Judges go ape over status of Darwin's village

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The Independent Online

With its carefully tended gardens, neat cottages and two pubs offering "full Sunday lunch", the commuter village of Downe would seem to have little in common with the grandeur of the Taj Mahal or the pyramids of Giza.

But thanks to its 162-year association with Charles Darwin, the well-heeled village and a substantial chunk of affluent greenbelt in the south-east London borough of Bromley could soon be rubbing shoulders with breathtaking monuments under the shared status of a World Heritage Site.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport confirmed yesterday that it has selected Downe, where Darwin lived for more than 40 years, and the surrounding land where he conducted many of his studies, to be put forward for the Unesco award in 2007 - ahead of other shortlisted locations including the Lake District and Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The proposed heritage site will be centred on Down House, a Georgian pile once described by Darwin himself as an "oldish and ugly building", where he wrote his revolutionary work on natural selection, The Origin of Species.

Supporters of the bid say that the Kent village, which was also the home of another intrepid explorer in the shape of the around-the-world yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston, has sufficient historical significance to be considered alongside Stonehenge or the Vatican City. Tori Reeve, curator of Down House, which is run as a museum by English Heritage, said: "It is not only the physical structures that make a heritage site but the human endeavours that took place inside them. Darwin's work had a huge impact on the way we understand the world."

When Darwin moved in to Down House in 1842, shortly after his voyage of discovery to South America on HMS Beagle, the surrounding area was still deep in the Kent countryside, half a day's journey from London. Today the woodland and hedgerows where the scientist and father-of-eight once honed his theories of natural and sexual selection are dotted with comfortable bungalows and golf courses.

The heritage area itself is likely to spread some three miles beyond Darwin's former home to the adjoining villages of Cudham and Keston, where he collected samples of orchids for his studies or walked with his dog to mull over his theories. If the application is successful, the result could be tens of thousands of extra visitors to the area, providing a boon to local businesses but raising concern that the narrow lanes surrounding Down House could become choked with coach parties retracing the footsteps of the father of evolution theory.

Terry O'Keefe, manager of the busy Queen's Head pub on Downe's main street, said: "From the point of view of running a pub, World Heritage status is only going to be a good thing. But if you are a resident then you might see things a bit differently. The village already gets packed at weekends."

Bromley Borough Council, which must now draw up the formal proposal for the project ahead of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species in 2009, said its priority was to ensure that Darwin's domain is not damaged. "Ideas could include cycle and walking routes as well as park and ride," a spokeswoman said.

The United Kingdom is allowed to put forward one nomination a year for World Heritage status. If successful, Downe would join 25 places in the UK that already carry the title, including Hadrian's Wall, Stonehenge and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Liverpool will learn this summer whether the nomination of its waterfront has been granted.

The Government, which chose Downe from a shortlist of 25 locations including the Dorset Coast and a section of the Great Western Railway, said it was hopeful of success. A spokes- woman said: "It is by no means a rubber-stamping exercise. Part of the focus of world heritage status is our industrial and scientific past, so we hope Downe will be well received."