puzzle that 18th-century minds longed to put together. From the orgasms of swifts to the submarine breathing of deer, Gilbert White, curate of the Hampshire village of Selborne, noted and questioned everything around him. The gentle and curious clergyman’s letters, published as The Natural History of Selborne, have sold countless millions; and thousands of White’s admirers and adherents still flock to Selborne to look round his house, The Wakes, and to climb the Zig Zag path cut into the steep face of The Hanger, the 300-ft chalk escarpment behind the village, by White and his brother John.
Sun was flooding through the stained glass window to Gilbert White in St Mary’s Church, back-lighting in glory the heron, the raven, the finches and warblers waiting their turn to be fed by St Francis. Outside in the sunshine and wind, Jane and I paid our respects at the curate’s modest grave, then followed the concertina folds of the Zig Zag up to the crest of the Hanger. Looking back, we saw the village and its green cornfields framed in beech leaves and bathed in thick shafts of light.
The track led over the ancient wood pasture of Selborne Common, nowadays smothered in trees, in White’s time ‘a pleasing, park-like spot, commanding a very engaging view.’ It was one of his favourite places. Here he would come, a notebook in his pocket, alert to all that was going on under, upon and above the earth. Today a confusion of paths tangles on the common, but we picked out ours with only a modicum of cursing.
Now Noar Hill stood ahead, a high promontory. White wondered whether these downland hills might have been formed by the swelling of their water-logged chalk, like yeast – a perfect example of his endearing mixture of science and poetry. Here we found, pinned to a tree, a touching quotation by Harry Rustell, a local man who spent the first 30 years of his life, early in the 20th century, on Noar Hill farms. ‘If I should happen to know,’ read the note, ‘when my last days on this Earth are at hand, I would like to be able to wave a magic wand and be above the beech hangers of Noar Hill among the wild flowers, especially the cowslips, my mother’s favourite.’
There are still cowslips on Noar Hill, and violets among the mosses in High Wood Hanger. Walking under the beech and hazels back to Selborne at the foot of the down, we imagined a meeting on the hill between farm boy and curate, and guessed they would not have been short of things to talk about.
Start & finish: Village car park, Selborne GU34 3JR (OS ref SU 742335)
Walk (5 miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer 133): From car park, right up path (‘Zigzag and Hanger’ fingerpost). In 300 yards, through gate; bear left up Zigzag. Right at top, through gate, along ride over Selborne Common through trees for ⅔ mile. At fork in open space (732329), left to gate at edge of trees (729328). Left past two 4-finger ‘bridleway’ posts; along Green Lane to cross road (731322). Diagonally left (fingerpost) across field to road (734321). Right for 15 yards; right up path in tunnel of trees. Cross lane (736318); on with hedge, then wood on left for ½ mile, into wood (yellow arrow/YA) to crossing of tracks at wood edge (742315). On over crossing (‘Hangers Way/HW’ bridleway). In ¼ mile, HW branches left at 3-finger post (747315 – green arrow); but keep ahead on path sloping down to 3-finger post (751317). Left (‘bridleway’) inside lower edge of High Wood Hanger, ignoring paths on left, for ¾ mile to rejoin HW (740321 – green arrow). Right to road (738323); right to T-junction (738325). Over stile opposite; follow HW round field edge to top right corner; stiles and HW back to Selborne.
NB – Online maps, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Selborne Arms (01420-511247; www.selbornearms.co.uk) or Queen’s Hotel (01420-511454)
Gilbert White’s House, The Wakes, High Street, Selborne (01420-511275; www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk)
The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White (Penguin); http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/
More info: Petersfield TIC (01730-268829)