Looking for Darwin: Down House
The so-called Reading Week did not amount to much reading; instead, it became the opportunity for me to visit a few attractions in and around London. You know, those ancient entrants and remainders on the “to-visit” list. One of those is Down House, home to a certain Charles Darwin.
Situated far in the extreme outskirts of south London and historically in Kent, Down House is but a short walk from Downe, a charming village that centres on the medieval church where Darwin family is buried (he was allocated a spot in Westminster Abbey instead), surrounded by attractive pubs and beautiful autumn leaves; the whole village seemed blissfully to have remained in 1878. That is until the rows and rows of SUVs on the road drew you back to 2016.
A short walk through country lanes led me to Down House, fronted by English Heritage signage. After the Darwins moved out, Down House was used as a girls’ school, then a Darwin Museum, before it was purchased by English Heritage and restored to the condition in Darwin’s time. Honestly, I expected for a bigger mansion. For sure, the garden extended far toward the horizons, while the house was handsomely embroidered in roses; yet it was rural, quiet and unstately; perhaps more fitting to Darwin’s reservedness rather than his fame.
Recently, the English Heritage provided another crushing realisation of adulthood: I am about to lose the (what is perhaps my last) ‘young person’ discount. So I talked myself into a yearly membership and set a target to visit EH properties this year.
Quite naturally*, ‘Evolution’ is the buzzard whenever Charles Darwin is mentioned. As a self-confessed science illiterate, it was also the only word. Fortunately, the upper floor boasted a comprehensive exhibition over the minute details of his life, from the famous voyage on the HMS Beagle to his family history, along with priceless exhibits such as the On the Origin of Species, first edition.
*apologies for bad pun
Couple of things I’ve learned:
- Darwin was rich as hell. Such is the case when your grandfather is the Josiah Wedgewood (check your expensive pots and plates). There is a reason why he could disappear in the seas for five years.
- Darwin was never in the best health. Since moving to Down, he tended to avoided engagements and spent all his time countering the sure-fire controversies that would follow when the theory of evolution is published.
- Lists seem scientific.
Returning to the lower floor, I was offered an audio tour and as a member of the smartphone generation leaped for the chance to wire up with headphones. An introduction to the drawing room was conducted with the most familiar of voice – Sir David Attenborough. With interest, I listened attentively as Sir David narrated the anecdotes of Darwin’s life. How Darwin always played backgammon with his wife every night. How he would create lighter versions of books by literally cutting them in half. Under the Attenborough voice, it was as if Darwin has leapt from the history books, returned to the house he belonged.
The garden was no slutch: after all, observation of natural science requires, well, nature. Under the guide of Andrew Marr, I explored the browning trees underneath the autumn sun, passing through Darwin’s (somewhat spartan) laboratory and greenhouse. Reading a book underneath a garden bench, this would be the place for me to do research too.
Down House is, erm, pretty difficult to get to via public transport. Your choices from urban London are limited to hourly buses R8 from Orpington (add on some hail-and-ride fun) or 146 from Bromley which terminates in Downe village 1/2 mile away. In winter, Down House is only open during the weekends.