A lot of my friends seem to be retiring at present and for the same reason: that they all got their jobs in and around the magic years of 1972 and 1973. In my last blog I went to Mick Jones’ retirement party at Lincoln, and then at the Antiquaries I heard a splendid lecture from David Baker, who retired from being County Archaeologist in Bedford several years ago, and has been very busy ever since. And what do you do on your retirement? Well you write up the backlog of the excavations you did in your youth, which is how David came to be writing up his excavations at Selborne Priory.
Selborne is best known from its association with Gilbert White, the pioneer ornithologist and environmentalist, but his great book published in 1789 was entitled “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne”. For not only was he a pioneer historian, but also a pioneer antiquarian and was the first person to investigate Selborne Piory. Selborne Priory was unusual because of its early dissolution. It was founded in 1233 by Peter des Roches, an ambitious glory seeker who went round founding monasteries that would not always prove to be viable, and Selborne was one of these and was formally dissolved in 1484, fifty years before Henry VIII came along. Nothing remained above ground, but in the 1950s two local amateurs began investigating and located what was probably the cloisters, but they could not find the church.
However in 1966 the young Barry Cunliffe was appointed to the new Chair of Archaeology in Southampton and was looking at the archaeology of the whole area, and tipped off by John Hurst, he realised that Selborne Priory needed some new thinking. He therefore arranged for David Baker, who had been one of his diggers at Fishbourne, and who had just been appointed a lecturer in a college at Portsmouth, to undertake some excavations at Selborne. David did three short seasons, but again acting on hints from John Hurst he soon realised that the problem was that the church lay not to the north of the cloister as is usual, but to the south. He was soon able to produce an outline plan of the whole monastery.
However just as he was really getting into it, he was appointed to take charge of the archaeology in Bedfordshire, and for the next forty years he devoted his life to sorting out archaeology in Bedfordshire. However Selborne was not quite forgotten, and on his retirement, he excavated his notes of forty years ago, and has now produced a fine monograph elucidating the story of Selborne Abbey.