Down House: Charles Darwin’s forever home
When it’s chucking it down in London, there’s only one thing for it: drink a large mug of tea, don a waterproof (or six) and get yourself to a historic house. This Bank Holiday Monday, it was certainly chucking it down, so we set off for Down House: once the home of Charles Darwin and now one of the most charming historic houses in the capital.
Darwin lived here for 40 years; it was here that he wrote On the Origin of Species and did many of his experiments for many of his other books, too. He also raised his considerable brood of 10 children here, along with his wife Emma.
Now, the house is divided into three parts: a museum of Darwin’s life on the first floor, the rooms as they would have looked in his day on the ground floor (complete with an audio guide narrated by David Attenborough) and the gardens (also with their own audio guide by Andrew Marr).
Walking along the ‘thinking path’ of one of the world’s greatest minds, reading the titles of his books in his study and soaking in the atmosphere in the expanse of rooms that he added to the house to suit his family’s needs, it’s easy to see how happy this place would have made him.
During their four decades here, the Darwins turned this ‘ugly’ house that was ‘neither old nor new’ into a home they cherished. The land was big enough to accommodate Charles’ living laboratory where he could conduct his experiments, plus Emma’s love of gardening and even a field for a horse.
The location was perfect, too: Darwin described the house as being on ‘the extreme verge of the world’. Here, he was free to experiment with nature, away from the smoky distractions of 19th-century London.
The only thing left to do was transform the boxy house into the expanse of rooms we see today. First came external changes (such as moving the lane at the rear of the house away so that the family had more privacy), before a service wing, a schoolroom, extra bedrooms, a new dining room and a new study were added.
As for today, the stunning village of Downe is about as remote as you can get inside the M25. It’s difficult to believe that you’re still in Greater London as you wind your way down the country lanes and past the village shops. Once inside the house, you can begin to try and comprehend the significance of the rooms you’re standing in. The theory that has influenced our understanding of where we – and indeed all life – come from was worked on and evidenced in these very rooms.
Here you can stand in the great man’s study and imagine it filled with his own version of organised chaos. You can see the chair that he sat in, wheeling toward the door of his study to see who was coming (and we know he did that, thanks to stress analysis of the body of the chair). You can admire the stair slide that the children (and adults) of the house used to play on the staircase.
And you can even explore his greenhouse, resplendent with colour from plants, flowers and even bees, all of which have been selected from what Darwin and Emma would have grown here.
Elsewhere in the garden, Darwin’s ‘worm stone’ – which he used to study how earthworms dug soil deeper into the earth in the later stages of his career – speaks of his humble attitude to his considerable fame. And the family mulberry tree, still standing outside the children’s window, encapsulates the lives, theories and memories that were formed here over 100 years ago.
Like Sigmund Freud said of Maresfield Gardens, Down House was Darwin’s ‘last address on this planet’. And who can blame him?
Opening hours: Daily 10am-6pm
Admission: £11.10 for adults, or English Heritage members get in free: you can join English Heritage here. [a]
Nearest station: Bromley South
More information: Visit the English Heritage website
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