Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The man who lived in Down House

Not far from London, UK, just a few miles down the A21 past Bromley, is a turn off for a small village called Downe. To get there, you need to go past the High Elms Country Park and Golf Course, on a pleasant drive (or walk, for those of you with more stamina than me). It's a lovely little village surrounding an old church, but is especially notable because it is where the eminent Charles Darwin made his home.

I visited it just the other day. It's very charming, and by any standards a beautiful property which only someone already very wealthy could have afforded.

Down House

One of the interesting things concerning Darwin is not, perhaps, his defining work which changed the way we understand life on Earth forever (with the short title of "On the Origin of Species"). Of course, the body of work he left was simply without equal in terms of its volume, its careful scientific method and its insight. Despite this, I visited the house interested to find out about the man.

He had a very real human side, something that made him, like many historical figures, interesting and individual. In fact, he had to deal with a difficult decision early in his life. Despite being perhaps one of the most important works ever published, you may not be aware that "On the Origin of Species" reveals the genuine difficulty Darwin faced when deciding to turn his back on his religious studies at Christ's College, Cambridge. (His father, disapproving of Darwin's interests, had decided to try to force him to study to become an Anglican priest.) Darwin wrote later in correspondence with his American friend Asa Gray...
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid√¶ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.
Darwin was a prolific writer of letters, papers and scientific books and journals. But he was also a doting father of no less than ten children. Three of them died tragically in childhood, from ailments common in Victorian England. Two of these deaths were in infancy, but the death of Annie at the age of ten from complications of scarlet fever (she may also have had tuberculosis) broke Darwin's heart. He wrote in his memoirs
We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age... Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.
In the end, there is a vast wealth of knowledge about Darwin that could not possibly be covered in a short blog post. Wikipedia has a useful summary of his life, and you can read vast amounts of what he wrote for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg's eBooks. But importantly, at Down House you can touch the life of this amazing man. He helped us understand who we are; a visit to the home he lived in for forty years offers a compelling chance to return the favour and understand him.

You can't take photos inside the house for reasons of copyright (sigh), but I managed another decent shot in the lovely gardens, inside Darwin's greenhouse. English Heritage continue to grow plants which interested Darwin in it and it's worth exploring (and is a good way to get out of the cold).

Darwin's Hothouse

Find out more about a visit at English Heritage's website -- they're the current custodians and have made big efforts in the past few years to improve your experience as a visitor.

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