As usual, I was searching for something to do on the weekend. Lured by the promise of Kentish huffkins (apparently some kind of regional bread with a dent in the middle) we decided upon Down House, the home of Charles Darwin (I hope I don’t have to explain who he was, but have included a link just in case). It was here that he developed his theories of evolution, and since he was basically an invalid for most of his adult life, the work truly did take place inside the house. Unfortunately, the huffkins were an empty promise on the part of English Heritage, as there were none in the tea shop while we were there, but we ended up having a pretty good time without them (which is shocking in itself, because I’m usually pretty salty about being denied bakery).
Naturally, there was an English Heritage representative at the door, pushing membership. Well, we finally gave in, reasoning that we visit enough English Heritage properties every year to make membership worth our while, so I’m now a card carrying member for the next 15 months. Meaning there’ll probably be more of their properties than usual on here in future. Anyway, without membership, admission to Down House is a tenner, which is I think is a bit high, but that seems to be the way these things go. The house is really divided into two sections; the upper floor is the museum part, and the downstairs is the historic home, with rooms preserved as the Darwins would have known them.
As directed, we began upstairs, which had displays on Darwin’s life, his voyage on the HMS Beagle, and on the writing and reception of On the Origin of Species. I think it’s fairly well-known that he was married to his first cousin Emma, but they’ve got a complete family tree, so you can trace the many eminent members of the family (Darwin’s grandfathers were Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgwood, of pottery fame. Wedgwood was the mutual grandfather of Charles and Emma, and he largely financed their lifestyle, allowing Darwin to get on with the business of writing). Charles and Emma had 10 children, 7 of whom lived to adulthood, and the nursery contains various mementos from the children. They had a sliding board that the children would put over the steps, which looked like great fun. Darwin was far more involved with his children than most Victorian fathers, so he would often join in their games. His son William even carved his name into one of the cabinets, which is still there today.
The first few rooms were too crowded, but the HMS Beagle and Origin of Species rooms were fortunately a little larger, so I was able to get a good look at all the artefacts and daguerreotypes on display. They had a couple of pages from Darwin’s original manuscript, but the old boy’s handwriting looked kind of like chicken scratch, so I couldn’t make out more than a few words. Still, he and the rest of the family were voracious letter writers, even having some sort of family rhyme to the effect of letters making everything better, so I guess other people must have found his writing legible. They did mention poor Alfred Russel Wallace in the evolution section, but upon returning home, I couldn’t find a museum or historic home devoted to him anywhere in the UK (please correct me if I’m wrong), so Darwin still wins, I guess.
There was also a room with a few charmingly old-fashioned wooden “games” about evolution. I enjoyed the whale flipbook and the cat garden, although the evolution match game seemed a little tricky, especially as I had people behind me waiting to use it.
Downstairs had an audio tour to go along with it, and if there’s one thing I’ve said time and again on here (well, in addition to going on about authentic smells), I do not like an audio tour. But it was free, and I was delighted to hear the mellifluous tones of David Attenborough emerging from my headset. I was happy to listen to the descriptions of the rooms and their furnishings, as there were no signs or anything to read, but once he started droning on and on about anecdotes we’d already read about upstairs, I had to turn it off. I hate just awkwardly standing around a room for ages after I’ve looked at everything, waiting for an audio guide to finish. Props for getting Sir David, but maybe have an abbreviated version of the tour for those of use with short attention spans? Things of note on this floor included Darwin’s study, where he did his writing, and a billiards room with a nice collection of caricatures of Darwin and friends.
It was cold but sunny that day, so after turning in our audio guides we headed outside to explore the garden. Above, you can see the mulberry tree that was adored by the family (what is with famous Britons and mulberry trees?), and his “laboratory” which today serves as a potting shed. We were given a little booklet on the grounds, with descriptions of all the areas of interest, but the directions were a little confusing. I suspect some of the garden was blocked off for the winter. There was meant to be a weed garden (as in, you know, unwanted plants, not marijuana) where Darwin did experiments, as well as some other garden where he experimented with worms (besides evolution, Darwin had a special interest in worms and barnacles), but I’m not sure if we found it or not.
We definitely tracked down the Sandwalk, where Darwin did a lot of his thinkin’, even insisting that his sons push down it him in a wheelchair during the last years of his life, but it was pretty muddy so we only went halfway down. Perhaps that’s why I did not have any sudden brilliant ideas. I look angry in that greenhouse picture, but I was merely enraptured by the descriptions of the carnivorous plants and orchids which flourish within. We finished our tour, as usual, with buying a few postcards in the gift shop, since there were no huffkins to be had (or chocolate cake, for that matter. Here’s an idea, how about making fewer of the horrible fruited loaves that no one ever orders, and more chocolatey things?!).
Although there were a few disappointments, I did learn quite a lot about Charles Darwin’s personal life, as well as the voyage on the Beagle. I liked the set-up, though it would be nice if they could at least put together a little handbook you could borrow to learn more about the downstairs rooms, if like me, you’re not an audio guide kind of person (presumably they have some alternative for deaf people, so maybe make more copies so other people can use it too?). 3.5/5