I recently moved back into my old flat after a complicated few months away, and now spend most quiet moments by the window with a fresh coffee, watching the long-tailed tits irritate the pigeons that roost in the tree outside. I’m back where I should be, and it feels cathartic to reflect on the chain of events that took me away and brought me back. When I retrieved all my boxes from various spare rooms, I made a decision to bring all my books with me instead of the stunted selection I had previously kept portable. I feel stranded without my books, but I had always kept a ceiling-high bookshelf in my parents’ spare room, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to move them. This time, embarking on what is known as a ‘fresh start’, I made a new space for them in our little living room, and spent two horrific hours trying to transport a pine bookcase single-handed from my mum’s spare room to our first floor flat. Praise be to our kindly neighbour who helped me up the last few steps before I collapsed in an emotional heap.
One of my new additions is a beautiful clothbound edition of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, which I once found in a second-hand bookshop in Alton, near the village of Selborne where Gilbert White lived. He was an eighteenth-century amateur naturalist and ornithologist, celebrated for observing the changing signs of each season – when the swifts returned each year, and when the snakes shed their skins. I’m lucky enough to live in the same area as Gilbert once did, and the village of Selborne has become an entirely happy place for me. We often take tea in the tea parlour, and visit the house to buy plants or skip down the ha-ha in the garden – my favourite thing is the stuffed nightjar in the hall that White referred to as a ‘fern owl’.
On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Selborne for a walk up Gilbert ‘Zig-Zag’ path. It’s a lightning-shaped track carved into the hill behind the main house, created by Gilbert and his brother. When you reach the top (inevitably breathless), there are views over Selborne and the Oakhanger woods; on Sunday the air was so cold it was painful to inhale, but the sky was bright cerulean and sponged with clouds. At the summit we watched coal tits flit between a creaking birch and the dark fronds of a yew tree, and then descended into the hanger, a sloping, earthy woodland that tumbles down onto the meadow of Gilbert White’s beautiful garden.