In the footsteps of Darwin

Nestled in the charming Kent countryside, close to the village of Downe, Down House was the private residence of Charles Darwin, between 1842-82 - it is now owned by English Heritage and is open to the public. Today, after too many years of not having visited, this was corrected as together with eldest daughter Rebecca we went on a pilgrimage to pay our respects to the great man.

The rooms of the house are mostly accessible, with the first floor largely taken up by a splendid exhibition which charts his life and works. The experience is made all the more intimate by being able to visit several of the family rooms in which he spent so much time with his many children, something which he willingly did in an era when fathers were not predisposed to do so. Best of all was his study, a sizeable room packed out with books, tables, cabinets, jars, specimens and the additional paraphernalia used in the study of the natural world. Apparently his routine was to work at his studies for six hours, then take a midday walk before breaking for lunch at one o'clock, (his main meal of the day), which would often be in the company of some of the many vistors to the house - Darwin and his wife were willing and able hosts. As an avid letter writer and a man of local standing (he was a JP) his afternoons and evenings would have been taken care of.

The grounds are wonderful - an amalgamation of walled cottage garden, wild and weedy strips, vegetables and fruit, woodland and hot-houses - home to many of his experiments over the forty years that he lived here. Nearby is the famous 'sand walk', a circular path that he strode on a daily basis for exercise of the body and of the mind, deep in thought and wrestling with his theories as to the workings of the natural world. I cannot say that we ambled along the track with such lofty aims, but were certainly lost in the ambience that the welcome shade and warm air offered, together with the clouds of butterflies that were present wherever the sun broke through.

You don't have to be an admirer of Darwin to thoroughly enjoy a visit, but if you are then it is an enhanced experience - to walk in his footsteps, look upon his many artefacts, read his notebooks, stand in the rooms in which he played, studied and died. We arrived early and were often the only two people in a room. It was as if the great man had just popped out for a stroll around his beloved 'sand walk' and would be back any minute.


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