English Heritage

Kent, UK: Down House (Charles Darwin’s Home)

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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.

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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.

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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

Isle of Wight: Osborne House

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At long last, I finally made it to Osborne House, which certainly lived up to my expectations of Victorian splendour, but also provided an unforeseen number of annoyances (though I’m not sure why they should be unforeseen, when most everything generally irritates me).  All you really need to know about this place (to convince you to visit) is that Queen Victoria lived, and more importantly, died here, but obviously I’m going to go into way more detail than that.  Osborne House is near East Cowes, in the north of the Isle of Wight, and is plopped down on a huge plot of land that encompasses gardens, woodlands, and a private beach.  The Italianate house itself is similarly massive, though only a small section is open to the public.

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This is another English Heritage property, and they were quite aggressive with their membership spiel when we entered the gift shop/admissions.  I was tempted to tell them that I  frequent the National Trust far more than English Heritage, so there was no way I was coughing up their membership fee, but I held my tongue, and simply paid the £13.40 admission.  The main attraction is of course the house, but the whole estate served as a summer home for the Royal Family, and was where Victoria retreated to after Albert’s death, so there are a number of outbuildings, some designed primarily for their nine children. We decided to first head to the Swiss Cottage, which Albert built as a place for the children to practice their domestic skills.  I wasn’t kidding about the size of the grounds; the signs claimed it was a kilometre away, but as it took us a good half hour to walk there (and I’m usually a pretty fast walker), I think that was a lie. Never fear, there is a sporadic shuttle bus for the less intrepid. This supposedly “child-sized” cottage was bigger than most actual chalets I’ve seen, with “rustic” furniture that was still incredibly ornate.  Only the upstairs part is open to the public, as half of the lower level has been converted into a tearoom, so we trekked slowly behind a gaggle of elderly people through the handful of rooms.  I don’t wish to disparage the elderly, as I generally prefer old people to young people, but damn, these people moved so slowly that they had caused an unnecessary queue, (this is not a criticism of their walking pace, which I know they can’t help, but of the time they spent gawping at things) and had no qualms whatsoever about completely blocking my view, something which would prove to be a common theme throughout the visit.  I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on the poor dears; some of the older ones probably remembered the latter years of Victoria’s reign, and were simply reminiscing.

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Fortunately, we next progressed to the museum holding the Royal Children’s collections, which was excellent!  Being royalty, the objects they casually collected is the kind of stuff that would take pride of place in any normal museum; instead, it was all crammed together in dusty cases with rather terse captions, each curiosity more fabulous than the last.  There were extensive Egyptian and Native American collections, a taxidermy section that included a five-legged deer, and various rocks and minerals, but my favourite bit was the mishmash of oddities in the case to the right of the entrance.  Here I found a piece of wood from George Washington’s coffin (no dentures though!), a set of hand grenades taken from a lady anarchist who was executed on the street after being found with them, and a little doll made by a prisoner from wax and “partially masticated bread.” Honestly, after seeing this museum, I wouldn’t have minded if everything else was a bit crap.

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Around the Swiss Cottage, there were gardens interspersed with a miniature fortress with cannons, the entire deckhouse from the ship that carried Victoria’s body back to the mainland after her death, and a shed with wheelbarrows and wagons for each of the children.  After viewing all this, we decided to next check out the beach, as it was said to have ice cream for sale, and we were feeling peckish after all the walking (we’d visited Carisbrooke Castle that morning, so we weren’t just being lazy at this point).

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Access to the beach was via the “rhododendron” path, another twenty minute walk through (you guessed it) a rhododendron lined trail.  Not being much of an outdoors person (understatement of the post, as evidenced by my pasty complexion), or having any inclination towards gardening, I wasn’t even that sure what a rhododendron was until taking this trail.  I’m still in the dark about what those terrible bushes are that smell like vomit, but which every rich person in Wimbledon puts in their garden.  Can anyone enlighten me as to what those stink bushes are, and why people seem to love the foully odoriferous things so much?  Anyway, the wooded trail suddenly opened up into a compact little beach, and we emerged blinking into the rare English summer sun.

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It wasn’t really warm enough that day to go wading (though that didn’t stop a few other people from swimming), so we promptly made tracks for the ice cream hut.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they offered knickerbocker glories and sundaes (only one type of sundae, it is still Britain, after all, and we can’t be having all those choices) in old fashioned sundae glasses, but they were big sundaes, and unusually for me, I didn’t feel like I could put that much ice cream away right then, so I went for two scoops, which still turned out to be enormous for the price, at least by London standards, and topped it with the free (!) syrups on offer.  After wolfing that down, I took the time to pose in front of Victoria’s bathing machine which had a suspiciously narrow door for her aged portly frame.  I think only she was modest enough to bother with a bathing machine, as the children learned to swim in a netted safety contraption designed by Albert (I wish I could say the same; I had the fun of almost drowning during lessons at the Y, and still can’t swim properly).

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Fortified by the ice cream, we felt up for another lengthy walk back to the actual house, somehow managing to bypass the Ice House, which was meant to be somewhere on the way to the Swiss Cottage.  I felt like I’ve seen enough ice houses elsewhere that I wasn’t terribly bothered, plus my feet hurt and I wanted to spare myself the backtrack.  However, approaching the house from the rear gave us the opportunity to investigate the well-manicured gardens, which were especially lovely, and all the flowers were in bloom, another bonus!

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Upon entering the house, we were asked to present our tickets, so keep yours handy to avoid having to embarrassingly sort through the entire contents of your bag in front of the admissions lady.  Photography wasn’t allowed inside the house, so you’re just going to have to use your imagination for the next bit (or have a peek at the website).  The state rooms on the ground floor of the house were just as imposing as I’d imagined; the hallways were lined with classical busts and exquisite tiles (I assume they were imported, rather than being made at Jackfield, but you never know), and others were full of paintings, most with a religious or mythological theme. There was a Council Room, wherein Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for Victoria, a Billiards Room, and a Drawing Room that was a bit too yellow for my tastes.  Downstairs, we got a brief view of the servants’ quarters in the form of a servery and china cabinet/room, with a handwritten list of menus on display.  (Isn’t servery a gross word?  It makes me think of disgusting cafeteria food.)

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We were then directed upstairs to see the family rooms, several of which were filled with a nice exhibit on Victoria’s descendants (the vast majority of European royalty), complete with photographs of everyone, from dissipated old Bertie, to haemophiliac Leopold (and some good portraits of the Royal Family, including one that made Louis IV of Hesse look far more dashing than he did in real life (he was unpleasantly beardy, but here he was shown with his handsome youthful mustache)).  Unfortunately, I couldn’t properly enjoy them because some mother insisted on dragging around her bratty child, who wouldn’t stop snivelling.  I get that children lack self-control, but surely the mother could have had enough sense to take him outside until he calmed down, instead of subjecting us all to his shrieks, whilst remarking to her companion how articulate he was (yeah, it’s great that your small child can remark how he hates everything, but it doesn’t make up for his obnoxiousness!). Even the staff were giving them dirty looks. She wasn’t the only person who got under my skin at Osborne House; also up there was a lady who decided to park her capacious ass in front of the “Horn Room” for literally ten minutes, completely blocking the door with her wide frame so that no one else could hope to see inside.  I thought the agreed upon social convention was to look for a minute or two, and then graciously move aside when it becomes clear that other people are craning their necks to see around you.  Well, this lady clearly didn’t get the message. Ugh, all right, rant over (for now).

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Moaning aside (and I do love to complain), there were plenty more delights to behold inside the house. I adored the statue of Albert as some sort of ancient Greek, clad in a revealing tunic.  Though I seriously doubt (and photographs back me up on this) that he was that muscular in real life, it is a testament to the privacy and degree of comfort Victoria must have felt here that she prominently placed such a sexy statue in full view of the staircase.  Also upstairs were Albert’s private office and bathroom, and most poignantly, Victoria’s bedroom, site of her death.  It was closed off immediately afterwards for some fifty years, and thus preserved as a sort of shrine, so you can still see the actual bed she died in, which includes a secret plaque (intended for her eyes only) in remembrance of Albert, and has a large plaque above the headboard that her children added after her death, in memory of her matriarchal role.  All the paintings in the room were behind the bed, so I hope someone had opened the curtains on the day she died, so she wasn’t just left staring at a blank wall.  I guess it says something for the mood of the place, that it left me feeling quite sympathetic towards Victoria.

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Looking around the house probably took somewhere between an hour to ninety minutes, after which we went to look at the walled garden, followed by a trip back behind the house to see John Brown’s bench, which we missed the first time around.  John Brown as in her trusted Scottish servant, that is, not the notorious American abolitionist.  After a brief swing by the gift shop to pick up some postcards, we headed to the bus stop, subject of another beef (though I stress, this is in no way the fault of Osborne House).  The bus from Osborne House to Ryde (where the hovercraft and some of the ferries come in) runs only once an hour, despite the fact that the house shuts at 5, and the grounds close at 6, so clearly quite a few people are going to be taking the 5:30 bus.  We got there twenty minutes early, which made for a boring wait, (even Kendal Mint Cake wasn’t an adequate distraction, but then I do prefer fudge, but it turned out to be lucky we did as only the first six people in the queue were allowed on the packed bus (we barely squeezed on).  Seriously, most of the other buses I saw on the Isle of Wight were double deckers, so why on earth would they send a normal bus during what is obviously a peak time? There was a long queue of people behind us, who presumably had to stand there for another hour, or try to get a cab.  The situation was pretty ridiculous, and I don’t understand why they can’t at least run a bus every half an hour, especially towards the end of the day.

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Well, I clearly had some issues on the day of the visit, but none of them were really the fault of Osborne House (other than the pushy men at the door trying to sell memberships, but you get that at every English Heritage and National Trust property), so I won’t let it detract from my score, which is 4.5/5.  The house and grounds were gorgeous, and whilst I wish more of the house was open to the public, I realise the upkeep must be an enormous undertaking, so I can understand why it’s not. But I can see why Victoria and Albert loved it so.  A grand outing, and surely a must-see for lovers of Victorian architecture, and of the royal couple themselves – just be aware that the other visitors might cause extreme annoyance (though blogging seems to be a good way to vent those frustrations!).