We pay a visit to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, tucked away in the bottom-right corner of London.
"And here's the slide that Darwin had put in, so that his children could whiz down the stairs."
So notes curator Olivia Fryman as we tour Down House, country home of Charles Darwin from 1842 until his death in 1882. It's only here, in the rooms and gardens where he developed his ideas of evolution by natural selection, that we get a true sense of the man — and his family. It seems they had a lot of fun.
Darwin's 18th century country pile is a bona fide London attraction. Well, kind of. It's within the London Borough of Bromley, and served by TfL buses, yet its situation feels more like the Kent countryside (which it was in Darwin's day). Certainly, we've never visited any other London museum that doesn't enjoy its own roadside pavement.
"People come here, almost as pilgrims, from all over the world," confides head gardener Antony O'Rourke. But I bet most Londoners don't know the place exists."
That's a pity, because Down House was cradle to one of the most important ideas in history — as well as to the 10 children of Charles and Emma Darwin, whose memories are ever-present throughout the house.
Walk through a time capsule
Down House is much bigger than you might expect from the home of a scientist. Both Charles and Emma came from very privileged backgrounds. Or, rather, the same privileged background, because they were first cousins — both had the enormously wealthy potter Josiah Wedgwood for a grandfather. They could not only afford the sizeable Down House and its extensive grounds (17 years before the fame of On The Origin of Species), but also added to it with several extensions.
The home today is divided into two parts. Downstairs offers the full English Heritage 'period house' experience (complete with audio guide narrated by Sir David Attenborough), while the upper floor is set out more like a traditional museum.
And what a time capsule it is. Darwin became a legend in his own lifetime, so that when he died, in 1882, much care was taken by the family to record his personal world. All of his possessions were diligently noted, and each room of Down House was carefully photographed.
The result is a house museum of unrivalled authenticity. Most of the books, research materials and personal effects are genuine Darwin heirlooms. The family dining table is laid out with the same crockery they would have supped from 160 years ago (Wedgwood, of course). His billiard table looks ready for a game, if only it weren't a priceless and historic antique.
Every nook and cranny holds a tale, and one concealed perhaps the greatest secret of all time. Famously, Darwin took 20 years to publish his theory of evolution by natural selection. For much of that period, it remained under lock and key in an anonymous cupboard under the stairs. Now there's a time-travel heist story waiting to be written.
A museum of Darwin's life
The upper floor is set out more like a traditional museum with display cabinets, videos and explanatory text. Here you can view maps and artefacts from Darwin's all-important years aboard the Beagle, during which he circumnavigated the globe collecting samples.
We also get an insight into his obsessive scribbling. Darwin exchanged at least 15,000 letters with some 2,000 correspondents (now all digitised and freely searchable), and spent the equivalent of £1,000 a year on "stationery, stamps and newspapers". Some of his letters are on show, along with the household accounts and diaries recording the daily health of his family. This is a man who would have kept spreadsheets of everything.
It's Darwin's family who make the biggest impact in these upstairs rooms. Here we find part of that stair slide the kids must have relished. Then there's the Darwin bedroom, in which Emma nursed her often sickly husband through decades of illnesses (he eventually died in this room). The children's nursery has lost its original furniture, but still records some of their names, scratched into a cupboard frame more than a century and a half ago. Nearby, you can also view the only photo of Darwin with another person — his son William.
Most poignant is "Annie's box', a small keepsake chest containing the effects of Darwin's eldest daughter, who died aged 10 in 1851. Darwin was crushed by the loss, and the tragedy still puts a lump in the throat all these decades later.
A walk in the garden
It's fair to say that Darwin, being the most famous naturalist who ever lived, spent quite a bit of time in his garden. He used it as a thinking space, a source of inspiration, an outdoor laboratory and a place to collect beetles (Victorian gents loved to collect beetles).
Although the house had been a public museum since the 1920s, very little attention was given to the garden until English Heritage took on ownership in the 1980s. Much like the house itself, the outdoor spaces have been restored to a condition that Darwin would find familiar. Ground surveys turned up the locations of his old flower beds and these are now back in bloom with (largely) the same species recorded in Darwin's notebooks.
His old greenhouse has also been lovingly restored, although gardener Antony O'Rourke admits it's a bit like 'Trigger's broom' — glass and transom have been replaced so many times that it's difficult to know how much, if any, is original. Among the species inside are a fine collection of carnivorous plants. Darwin spent many hours experimenting on flytraps, to see if they'd survive without insects, or with more curious diets (including his own bogies).
More savoury fare is grown in the vegetable patch. The seasonal crops are dished up as soup in the cafe, sold in the gift shop, or given as a thank-you to the garden's many volunteers.
The gardens need a lot of work, and are, in fact, bigger than in Darwin's day. A local benefactor purchased a rear meadow for the house-museum, ensuring the surrounding fields would never be developed. This is now a haven for pollinators, with many species of wildflower including orchids.
The grounds look their best during the spring months of March, April and May, but there's something to see at any time of the year. Look out for lizards basking in the summer sunshine, or the orchids that flower in the greenhouse during winter.
140 years after Darwin drew his last breath in Down House, it remains a home for nature, wonder and curiosity. Just don't let the kids see the staircase slide!
How to visit Down House
See English Heritage's Home of Charles Darwin, Down House pages for full information.
Darwin chose Down House because it offered both a countryside retreat while still being within striking distance of London. And so it remains today, though you'll have to plan ahead if coming by public transport.
If you're able, the most enjoyable way to get to Down is to hike or bike across country. Bear in mind, though, that the house is almost four miles from the nearest stations (Chelsfield and Orpington). Two buses serve the area. The 146 has an hourly service from Bromley South which terminates after a very pleasant 25 minutes in the nearby village of Downe (a short walk by road, or off-road footpaths). The R8 to Orpington stops outside Down, but is less frequent.
If you're getting off the bus at Downe church, we'd recommend taking the cross-country route rather than walking along the road. It's actually very quick and pleasant, and all part of the adventure of getting to Down House.
If you have a car, then you'll find copious on-site parking. Sat nav to BR6 7JT (Latitude 51.333148; Longitude 0.054262).
Other places to discover Darwin
Darwin, of course, looms large at the Natural History Museum. Beside his statue, in pride of place on the main staircase, the museum houses numerous objects connected with the naturalist (including some of his pigeons). The museum's research extension is also known as the Darwin Centre. They even serve Darwin-branded beer.
Darwin is only moderately memorialised across town. The most noticed, presumably, is the blue plaque on Gower Street that marks the place where he lodged before moving to Downe. A prominent mural can be found in Bromley's market place, reinforcing Darwin's links to the area. He also pops up on a mural of naturalists in West Dulwich.