I SPY LONDON(14) the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing Somewhere historic: Down House Location: Luxted Road, Downe BR6 7JT [map] Open: 10am - 6pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays and January) Admission: £6.90 5-word summary: where Charles Darwin created evolution Website:English Heritage Time to set aside: a couple of hours
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 [photo]. 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. 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 and received £3.10 in change, then entered the ground floor to see where the great man lived and worked. All the fixtures and fittings have been restored just as they would have looked in the late 19th century. 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. You really get the atmosphere of a comfortable but happy Victorian family home in which something extraordinary was being thought through.
The highlight of the tour is the opportunity to stand inside Darwin's wallpapered study. Here he examined thousands of specimens he'd 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.
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. He used his garden as a laboratory, 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 today. The grounds of Down House are still both immaculate and productive. I could have come home with a marrow fresh from the kitchen garden, but made do instead with a recently fallen sweet chestnut picked from the lawn. I think I'll plant it round the back of my flat... after all, given where it was born, it's surely fit enough to survive. by train (& bus): Bromley (then 146) or Orpington (then R8)
Somewhere random: Orpington I didn't mean to end up in Orpington, it's just that I missed one bus to Down House and it was a long wait for the next one. [And then when it arrived, blimey, it was just a tiny cross-country minibus]. Just in case you should ever find yourself stuck in this market town with time to kill, here are some random places you could visit. Orpington used to be in Kent, and it still looks rather more Home Counties than metropolitan. So there are lots of quite ordinary shops. Orpington Priory was founded in 1032. Many of the old buildings survive beside the library, and there are some nice gardens. BromleyMuseum is situated in the old Priory. It's probably full of all sorts of thrilling local ephemera, but it has one of those big wooden doors which looks closed and uninviting even when the museum's open, so I gave it a miss. There's a proper Roman villa next to the station, or at least the remains of one, except it's closed on Saturdays. In Poverest Road there's an old Roman bathhouse dating back to AD270, but it's not open very often. The War Memorial is one of the most prominent landmarks in the town, but it's in the middle of the main roundabout and quite dangerous to get to. There are lots of 1850s coal posts in Orpington - you could go looking for them. Oh please, hasn't that bus arrived yet? by train: Orpington by bus: anything starting with R