Early on an autumn misty morning in October we arrived at the Port of Dover, the car ferry negotiated the narrow entrance skillfully. One often wonders how this was achieved in the days before accurate satellite positioning, engine-powered steel-hulled juggernauts ànd electricity. It is to the house of a historic figure living prior to those days that we travelled, a sort of pilgrimage any naturalist should undertake.
To the southeast of Charing Cross, lies an idyllic corner of former-Kentish countryside, presently in the London Borough of Bromley. Tucked away in the small village of Downe, northeast of Biggin Hill sits the home of Charles Darwin, Down House.
The Darwin family acquired the core of the house and surrounding estate around 1841, and they soon after started expanding and renovating the old house, walling the garden, adding a kitchen garden and green house. In 1846, Charles Darwin rented a plot adjacent to his estate, planted it and the path that interconnects both plots was soon called ‘The Sandwalk’. It offered Mr Darwin a shaded and sheltered thinking-walk around the estate, a place where he must have contemplated on a myriad of personal and academic topics.
The is presently held within the English Heritage trust, with many of the historic important items curated at or by the National Museum of Natural History in London. The house served many purposes after the family left the house, so little of the original was preserved. Many parts are period restored, and offer perfect insight into the daily lives of the family and work of Charles Darwin.
Visitors are not allowed to take pictures indoors as many delicate original furniture pieces, tools, books and manuscripts are on display, except for one room which is completely period refurbished: the bedroom. The most memorable here is the view Charles and his wife Emma enjoyed of the gardens and surrounding countryside, ever changing at the pace of the seasons. Mr Darwin’s favorite bench stood in the garden close to the house just to the left of the view. A narrative written by his son Francis tells how fond Charles Darwin was at sitting on that bench watching the children play the odd game of lawn-tennis, even knocking up a strayed ball with the curved handle of his walking stick.
Outside, the garden paths lead towards a small orchard, tennis court and stylized garden towards the kitchen garden and Mister Darwin’s favorite spots of all, his beloved greenhouse and laboratory.
A creature of habit, Mr Darwin organized his activities and belongings very meticulously. For example, in his final years, his old study was moved to the north end of the house, meticulously recreating his old study (a few yards down the hall) by arranging the furniture in identical fashion, even if this meant sacrificing passage of a door.
As organized as he was in his work and study, so were his ‘leisurely’ walks in the gardens and meadow. At various points in the garden, he has planted or constructed things to study: the flowering of a plant, the effect of worms in the garden, tendril perversions in cucumbers plants, the three-dimensional construction of honeycomb cells, sexual and asexual reproduction in plants, the meadow, woodland animals etc… . His grandfather, an eminent doctor, even made the weight of family members a point of study by weighing them each time they entered the house when visiting, and commenting on it. He may not have inherited a passion for medicine, but the genetic gift was a more fundamental curiosity, which laid the basis for him to develop groundbreaking insights into the natural world.
For more information, please visit the website of the English Heritage.
A wonderfully illustrated guide to Down House has been made available by English Heritage and can be ordered online.