A visit to Down House

imgp2132I mentioned recently that I took the opportunity to visit Darwin’s home, Down House, while I was in the UK. While it was obviously a great thing to have finally done (and for a man obsessed with the natural world I really should have done it years ago) I have to say that it was very disappointing. I say that not just as a professional biologist, but I suspect it is true of most people attending since frankly there is simply very little there to see or do, and no explanation of the significance of what is there. That might be understandable in what is effectively just a big house with a big garden (you can’t make a museum out of it), but given the cost of getting in (around 8 GBP for an adult) and the colossal amount of money paid to upgrade the entire thing only last year, it’s poor. Anyway, there is more to say, so read on:

Down House is just outside the village of Downe in what is formally Kent in southeastern England, though it lies virtually on London’s doorstep. It is basically a large-ish two storey house with some large gardens to the rear. The right wing has been converted into an entrance hall, and the left for a tea shop (inevitably) and a list to the second floor. This actually takes up probably a 1/3 to 1/2 of the available space which strongly limits what can be done with the rest when it is so small. Even so it’s hard to see what their approach actually was supposed to be and they seem to have fallen between two stools as to what to do with the place. (Oh, and no photos inside, so you’ll have to stick with external shots).

imgp2143The ground floor is devoted to the house as perhaps it once was with rooms reconstructed and reassembled as they might have been when Darwin lived there. Now obviously not all of his possessions are available and those that are are not necessarily owned by Down, nor can or even should, be on display. However, one has no idea at all what is original and what has been brought in as a period piece or is new. This is the primary failing of Down, despite the huge price to get in, there are virtually no signs about anything anywhere to give any indication about what they are or what they mean. There is no free guidebook or piece of paper with key features on and the only option is to rent an audio guide (another 5GBP I think – I was busy in the gift shop while the tickets were purchased, let me know if you know better) if you want to learn anything at all. This is just terrible. If you do not already know what you are looking at (which naturally I largely did) there is nothing to guide you at all bar a single guide to whom you can direct questions (not that I found him especially knowledgeable, and you have to find him to ask, if he’s not busy elsewhere, and he was a volunteer so is not always going to be around).

imgp21351So downstairs we have a sitting room with some tables and chairs, with books and odds and ends (like a backgammon board) but no indication of what was originally Darwin’s or otherwise (especially annoying as several rooms had cases of birds – have these been added or did he have them himself?). A dining room laid out for guest and with portraits of Charles’ and Emma’s fathers (unlabelled) a billiards room with a table and two photocopies of extracts from The Times with letters about Darwin and his original study. This was excellent and (as I had already read in the papers) most of the things here were original and thus most exciting to see – his desk, his chairs,  and at least some instruments. Again though, nothing to talk about his especially made wheeled chair, important books on his shelves, or his furious correspondence – what does it all mean many must wonder.

The upper floor is in theory more about Darwin’s work than his life (though one room is still devoted to his children and their toys) though this deals exclusively with the Beagle and the Origin, everything else gets a line or two at best (including his early studies as a priest, the Descent of Man and other important works). There are at least a lot of Darwin’s original possessions here and for once with labels, but little else. Given the breadth and depth of his work, it seems odd. Again, my impression is simply a lack of direction from the place – what did they want to achieve – we have a bunch of possessions, detailed information on the Beagle and the publication of the origin, a room on his kids and one with little games to play for kids to explain how evolution by natural selection operates, but is this for kids (who probably won’t appreciate the eye glasses) or adults (who won’t want to stack wooden goats on a model cliff) or historians or what, about his life or works or family or the house itself?

imgp2136Moving outside we have the gardens of the house which are classic British country gardens. Seeing them in February is never the best time understandably to see them, but still there was little of it and once more, no signs. The (I assume) original greenhouse is still standing and is full of plants, but again with the lack of signs. I’d be amazed if any of his original lines were still going, but were they things in there at least representative of species or breeds he experimented on, or were they kept by his wife (a keen gardener)? No idea. There were no signs of other significant structures he must have used (his worm pots and pigeon aviaries for example) either as reconstructions or just notes to indicate where they stood would have added a lot to the ambiance. There is also a large field sectioned off that separates the main gardens from the last attraction at Down, but again I can’t tell you if this was Darwin’s property once and no longer is, or never was, or still is part of Down, but simply not accessible (there were sheep grazing there).

imgp2151Finally there is the Sandwalk, Darwin’s little private pathway that goes in a surprisingly small loop around and through a tiny patch of woodland behind the field that lies behind the main garden. A long walk between hedgerows takes you to the loop which the abruptly starts with a long straight path which then wends its way back through the woodland (see right) that lies to the left (you can see me at the start of this path above) and might be abel to make out the white porch-like gazebo at the end. Famously Charles would take a constitutional walk around this pathway several times a day to maintain his fragile health and would use the opportuinity to think about his ideas before returning to his study to continue his writing. Perhaps inevitably, the only indication of this was a signpost with ‘Sandwalk’ on it in the gardens.

Overall this is fascianting to see and of course an essential visit for anyone with an interest in biology or the history of science. I really can’t see what they were trying to achieve with the place and whatever it was, they didn’t achive it. The obvious solution would be to acquire an additioanl building in the village and make that a proper museum to the man’s ideas and his work and leave the house as a refurbished period peice dedicated to his life and times, instead both are crammed into far too small a space and neither is given sufficient treatment. The lack of signs (as you may have guessed) is especailly frustrating and the expectation that people will get to the place (it’s not accessible by publci transport), paya  huge amount to get in (for something that can be seen in an hour) and then have to pay further to learn anything about it seems utterly unnecessary to the point of profiteering. I know a lot about Darwin, his life and works and while I may not have expected to learn much, I did at least expect to see a good review here and that was clearly missing.

On a far more positive and frivolous, but pertinent note, please enjoy this little snapshot. Of course a British winter does rather prevent one getting a great shot of a real multitude of species and growth, and there is a complete absence of animal life at all, but this is a photo of a tangled bank, taken from Darwin’s own garden.

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