Down and out in Kentish obscurity

November 3, 1995

The crumbling house where Darwin lived and wrote On the Origin of Species could be rescued from decay by a Pounds 2.4 million grant from the National Lottery, Aisling Irwin reports

Charles Darwin may be as famous as William Shakespeare but Downe, the village where Darwin lived for 40 years, has never become the busy shrine that evolved at Stratford upon Avon. It remains an obscure Kent village, with two pubs and a post office. If you take the hourly bus from Bromley South station and walk away from Downe up a winding country road you will reach Darwin's house, a large and creaking white-washed pile furnished with Darwin's tools and trinkets, a few visitors and a yawning cat.

Out at the back, his bust stares from a fragile verandah down the garden in which he walked every day. He seems to be waiting. Waiting perhaps for an imminent announcement from the National Lottery's arm, the National Heritage Memorial Fund which may add Pounds 2.4 million to an appeal to renovate the house.

So far the appeal, launched with passionate words from the American evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould and the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, has raised Pounds 486,000. It needs another Pounds 286,000 in order to trigger the lottery donation - if the board decides to bestow it. The campaigning has been clever. It aims to make us ashamed that one of the most important thinkers we have ever produced is commemorated in a house where the paint is peeling and the sign outside on the Downe road is green with mould.

How could we have failed to put this site, where Darwin spent so many important years, onto the agenda of every tourist? The Darwin family sold the house in 19 to the London surgeon Sir George Buckston Browne, who made it a gift to the nation and restored parts of the building to the condition they were in during Darwin's lifetime. It was opened to the public. It passed to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1952. The Natural History Museum now has an option on a 99-year lease of the building. It says that if it can raise Pounds 3.2 million it will take on the house and restore it.

It has taken a long time for people to start shouting about the importance of Down house. Yet Darwin worked there from 1842. In the garden every lunchtime he trod a long, straight sandwalk into a little wood. On that walk, the guidebook tells us, he thought his great thoughts.

The visitor can walk in quiet along the same path, imagining Darwin in his beard, black hat and cloak, and trying to have some earth-shattering thoughts of his or her own. If an idea as radical as evolution by natural selection does not appear as you walk past his laboratory or lift the latch of the little green gate to reach the wood, you might content yourself with wondering at how beautifully peaceful the place is.

Darwin moved to Down House to escape the bustle of London. It was here that he wrote On the Origin of Species. Inside, you can see his red leather-bound pocket books, full of the notes he made on his famous voyages on HMS Beagle. You can see the spacious rooms, some of which are furnished exactly as he left them. His grand piano is there, on which his wife, Emma Wedgwood, played. In another room are his tools, the instruments of a working scientist, scattered with bits of grit and dirt. There are dead beetles pranged with his own hand; bits of life squashed onto grimy microscope slides; a field magnifying glass, home made with brown suede, rough tacking and what looks like an old garter.

It is a moving experience for visitors who at present seem to be largely Darwin enthusiasts, the majority more than 50 years old. These guests fill the visitors' book with an impressive array of nationalities and with frequent use of the word "pilgrimage". The most regular visitor is Jack, who is 82 and has read every edition of every book that Darwin wrote.

But as well as these oldsters there is the occasional noisy group of schoolchildren. Not many schoolchildren visit at present but one goal of the campaign is to instal educational facilities into some of the Down rooms so that pupils can learn about Darwin there.

The prospect of hundreds of noisy schoolchildren and many more tourists disrupting the tranquility of the house could make the more selfish of its present visitors, including this one, shudder.

If the Natural History Museum raises its money, the floors will be strengthened so they can bear the load of perhaps 20,000 visitors a year; the damp and empty rooms - only a few are open to the public at the moment - will be filled with more exhibits, tea rooms, toilets. A car park will be built. Perhaps there will be multimedia displays for the children: monkeys transmuting into homo sapiens at the press of a button.

It is tempting to suggest that too many visitors would ruin the place and that the museum should raise only enough money to deal with the damp and feed the cat. But this temptation is wrong. Surprisingly, the house would in fact be more authentic if it was a bit more crowded. Darwin had ten children, born between 1839 and 1856. That means that while he was wandering through his garden and sitting in his study the children must have been screeching up and down the corridor. Added to their noise must have been the sound of the many servants of a Victorian household and, later, of the many people trying to visit the famous man.

Perhaps, in fact, the decaying peace at Down House today is a poor representation of his busy, affluent 19th-century household. Just as at the house today one has to ignore the noises of lawnmower, light aircraft, distant farm machinery and passing cars, Darwin must have had to think among the chatter of everyday Victorian life. It would be a more realistic restoration if it were filled with interested visitors. Similarly, Darwin had a house without a leaking roof, inadequate plumbing, a smashed laboratory or ripped armchairs. Today's version is in many ways nothing like what it was when he lived there. Renovating the house would restore its vibrancy and, maybe, some of our national pride.

Donations to Nancy Giles, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD.

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