The home of Charles Darwin for forty years, Down House, on the edge of the pretty village of Downe (note spelling) on the fringes of London's sprawl but in a beautiful part of Kent, was renovated for visitors on the two-hundredth anniversary of the great man's birth in 2009. Formerly a school, it was acquired by English Heritage in the mid-1990s and nowadays is truly one of the great things to see in this part of the world – and there are quite a few. Darwin did most of his important work here, including writing 'On the Origin of the Species', and the house has been artfully and successfully left more or less as it was when he was living in it. The house reveals huge amounts about the man himself, the way he worked, the demons that beset him and the endless hunger for enquiry that drove him. You can see his study, complete with microscope, the odd skull and his comfy desk chair, the drawing room with its array of musical instruments, the billiard room – full of portraits of Darwin and others – and even a replica of his cabin on the HMS Beagle, animated with a hologram of Darwin himself. The gardens, too, are compelling, not just as gardens – though they are lovely in their own right – but for the fact that they too are still very much as they were, right down to the glasshouses in which Darwin grew carnivorous plants, the traditional orchards, and the 'sandwalk' which he would stroll regularly to focus his mind. As the audio tour points out, Darwin spent five years travelling the world collecting samples and developing his theories, but it was when observing nature in Downe that he really nailed it.
There's a lovely garden here, and the study (seen in the picture above) has been recreated as it was when he lived there, however the upper floors of the house have been turned into exhibition space, many of the exhibits are more aimed at children than adults and the rooms are bare shells housing the exhibitions, so it's no longer interesting as a house in its own right. Other historic houses like Fenton House in London have managed to preserve the spirit of the place and host educational exhibits at the same time, so this was a bit of a disappointment for me, though they do have quite a few artefacts from his voyages on display which are interesting.
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