Captain Oates: penguins, antelopes and cockroaches in the Hampshire countryside

Intrepid polar explorer Captain Laurence Oates celebrated at Gilbert White’s House

Want a wonderfully weird thing to do in the Hampshire countryside? Try a visit to Selborne and the 18th century home and garden of naturalist, author, gardener and parish priest Gilbert White. You might know it. It’s a fascinating place and, as its name suggests, devoted to the story of the Rev White’s life-long investigation of the natural world and his enduring influence on botanists and naturalists right up to the present day. 

Although visitors must wear masks and social distancing is rigidly adhered to we didn’t need to book. They just sell 50 tickets in the morning and 50 in the afternoon. First come, first served basis.

Bizarrely this it appears that this country house museum wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Family Trust of polar explorer Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. I may be wrong but it appears to bankroll the entire project in return for using the upstairs as their own Oates Museum. 

Me and the resident impala at Gilbert’s house

The result is a pairing of two rather chaotically curated displays which appear to occasionally and inexplicably overlap. Hence, you wander into Gilbert White’s perfectly appointed 18th century English front parlour with its Queen Ann and Chippendale style furniture and suddenly find yourself confronted by a couple of rather misplaced taxidermy specimens – a penguin and a decidedly moth-eaten impala. The latter bears a notice saying ‘Please don’t touch. I’m losing my hair’. Though there is no explanation, the creature appears be a reference to the intrepid travels of Captain Oates’ Uncle Frank who has a room or two upstairs devoted to his pioneering expeditions to ‘Darkest Africa’ the last of which sadly proved fatal.

They weren’t a lucky family, the Oates. Most of the upper floors are devoted to Captain Oates famed role in Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 expedition to the South Pole. ‘I’m going outside. I may be sometime‘ and all that. Never mind thanks to Oates extraordinary act of self-sacrifice and Gilbert White’s intriguing house.

Downstairs the house – the odd penguin or impala aside – is a wonderful celebration of Gilbert White’s life-long investigation of the natural world as displayed through his house and wonderful 19th century garden. We learn of his fascination with all living creatures including a recording showing how he might have praised his prized collection of cockroaches to his horrified housekeeper.

There is no doubting his influence on natural science over the last 200 plus years. His book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was originally published in 1889 and has never been out of print.

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