Down in Kent

In which I catch up with an auld acquaintance…

Some of my favourite books have been written by historians, artists, naturalists and scientists. The Origin of Species is one such book. Published in 1859, it is one of the most influential, disturbing, rebellious and important books of all time. It was just one of the hundreds of books Charles Darwin produced on Geology and Natural History, many of them researched during his great voyage aboard the Beagle in 1831. Late last summer, I met up with an old friend when we went to visit Darwin’s house in the village of Downe in Kent.

Mr. Fitchett: tall, lanky and Scottish; classic car enthusiast, actor, academeic and athlete. A specialist in languages and speaks several of them. Badly. He runs marathons in his spare time. I’ve never seen him compete but I imagine he runs in flannels, with a pipe clenched between his teeth. I first met him at acting school in the 1990s. We soon discovered we had several things in common: a love of the theatre; an attraction to roguish characters from history, exploring follies and unusual historical sites. We were both interested in Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy, the commander of the Beagle, and we worked together on a play about them. He spends much of his time in Italy now, so I don’t often get a chance to meet him. He was in the country last summer and we agreed to meet and explore Mr. Darwin’s house.

We met at the George and Dragon, a nice little pub in Downe (the village has an ‘e’; the house does not), in surprisingly leafy and rural South East of London. Many families with children had gathered for lunch. ‘Famous for our pies’, the menu loudly declared, so we both opted for this speciality. Their assertion was justified. I had Steak and Kidney; Fitchett had game. They were both excellent and were followed by a pint or two of Harvey’s, while we caught up on work, family and what had happened in the couple of years (surely it can’t be two years!) since we last saw each other.

The front door, Down House

It’s a short walk from Downe to Down House. It’s an even shorter drive, so that’s what we opted for. It’s a magnificent house: a handsome Georgian lodge when Darwin bought it, he added to it and created a stately and grand family home. It has a distinctly rural feel, being green with climbing plants and set in large grounds, where Darwin would conduct his many experiments. After a quick look around the shop, we began our tour upstairs, where most of the house has been converted to an exhibition, telling you all about Darwin, his voyage and his theory of Natural Selection. There was also a small art exhibition upstairs with drawings and woodcuts by Gwen Raverat, Darwin’s Granddaughter.

Upstairs, one room has been preserved as it would have been in Darwin’s day. The bedroom was originally Emma’s bedroom. Here she would have cared for and nursed their ten children when they were young. Their youngest child died in 1858 (two of their children died in infancy and only seven made it to adulthood), after which she started sharing with her husband. The room is decorated in the style they would have known it, with an enormous four poster bed, a couch and several books: it’s a comfortable and intimate space.

Charles Darwin, Down House

We think of the Victorians as being serious and stuffy but Darwin was, it seems, a fun dad. He was constantly playing with his children – you can see the slide that he once set up on the main staircase – and involving them in his experiments. He and Emma had a liberal attitude to child-rearing. Their liberal views stretched to politics too: Darwin’s anti-slavery views caused an argument with Robert FitzRoy that resulted in them not talking to one another throughout the entire voyage. There was a lot of love in this family. It was mainly out of respect for Emma’s christian faith that Darwin held off of publication for so long. It was only the death of his eldest daughter, Annie, at the age of ten, that wiped out the last traces of his own faith and prompted him to publish. He knew his theory would cast doubt on the prevailing, biblical teaching about creation.

Like the couple themselves, The house is not typically Victorian. The dining room and parlour are light and airy: furnished in beautiful fabrics in bright colours. both rooms overlook the enormous garden and have large windows and potted plants. The more ‘male’ rooms to the rear: study and billiard room, are darker: dark wood panelling and artifical light prevails. These give a further insight into Darwin’s character. Haphazard, is the word I’d use. His study was full of objects and specimens he’d collected from around the world. His billiard table used as an examination table. There is a story that the billiard table was used to examine the behaviour of worms and how they reacted to low frequency sound waves: he collected worms from his garden, put them on the table and observed them as his daughter played the bassoon to them. I don’t know what this experiment proved and today, it had some papers and samples laid out on it but no worms.

The Greenhouse, Down House

We stopped for tea at a charming little tea room in the basement of the house, the very pretty waitress smiled sweetly at us and we, like the couple of middle-aged old men we are, sighed and smiled back. Fitchett thought she was smiling at him; he was wrong of course. I was already thinking how I was going to break the news of our elopement to Mrs. P.

We paused at the gift shop to collect a free audioguide to the garden. It was excellent, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who’s enthusiasm for Darwin in his ‘Life on Earth’ series had first got me interested way back in the eighties. Fitchett enjoyed it but I dislike audioguides: I think having headphones distances you from the experience of being in the space. I would much rather look around at my leisure and then read about it, or even download the audioguide, later. It was, however, informative and entertaining. It was a guide to the very large garden and the experiments that were conducted here. As well as a vegetable garden, there were three large greenhouses, stuffed with the plants Darwin had collected on his travels. It is well-known that he visited the Galapagos Islands, but he circumnavigated the globe during his five-year trip and brought back samples from wherever he visited.

Down House is a fantastic museum giving an amazing insight into the mind of one a true genius.Darwin’s theory is perfect. Once you get your head around the enormous time scales involved, it all fits together like a jigsaw. His genius was to see how each species lives in balance with its environment. Fitchett and I parted at the door not knowing when we would meet again. There are rumours of him returning to the country soon and perhaps starting a business of his own. I wish him luck. It’ll be good to see him again.

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