Darwin's house: Discover the origins of evolution in rural Kent

Last week, the gooseberries were looking particularly promising in the kitchen gardens of Down House. Rows of bushes were burgeoning with small green fruit, raising expectations of a bumper crop later this summer. Charles Darwin – botanist, geologist, zoologist and author of the book that profoundly changed perceptions of the world – would no doubt have been pleased. Here, ever experimenting, he once nurtured 54 varieties of gooseberry, along with 41 types of pea and numerous species of other vegetable.

In 1842, when Darwin and his wife, Emma, moved from London to Down House, on the outskirts of Downe village in north-west Kent, he described the solid 18th-century building as "ugly". Yet it became a much-loved haven where he spent the rest of his life. It was here that the Darwins' children were raised (there were 10, though only seven of them survived to adulthood), and here that the great naturalist worked on his theories, finally publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Tucked away in his rural retreat, Darwin was removed from the furore his book caused. He steadfastly continued his studies; his last major work was on earthworms (largely observed in his garden) and was published in 1881, the year before his death.

Since the Thirties, the house has been a museum, now run by English Heritage. On the June morning of my visit, Down House had a magical quality. It is situated less than 20 miles from central London, yet the property lies in a wonderfully rural pocket, and the landscape is cloaked in abundant greenery. The pretty location, however, is just a bonus: the real charm here is the man himself and the insight you get into his domestic and working life.

The house reopened earlier this year after major refurbishment and the introduction of innovative multimedia guides and displays. The refit marked the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, widely celebrated throughout this year.

Images of Darwin – paintings, photographs, £10 notes – often show a forbiddingly serious Victorian gentleman with a long grey beard. But at Down House you quickly appreciate that the eminent scientist was a tremendously genial person who was kind to his servants and lovingly liberal with his children, often joining in their games.

On the first floor, newly devised displays give a potted history of Darwin's life, with many personal items on show – beetle specimens collected in his childhood; a lock of Emma's hair; the stair slide he asked a local carpenter to make for his children. There's also a replica of Darwin's cabin on HMS Beagle: the cramped quarters in which he spent five years during the seminal surveying trip to South America, while in his twenties.

Amazingly, two of his original notebooks are exhibited, while a computer next to them enables you to examine the contents through digital displays. Other star attractions include specimens collected on his epic voyage and the signed copy of Das Kapital sent to him by Karl Marx.

Downstairs, a new hand-held video guide leads you through the drawing room, study, billiard room and dining room – all furnished with Darwin's own pieces and pictures.

The real joy of Down House, though, is the garden, replanted to be how it was in Darwin's time. Several of his ingenious experiments have been recreated here: a tiny bed of weeds, for example, testing out theories of natural selection. The video guide really comes into its own in the garden, showing how Darwin used this outdoor space as a natural laboratory, whether watching his bees, seeing what his carnivorous plants would consume – or cultivating gooseberries.

To honour Darwin and ensure that his home and the landscape around are conserved, Down House and the surrounding area have been nominated as a World Heritage Site. The result of the bid will be revealed next year.

Down House, Downe, Kent BR6 7JT, is open Wednesday to Sunday (and bank holidays) 11am-5pm; adults £8.80, children £4.40 (01689 859119; english-heritage. org.uk/darwin).

Bicentennial celebrations

The bicentenary of Darwin's birth coincides with the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, with commemorations being held across the country.

Shrewsbury, where Darwin was born, is hosting celebrations throughout 2009. Its Darwin Festival features dance, music, science demonstrations, tortoise processions, and drama, and takes place until November (01743 281200; darwinshrewsbury.org).

In addition, from 3-12 July Shrewsbury is hosting a special festival of ideas entitled Shift Time, which will bring together artists and performers whose work has been inspired by Darwin's theories (0345 678 9000; shift-time.org.uk).

In Bath, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute has a more academic stance in its Darwin and Beyond festival, with a series of talks continuing until 11 December, when the final lecture asks, "Is Evolution Over?" (01225 312084; brlsi.org/darwin2009).

Cambridge, where Darwin studied theology, while becoming increasingly absorbed by natural history and science, is holding a Darwin Festival in July, with talks and debates, exhibitions (at Christ's College, the Botanic Gardens, the Fitzwilliam Museum and more) and street music, theatre and comedy (01223 765440; darwin2009.cam.ac.uk).

A complete list of all Darwin events in the UK is published by the Natural History Museum at darwin200.org

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Casual Visitor Experience Assistants

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To work within the Visitor Experience Departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high