London Top Destinations

The House Where Darwin Lived

Home to the naturalist for 40 years, the estate near London was always evolving

After purchasing Down House, he and his wife continually expanded the building and their gardens. (English Heritage Images)
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One of the most striking things about visiting this house in autumn is the exquisite Virginia creeper that has stretched its way up and over the painted white brickwork. The flame-red leaves had almost all fallen, leaving just the delicate black branches of the stems, as intricate as sea fans. It struck me too as I walked around the house how many family trees English Heritage has assembled on the interior walls to illustrate the kinship connections between the Darwins and the Wedgwoods (Emma Wedgwood, from the wealthy manufacturing family whose potteries produced fine porcelain, and Charles Darwin were first cousins). Those branching patterns seemed to be replicated everywhere inside and outside the house, like branches but also like nets. “We may all be netted together,” Darwin wrote in an early notebook, referring to his gathering conviction that all races came from a common ancestor.

Walking around this house you do get a strong sense of nettedness, of the intricate kinships between its diverse human and animal members. In the last years of his life, Darwin became obsessed with earthworms. He brought them into the house in glass jars full of soil to observe their reactions to things, getting the children to serenade them in the billiards room—bassoon, piano and whistle—flashing lights at them to determine how sensitive they were, feeding them odd kinds of food, including herbs and raw meat. They were, he knew, the great workers, the overlooked, the toilers and tillers of the soil. All life on the planet depended upon the work they did. “It may be doubted,” he wrote, no doubt thinking of the continual turning of the planet, birth to death, death to birth, “whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures.”

The whole house is much the same as it was when Darwin lived there, except, of course, that when Darwin lived there it was always changing. That is the trouble with such houses, preserved for the nation: They fix a place in a moment in time, and Darwin and his family were never still, never fixed. They and the house they lived in evolved.

It is tempting to think about Down House and its occupants moving through time like fast-frame photography, like the lyrical “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which she describes an empty holiday house on the Outer Hebrides over a period of ten years. As I stood on the stairs for a moment, visitors passing, overhearing scraps of conversation, looking down the long corridor to the tall window framing trees ahead, I was convinced I felt time move. It had something to do with the sound of the piano playing in one of the exhibition rooms, I think, which reminded me that Darwin would have heard family sounds as he worked, children thumping up and down those stairs, nursemaids calling, builders sawing and hammering somewhere, working on some repair or a new extension, Emma playing the piano in the drawing room, dogs barking, the muffled voices of gardeners on the lawn outside.

But Down House is not a ghostly place; it’s not a tomb or a stone memorial. It is still as open to the garden and the sun as it ever was. It continues to move through time. There are gourds and pumpkins in the garden, scores of pots of drosera and orchids in the greenhouses; the gardeners tend the trees and the orchards, and in the kitchen garden children weave in and out of the pathways playing hide-and-seek. Bees still make honey here; birds catch their worms; and under the ground the worms grind away, turning over the soil.

Darwin built himself the Sandwalk, a sand-surfaced path on which he could walk and think, soon after they moved into the house. He walked it several times a day, almost every day of the year. It began at the gate at the end of the kitchen garden. On one side it followed the ridge of a hill so that the views looked down over open meadows, and on the other, as it circled back toward the house, it took him into the cool darkness of the wood he had planted. Those looped repetitions through the same ground were a kind of meditation. He came to know the interdependent life of this little wood as it changed through the seasons; he came to understand the sense of life and death all intricately netted together. He came to know its light and its darkness.

Down House knew loss as it knew life. Charles and Emma lost their first baby only days after moving in here; they lost their daughter Annie in her tenth year. Annie’s distraught father nursed her at her bedside in a water-cure establishment many miles away from Emma, who was too heavily pregnant to reach him or their dying daughter. After Annie’s death, he remembered his daughter running ahead of him on the Sandwalk, turning to dance or smile. Her absence, the traumatic memory of her painful death from an undiagnosed illness, was a continual reminder of the fragility of life that tempered the daily joy afforded him by his growing children. The Sandwalk and Down House itself, in all its netted, interdependent beauty and wonder, were places of emotional chiaroscuro.

When Darwin finally finished Origin of Species, a book written through sleepless nights and at white-hot speed, he allowed himself to compose a little prose poetry on its final page, now one of the most quoted passages of all his writing. “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,” he wrote, “clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms...have all been produced by laws acting around us....Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals directly follows....From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” This passage is, I think, also a poem about his home, a poem about the evolving world he and Emma had created together at Down House.


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