A Visit to Down House
I’m not one for traipsing round stately homes, being of the opinion that once you have seen one Queen Anne chair and polished mahogany table you have seen them all. However, when the Woodbridge U3A group planned a visit to Down House â€“ the home of Charles Darwin â€“ I thought this might well be worth a visit. And indeed it was.
The house is important because it was there that Darwin not only wrote his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, but applied scientific reasoning and performed numerous experiments to confirm that his ideas were sound.
The time scales are surprising. Darwin moved into the very substantial Down House in 1842, but this was a full five years after his journey on the Beagle. Perhaps, even more surprisingly, it was only after another seventeen years of reflection (and probably worry) on what he had observed on that voyage that Darwin published his greatest work.
Everything about the house gives me the feeling that although Darwin realised early on just how scientifically significant his discoveries were, he was also acutely aware of the potential social, economic and political impact. In short, he did not want to publish until he was really, really sure of his ground and it was at Down house that he confirmed and reconfirmed that his hypothesis was correct.
A tour is broken into three sections â€“ the ground floor restoration, the second floor exhibition and the garden laboratories.
The ground floor of the house has been restored to look much as it would in Darwinâ€™s day with the large dining room set for dinner, the billiard room fully equipped and the drawing room arranged as it was then, including the grand piano. However. for me it was the study that was most intriguing. This wasn’t just because of many of the original artefacts â€“ Darwinâ€™s castor wheel chair and microscope amongst them â€“ but that he undertook such a vast amount of ground-breaking research with such simple, even rudimentary, tools.
The second floor is set out as an exhibition of his life and work. Darwin had a reputation for being an unusually liberal father who let his children have the run of the house and who involved them in his work. Much of what is on view here, such as the â€˜stair slideâ€™, confirms this. This floor houses many of his books and original manuscripts as well as a large glass cabinet containing what must be hundreds of stuffed birds.
However it is outside in the garden and surrounds where you can really imagine what it was that gave Darwin his inspiration, for here is his open air laboratory. The triple stage hot house was home to experiments involving carnivorous plants and exotic species. On display here are examples of the climbing plants that Darwin studied â€“ measuring how quickly they curled and twisted. Areas of the garden were partitioned to prevent (or encourage) predatory activity, all part of his estimating the impact of the environment upon growth and sustainability. Some were of startling simplicity. For more than seventeen years Darwin measured the extent to which earthworms undermined his â€˜worm stoneâ€™, observations that led to his conclusions about the importance of worms to many other forms of life and to his book, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms. Clearly he understood the importance of a catchy â€œmust readâ€ title!
Beyond the immediate garden is his â€œSandwalkâ€. Here it is easy to imagine how Darwin, after spending some time writing, would leave his desk and head for his â€œthinking pathâ€ for a period of contemplation, before rushing back to one of his hothouses where he would configure yet another experiment that would further confirm or deny his theory.
I suppose for me there was only one disappointment. It was that upstairs in the exhibition there was a display board making the rather patronising claim that religious belief and the theory of evolution by natural selection were compatible. Somehow I donâ€™t feel that Darwin would have been entirely comfortable with that.