Darwin Day commemorates the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809. It was a special day at Down House where scientists and others have come to celebrate Darwin’s scientific contributions on this day since his death in 1882. Today, the tradition continues.
On this Darwin Day, I remember my visit to Down House with family in April 2014. It was a great thrill to hike along the Sandwalk – Darwin’s ‘thinking pathway’. Down House has been in the hands of English Heritage since 1997. They have done a wonderful job of providing an enjoyable and educational experience. A visit to the house can be divided into three segments, which we punctuated with a fabulous lunch from the tea room, located in what was once the servants’ quarters.
We were provided with a very modern hand-held multimedia audio/video guide. I was pleasantly surprised and amazed to hear the familiar voice of Sir David Attenborough narrating much of the content. We started on the second floor which is set up like a museum with theme room displays. In the family room we learned that Charles Darwin was rich enough from his family that he did not need to work or sell his specimens to provide a living. We learned that Darwin was one of those students who found school and lectures boring: he was much more interested in exploring unknown plant and insect life.
Darwin moved to Down House in 1842. We know that even though he lived out in the country, he still got mail delivered to the inside foyer table probably three times per day. Darwin was an avid letter writer, and there are at least 14,500 letters to and from Darwin that survive. Letter-writing Victorians were perhaps almost as prolific as our modern day social media users. This rather charming Darwin family poem is posted in Down House:
Write a letter
Write a letter
Good advice will make us better
Father, mother, sister, brother,
Let us all advise each other.
Darwin did most of his writing in his study. Especially here, he showed his creative thinking. Perhaps his writing board was the original laptop. He could transfer it to where he was working and use it as a surface to write on. You can also see the comfortable arm chair that he modified by attaching wheels, enabling him to slide between his two desks as he did his work. I paused the longest in this room as I visualized Darwin moving about in his chair, over to peer through his microscope and then back to his specimens and finally to his writing table.
Darwin kept portraits of the three people he considered most important to his writing: Joseph Wedgwood, Darwin’s grandfather and supporter; Charles Lyell, one of the foremost geologists of the Victorian period; and Joseph Hooker, a botanist associated with Kew Gardens, and one of Darwin’s closest friends.
As I left the house and began the Sandwalk, I learned that Darwin walked around his property 3 times a day. I only walked the circuit once, while Darwin went around five times each walk. He was often accompanied by his fox terrier Polly. Before each walk, he would line up five fist-sized flint boulders. As he passed, he would roll them back into the garden. Apparently, his children sometimes played jokes on him by rolling one back when he was out of sight, thus making him do an extra circuit. He called his garden a working laboratory, and certainly it was. Recently, archaeologists have determined where he had flower beds by the colour of the soil under the turf.
When it was finally time to leave the property, I found myself back in a well-stocked bookstore, full of books I would like to have in my library. I particularly noticed one children’s book called Evolution Revolution: Darwin to DNA. It is a DK book by Robert Winston full of fascinating facts, photos and diagrams.
Finally, I must mention that there is a hologram of young Darwin onboard the Beagle so realistic that I fully expected him to walk over and start talking to me. Certainly visiting Down House spoke to me at many levels.