diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 12, 2009

Today would have been Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (if only human beings had evolved a longevity gene). To celebrate, here's a look around his old house on the rural fringes of Bromley. It's been closed for a major upgrade since October but reopens to the public from tomorrow, and is well worth a look around. I went for a visit in 2006, and this is my (updated) report...

Down House
Location: Luxted Road, Downe BR6 7JT [map]
Open: 11am - 5pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Admission: £6.90 £8.80
Website: English Heritage

One of the most important, or most dangerous, houses in the world is located in Downe - a small village on the southeast fringe of London. It was here, five years after his voyage round the world aboard the Beagle, that Charles Darwin set up home. And it was here that he stayed for 40 years until his death, carrying out experiments which would shape our future. I just wish he'd lived somewhere slightly more accessible.

Getting to Down House by car is easy - it's not far from Biggin Hill off the M25. Buses are rather more infrequent, however, and if you miss one then it's at least an hour until the next. You can get to Downe village from Bromley, but I took the to-the-front-door option which involved travelling to Orpington station and then boarding one of TfL's rare but rather splendid minibuses. What fun it was careering through leafy Kent-ish lanes, although there wasn't an obvious bus stop outside the house and the driver overshot somewhat.

Entrance to the house is via the car park, through the big front door into the hallway and then into the obligatory giftshop. I handed over a small rectangular portrait of Charles Darwin in payment, then entered the ground floor to see where the great man lived and worked. An audio guide narrated by David Attenborough provides full background information, both of Darwin's scientific discoveries and of his everyday life here at Down House. All the fixtures and fittings have been restored just as they would have looked in the late 19th century, and very successfully too. The atmosphere is that of a comfortable but happy Victorian family home in which something extraordinary was being thought through.

The highlight of the tour must be the opportunity to stand inside Darwin's wallpapered study. Here he examined thousands of specimens brought back from around the world, using that microscope on the table, and here he mulled over the importance of his many findings, sat in that chair beside the desk. There's the board on which he wrote up his notes, and that's the pen he used for answering his correspondence. Right here is where On The Origin of Species was written, the very spot where men suddenly turned into apes. In this very room evolution was intelligently designed. Even 150 years later Darwin's central argument, created here, still reverberates on.

The other restored rooms downstairs help to give insight into Darwin's family life. In the dining room there's a fine dinner service inherited from his mother, one of the Wedgwoods. In the drawing room his wife Emma would sit and read out loud the latest letters of research to have arrived in the post. And in the games room he was partial to the odd game of billiards with his butler (although backgammon was more his style). Upstairs the focus shifts more towards museum exhibits, with a revamped bicentenary exhibition filling several rooms. Darwin's Beagle journey is explored in depth, as is global reaction to his evolutionary theories, as well as more intimate family portraits showing life at Down House.

Charles was a creature of habit and took a walk round his extensive grounds three times each day. He laid out a long tree-lined 'sandwalk' between two meadows to give himself time and space to think, surrounded by the nature he sought to understand. It's still possible to follow in his gravelly footsteps, round in a big loop between the trees, although you're unlikely to have quite such perceptive thoughts on the way around.

Charles used his garden as a laboratory, it being the perfect spot for cultivating earthworms or growing different strains of apple. In his wooden greenhouse he experimented with carnivorous plants and the cross pollination of orchids, experiments which have been recreated for today's visitors. The grounds of Down House are still both immaculate and productive, and fresh produce is sold off (in season) from a wheelbarrow at the side of the house. This may be a very ordinary corner of rural London, but from this house (and its rich chalkland grounds) one man changed our view of the world forever.
by train (& bus): Bromley (then 146) or Orpington (then R8)

Darwin 200
Darwin at Downe
Darwin 2009 comemmorations
Darwin @ Natural History Museum

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