Downe BR 6 JT
Tuesday July 2016
Today was probably our fifth visit to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, but if there is a Project to complete – needs must. There is a single decker bus ( 146 ) that does the round journey to and from Bromley in under an hour but having other errands to perform we came by car. Jo is away in France and doubtless enjoying the same sunny and high temperatures as the UK today. Having said that, by the time you snake your way down the lanes to the village of Downe the air is quite fresh and there was a slight breeze – appearances to the contrary Darwin chose the location for its comparative seclusion but still accessible to London and he and Emma chose the house to suit their growing family with space to spare for the science rather than for its beauty.
The property is managed by English Heritage and if we have a criticism it is that the only picnic spot offered was across the road, through a brambly stile and then the only option to sit on the ground – today of course it was dry and doable but I think a few picnic tables or at least a bench or two would not come amiss??
Back to the House – it has 5 ‘show rooms’ plus an upstairs suite of exhibition rooms outlining Darwin’s family tree , life and of course the research and findings which made him one of the key 19th20th Century influential thinkers (Freud, Marx and Einstein being the others and only Freud has a visitable house in London) . I am not going to attempt to summarise either the Origin of Species or the survival of the fittest which the displays do far better. Charles’ life pre Down House is also illustrated in detail including a hologram model of the cabin he shared with Fitzroy aboard the 'Beagle' and letters he sent ( he was a great letter writer and made friends with the postman who collected and delivered post several times a day.) There are sketches too he made of different finch types, tortoise s told apart by their different shells, pigeon types (he joined the local pigeon fancier club) and you can easily infer that he had been thinking ‘evolutionary’ type thoughts long before he published. In fact the first publication date was precipitated by other thinkers and scientists coming to similar conclusions about how species evolved.
Upstairs rooms include a hands-on education room, reading room and the more recently opened Darwins’ bedroom. The display rooms were formerly those of the various children. Both Charles and Emma came from large families and were in fact cousins and part of the Wedgwood (as in pottery) dynasty. Their bedroom has an adjacent dressing room now supplied with the obligatory garments for ‘dressing up’ in period costume. The room has several quite religious drawings and texts to remind you that Darwin was a believer and was at times quite conflicted by the controversial impact of his scientific conclusions. The room is also supplied with different books that the Darwins liked to read to each other. Somewhat strangely this was the only room where photography is permitted.
Downstairs there are four main reception rooms with hall and kitchen being used for administration and café, as you might expect. Both sitting and dining rooms have generous bay windows that look out onto the garden and are furnished in conventional Victorian style Though Darwin had ample space elsewhere for his experiments ( the Wormery and lab. in the garden, his study /laboratory across the corridor) that did not stop him bringing the worms into the sitting room which was usually seen as Emma’s province where she could embroider and read so she must have been very tolerant as the specimens being observed invariably escaped ...
The cupboard by the back door is complete with croquet set and other games and Darwin was known to be quite an indulgent father by Victorian standards allowing the children to toboggan down the stairs on a tin tray, which must have been incredibly noisy.
The rooms to the front of the house are in fact smaller and darker and are retained much as they were – there is a large Billiard Room now decorated with newspaper cuttings and cartoons of the time which show the again the furore the publication of his ideas caused. It may seem that choosing to live in the Kent countryside made Darwin look reclusive but in fact he did receive visitors, often other scientists, and was in constant correspondence with the rest of the world.
The most evocative room, and the one which makes the whole visit really come alive, is his study/ workroom with tables of fossils and other bits, microscopes, slides, samples, books, jars and stacks of index boxes and cards to match. There is a heavy and large armchair on castors which enabled Darwin to ‘scoot’ between his various tables and desks within the room. After his return from the Beagle voyages he never felt really well again and though modern thinking is not sure whether this was a form of hypochondria or whether he had picked up some long lasting tropical bug so in his later years Darwin had a ‘commode’ put in the corner of this his main workroom.
On such a lovely day it was a joy to be in the garden; in front of the house there are lawns and formal beds and along the path a generous flower border and the garden tapers with the back third laid to vegetable beds. You are also able to look at the greenhouse with its potting shed where there is a display hive for bees, quite active today. Darwin of course was also interested in plant and insect species .
Leaving through a small gate near the back wall you can follow the circuit that Darwin named his ‘sand walk’ and where he could take several daily ‘constitutional ‘ walks – using the time alone ( or occasionally accompanied by one of the children) to clear his mind and formulate his theories. The path does a little loop through some trees and then back to the house with a public footpath running across.
Downe (with an ‘e’) is the local village down the road and the Darwins were part of the small community for the forty years they lived here.
This outing is highly recommended in the summer but you can cower in the house when the weather is less good and the visit offers an excellent combination of atmospheric rooms backed by very clear exposition of the life and works of one of history’s most thorough and influential thinkers.