On a day of spontaneous decisions, this was certainly one of the most last minute. I was driving home from Kent and saw a sign for Downe House, which I knew was the home of Charles Darwin. I went for it, even though I half expected it to be an overpriced money spinner for English Heritage. It definitely is, but still, I wanted to stand in the room where Darwin wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The house is, as you’d expect, very grand. So are the other houses surrounding the village of Downe, but this is the only one to have housed the most important naturalist of all time. The ground floor is laid out as though Mr Darwin, and the rest of his family, just evaporated one day, leaving notebooks open, pens dipped in wells of ink and even butterfly nets leant against walls. It is fascinating to see all the artefacts, journals and furniture that belonged to the Darwin family.
Upstairs is a museum, displaying some of Darwin’s personal effects, including a pistol that he bought under instruction from Captain Fiztroy, prior to setting sail on the voyage of the Beagle. Apparently, Fitzroy was very economical with most things, except when it came to his choice of firearms. You are not allowed to take photographs inside the house, but what I would have photographed, if I was allowed, would have been the billiard table. There is a large room on the ground floor housing a billiard table, almost exactly the same as the one my dad has in his shed. The scoreboard is even the same, with detailed brass sliders to display the number of points.
I did take five photographs however, of five skulls showing the evolution of man, because I didn’t think they were particularly decorative or unique to the house, and also because I paid over twelve quid to get in, so bollocks to the rules.
The best part of the house is what’s outside. It is here that I imagine Darwin spent most of his time. I stood and leant my hand on a pillar over looking the lawn, as I pictured him doing, battling with himself over the decision to go against the advice of his Christian friends and publish his life’s work.
In later life, Darwin spent a lot of time studying earthworms. I imagined him crawling around in the dirt, beneath the shade of a large tree, collecting and studying the worms. The back of the house is more spectacular than the front, with the gardens stretching out in front of it. I walked to the walled garden and inspected the tightly packed collection of cacti and other exotic plants growing in a long, narrow greenhouse.
Outside the greenhouse, a few creepers made their way up the walls. It’s a very pretty garden, and well maintained. I can’t help but think that Charles Darwin himself might have been a tad more chaotic in his plant arrangements.
As I left Downe House, I felt as though I’d gained a better understanding of how the father of evolution might have worked in his later years, though I didn’t read a single one of the information boards (apart from the one about the pistol). When I’m old, I’d like to lean against a pillar and look out at a wildflower meadow filled with clouds of butterflies, as I consider whether or not to break society with some great scientific discovery.
‘Can we doubt… that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind?’
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
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