Travel: How Darwin evolved

After his travels the famous explorer settled with his wife and children in Kent. The house reveals much about his family-orientated lifestyle.
Aren't Americans fantastic? They take all the decision making out of a visit. You never have to worry about where to take them or what to show them when they come to visit. They've researched it all and know exactly where, when and why.

My wife's uncle and aunt sent a fax last month, declaring their imminent arrival. Living in Brighton means visitors usually want to see the Royal Pavilion, shop in The Lanes and go on the pier, but they had been there and done that.

They asked me to arrange a visit to Charles Darwin's house, just 10 minutes off the M25, near Biggin Hill. This English Heritage property re-opened to the public earlier this year, after a programme of restoration costing pounds 2m. Timed-entry tickets have to be booked in advance.

There have been few individuals whose academic work has had quite such an impact on the world as Charles Darwin. He was also ahead of his time in another, more surprising, aspect. He was one of the first successful "distance workers": he worked from home, but was still able to maintain regular contact with his colleagues and peers. I, too, work from home and wondered if his modus operandi differed greatly from my own, with my reliance on the telephone and modem.

As a young man, Darwin spent five years of his life seeing the world from aboard HMS Beagle. He returned to London a famous man and, for the next five years, led a frantic social and professional life.

By the age of 33, he was married to his cousin Emma and had two children, (they ended up having ten children, although three died young). They moved to Down House, just south of Bromley in Kent, in 1842, to get away from the London smoke.

Proximity to the city was important, for visits and visitors, but it wasn't crucial in terms of the viability of working from home. There were several postal deliveries a day so Darwin was able to keep in close touch with London, and therefore the world.

For the next 40 years, the Darwin family lived in this 12-room, three- storey house, during which time Charles formulated the theory that would shock the world, published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.

I found it interesting that Darwin combined family life with his scientific work. His children were allowed to play noisily in all the rooms; sometimes they would play cricket in the hallway with a housemaid.

They would even make the occasional foray into their father's study, where he was working, for things that they needed: string, pins, scissors, stamps and sticking plaster. I suffer the same interruptions from my children too. However, Darwin's children busied themselves with some of the experiments and research that were later published in the Origin of Species.

English Heritage has restored the house to what it was 150 years ago. The most intriguing room is Darwin's study. Much of his paraphernalia is still here: bottles and microscopes, books and papers, fossils and bones. Also, the huge, original, bound manuscript of the journal he kept during the five-year trip on board HMS Beagle. This minutiae about his life is what makes this house so special. It has been put together with the same methodical attention to detail that Darwin himself employed in his research.

Today, visitors are given a tour of the downstairs rooms with help from a telephone-with-a-tape-recorder-inside thing. This user-friendly facility gives you options on how much you want to hear, or not hear, an idea which got the thumbs-up from our party.

Visitors are led through the inner hallway, the dining-room, the drawing- room and the billiards room, where Darwin played with his sons and, very often, Parslow, his butler.

Upstairs, the rooms have been converted into themed display rooms, each one concerned with a different aspect of Darwin's life and work. This museum side of the house has been imaginatively thought out, with bright colours, curiously-shaped exhibition tables and stands, and graphic depictions of his life experiences.

There are one or two glass cabinets filled to bursting with stuffed birds and other fauna, collected on the five year voyage aboard HMS Beagle. One room is dedicated to the debates that raged after publication of the book.

Darwin walked the grounds every day, taking in the sights and sounds of the country, experimenting with flora in the greenhouses and walled- garden, and observing the changing face of the 15-acre Great Meadow as the seasons rolled by.

Our American relatives, and ourselves, particularly enjoyed strolling around the gardens, orchards and along the Sandwalk, a strip of land buttressing the meadow and purchased from a neighbour.

Come rain or shine, Darwin walked this route, pondering the great questions in his mind. The idea that we could walk in his footsteps, looking back at the house and see what he saw, was fascinating.

Jane, one of our visitors from America, felt it was a privilege to experience the very human atmosphere surrounding some of the most important work in history: "It was one of the most inspiring experiences one could have, but without all the hype and hoopla," she said.

I sat outside, with an outstanding cup of tea and some genuinely home- made cake, playing with one of my children on the lawn. I don't have 15 acres of land, nor do I have the luxury of a billiards room, let alone a team of servants, but felt able to identify with the work-practices employed, and the reasons behind them.

As for the musings that might change the world, well, I am going to have to work a bit harder on those, I think.

Fact File

Opening Hours: until 31 October: Wed-Sun, 10am-6pm (closes at dusk in October); 1 November to 31 January, and throughout March: Wed- Sun, 10am-4pm. Closed December 24-26 and throughout February.

Access: Down House has been converted to provide full disabled access. A lift has been installed for access upstairs.

Entry: by timed ticket only. Visitors must pre-book, at least one day in advance by telephoning 0870 6030145 or 01689 859119. Coaches are only allowed during peak season.

Location: Luxted Road, Downe, off A21, near Biggin Hill. Parking for coaches and disabled visitors is provided throughout the open season.

Downe is a small village, so English Heritage encourages using public transport. Train services from central London take less than 30 minutes to the nearest mainline stations: Orpington (from Charing Cross and Waterloo East) and Bromley South (from Victoria).

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