Darwin Festival: Origins of a man

Shrewsbury celebrates the life of its famous son next week. Robert Nurden visits the revolutionary's home town and discovers how he almost didn't make that historic voyage

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection - and the modern world view of the origins of man - might never have come about if the eager young naturalist from Shrewsbury had not taken a coach journey at just the right time.

His father, Dr Robert Darwin, had already barred the Shropshire lad from joining the HMS Beagle expedition to South America in 1831. Only after Charles's uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, had made the doctor change his mind did the 22-year-old rush down to London to claim his berth on the voyage. But his procrastination meant his place had already been awarded to another candidate. By a stroke of luck, his rival had just withdrawn from the voyage. So Charles put himself forward and was accepted at the last gasp: survival of the luckiest or a case of random selection?

"It's true to say that On the Origin of Species would never have been written unless Darwin had arrived at the Admiralty at that moment," said Jon King, director of Shrewsbury's annual Charles Darwin Festival, which runs from Thursday to 28 February. "The voyage was essential to him developing his theories.

"The accepted view is that the Beagle voyage was the start of his life of discovery. But it started long before that with digging for worms in the garden of The Mount - his father's house - scouring the banks of the Severn, even shooting and fishing, walking among the fantastic geological formations of Shropshire, and in conversation with the brilliant mind of his grandfather Erasmus. He'd rejected medicine and the church and developed a passion for the natural world long before the Beagle trip was even thought of."

Such perspectives are typical of the approach to the great 19th-century scientist taken by his home town, which has focused on his youth since it started the festival five years ago. The Beagle anecdote is one of many that Jon tells on his guided walk around the 10 Darwin sites in Shropshire's beautiful county town. He also slips in the fact that Darwin was - like any gap-year student - forever asking his father for money.

Every year at the Bellstone, a granite boulder thought to have been brought here during the Ice Age, a toast is drunk to the great man on his birthday, 12 February. Visitors are also shown the spot where a young Charles was duped into believing that if he wore his friend's "magic hat" at an angle he could take any food he wanted from the Pailin cake shop.

The Darwin Gate, a sculpture installed in 2004, uses Gothic arch shapes that make visual sense only when seen at a distance - symbolic apparently of how the naturalist saw life in a fresh way. Despite the strong family Unitarian connections, he was baptised in the Church of England St Chad's, whose establishment status maximised his chances of getting into Cambridge.

Darwin attended Shrewsbury School, whose original 16th-century building is now the town library. Because the school taught only Latin and Greek, Darwin wrote later that "nothing could have been worse for my development than Shrewsbury school". His keenness for conducting out-of-hours scientific experiments earned him the nickname Gas. Perhaps it's apt that the statue of him has its back to the school.

It is planned to open The Mount, Darwin's imposing birthplace (and, bizarrely, in the property portfolio of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) to the public in time for both the 2009 bicentenary celebrations of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Since its inception, the annual festival has grown in stature. Each year has had a theme - among them genetics, climate change, artificial intelligence and, this year, geology. Celebrity speakers have included David Bellamy, Colin Pillinger and Richard Dawkins.

This year will feature a geological walking tour, led by experts, along Wenlock Edge, to view the legendary fossilised coral reef, which was once connected to Antarctica. There will be talks on the 19th-century botanist Joseph Hooker and his friendship with Darwin. Professor James Moore, Darwin's biographer, will deliver the Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture, "Darwin, Sex and Slavery", to mark the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. For all the misrepresentation of his works in the 20th century, in particular the mistaken link with the theory of eugenics, Darwin himself was an abolitionist.

Ever mindful of maintaining as wide a remit as possible, the organisers have invited Alistair McGrath, a professor of theology, to talk on "Atheist Interpreters of Darwin: Richard Dawkins on the God Delusion". Shropshire and the Galapagos Islands will also be the subject of talks and exhibitions and there will be a dramatic interpretation of Darwin as a family man at St Julian's Church.

"The issues that Darwin throws up are still being debated and we try to reflect current thinking," said Jon King. "But there's a fun side to the festival, too, with many activities for the whole family."

Children can experience what it's like to be a snail or a slug by creating their own slime at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre, which over the years has come up with a secret recipe for recreating primordial ooze. Snail races are followed, in slow succession, by "Tweet, Tweet" in which kids learn how to make a nest box and play the Beak Evolution Game. This involves matching certain kinds of birds' beaks to habitats and foods. The Shropshire Wildlife Trust is holding a fossil-making day and the Ludlow Resource Centre offers creative activities around dinosaurs and prehistoric mammoths found locally.

Even music gets a look-in, courtesy of the town's concert band which will play works with a Darwin theme, including a choral piece composed specially for his funeral at Westminster Abbey in 1882 - "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom". The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was Darwin's great-nephew, and the concert will feature some of his music too.



Robert Nurden stayed at the Prince Rupert Hotel (01743 499955; prince-rupert-hotel .co.uk) and was a guest of Shrewsbury Tourist Office (01743 281200; visit shrewsbury.com), where double rooms cost from £105 per night b&b. He travelled from London Euston to Shrewsbury with Virgin Trains (08475 222333; virgin.com/trains) and Central Trains (0845-302 2022; centraltrains.co.uk). Return fares cost from £41.


The Darwin Festival runs from 1 to 28 February in Shrewsbury. For details contact Destination Shrewsbury (darwinshrewsbury.org).

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen