In 1842 Charles Darwin and his young family grew tired of living in London and sought somewhere new to live. They nearly ended up in Chobham, but a house in the Kent village of Down proved cheaper, and the Darwins grudgingly decided it'd do. London was commutable if necessary, but the area was also properly rural and, winningly, surrounded by an impressive network of footpaths. Since then the village has gained an extra 'e', and the London boundary has reached out and swallowed it whole. But Down House remains deep in untarnished countryside, and Darwin's local landscape is secure. [10 photos]
Charles Darwin lived here for 40 years, after a busy early life involving medical school, Cambridge University and a life changing round-the-world voyage. His five-year trip aboard the Beagle allowed him to observe variations in geology and natural history, and to collect innumerable specimens for later study. As a result Darwin became increasingly convinced that various species must have had a common origin, and his theory of natural selection gradually surfaced. Although these ideas were already developing before he reached Down House, it was here he dug deeper and made his arguments watertight before bringing evolution to public attention in 1858. Our world was never quite the same again.
Down House overlooks a single-track lane round the back of Biggin Hill Airport. One of London's least frequent buses runs past the front door, that's the R8, and the driver will let you step off into a hedge if you ding the Hail & Ride at the right time. Then traipse back through the car park, locate the gift shop, and you're inside. I was impressed how many visitors were here on a weekday in the middle of almost nowhere, but that's the pull of a great scientist, a nice house and a splendid garden. Also, no photographs indoors thanks very much, but outside as many as you like.
Visitors are urged to go upstairs first, to see the exhibition, which runs through the life and times of everything Darwin-related and is very good. His family tree is impressive, and includes several Wedgwoods. The rooms detailing the voyage of the Beagle, and the controversy surrounding On The Origin Of Species, are detailed and chock full with actual artefacts. The stuffed birds in the cabinets on the landing aren't as creepy as they might be. One room is set aside for children to do childreny things, and another is a library. The only period room upstairs is the Darwins' bedroom, recently restored so I'd not seen inside before. The bed is lined up to face the window and the meadow beyond, which helps to explain how the great naturalist spent quite so long living here. I watched as a bee buzzed the wisteria just beyond the glass, a fairly everyday observation, but here somehow imbued with a special significance.
Downstairs an audio tour is provided to help guide you round, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which gives it extra oomph. Make sure you pick it up otherwise you'll be round the four rooms and the hallway in no time, and that's all there is. The parlour was the heart of the house, with doors opening out onto the garden and a backgammon set primed by the fireplace. The study is where books were written, and letters answered, and religion's traditional hegemony challenged. The table in the billiard room was sometimes used for relieving stress, and sometimes for laying out skulls, plants and other specimens. And the dining room was used for eating, obviously, so the recorded commentary does the best it can.
Step out through the tearoom, and the glories of the garden are yours to explore. This is where you want the other half of the audio guide, narrated by Andrew Marr, to make sure you uncover all the garden's nooks and crannies. The flowerbeds by the sundial are all tulippy at the moment, the lawn is lush, and somebody's filming the mulberry in timelapse for a documentary or something. Cross to the orchard to find the beehives, and a last burst of apple blossom, plus the "worm stone" which Darwin experimented on as part of his last published work, because he'd always found earthworms inherently fascinating.
The sole indoor part of Darwin's garden laboratory was his long thin greenhouse, which has been restored (and refilled) by English Heritage. At one end are a crop of carnivorous plants, similar to those he kept for study, along with notices asking you politely not to touch. A separate compartment focuses on orchids, because he was even more obsessed by those as a means of investigating fertilisation and variation. Immediately outside is the kitchen garden, which looks mostly empty at the moment. But don't be put off, because right down at the far end is a gate leading offsite to a public footpath, and the woodland loop where Darwin took his daily constitutionals - the Sandwalk.
The Sandwalk is special because it's where Charles came to think, up to three times a day, along a strip of land specially purchased from his neighbour. One side of the loop runs through dark woodland, mainly hazel and birch, and the other along an open privet hedge with views across the valley. It looks glorious out there at present, although Charles wouldn't have had the joys of seeing a golf course across the fields, or endured the racket of private jets heading into Biggin Hill. I only made one circuit, rather than Charles's more usual five, but out here is where I felt closest to the first homo sapiens to spot the meaning in his surroundings.