Down House, a site of outstanding international importance, was the home of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology. And no matter where you are in the world, Darwin’s name cannot have escaped you.
The eminent scientist chose to live in the Kent countryside as it was the perfect place for him to ‘think’ and was not too far from his work at the Natural History Museum in London.
Who is Charles Darwin, and What Did he Do?
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, biologist and geologist. He is best known for his pioneering ideas about evolution and society.
In 1831, at the age of 22, Darwin set sail on a five-year world voyage aboard HMS Beagle and made discoveries of the natural world that led him to write his famous scientific books on evolution.
The renowned naturalist wrote ‘On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, which took the Victorian world by storm. In the same year, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was published and, to this day, has influenced scientific thinking and shaped the natural world as we know it.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.Charles Darwin
Things to See in the House of Charles Darwin
Inside Down House
Nestled in the sleepy village of Downe in Kent and reached via winding country lanes is the home of Charles Darwin and his family. Visitors can explore Down House and the garden and discover the life Darwin led both as a family man and as one of the leading scientists of the 19th century.
You will find examples of Darwin’s work all around the house, and information boards will allow you a glimpse into his personality, ranging from pragmatist to a fun-loving father to his ten children!
The Old Study
The ‘Old Study’ contains Darwin’s chair, writing board and personal items and was the place he would have spent long hours working on his famous books. The furniture is mainly original.
Reading books are evident all around the study, and tables contain items of interest to Darwin, including bird skulls and skeletons. Small glass vials also seem to appear all around the house.
Both Darwin and Emma came from important 19th-century families, and ancestral portraits are all around Down House.
Erasmus Darwin was a doctor, inventor, poet and scientist, while Josiah Wedgewood was the founder of the pottery empire that exists to this day. These two formidable 18th-century figures were the grandfathers of Charles and Emma and were important figures in the Industrial Revolution and the abolition of slavery.
The Drawing Room
The Drawing Room is a cosy area home to Emma’s grand piano and other musical instruments. The family would have gathered here to learn of Darwin’s discoveries on his return from his world voyage.
The Dining Room
Down House is a fascinating look at how Darwin functioned on a daily basis. He had set routines each day, including bathing, daily walks and lunchtimes. The dining room is formal, and where Darwin and his family took their main meal every day at 1 pm.
Darwin believed in routine but also that growing up should be fun. He let his children use the house as an indoor playground with makeshift swings hanging from the ceiling and a homemade slide fashioned to run along the hallway stairs. Darwin used his children as observation subjects throughout their lives, watching them grow and interact with each other.
The Billiard Room
The Billiard Room is where Darwin enjoyed a game of snooker with his butler and also where he would lay out all his finds to examine them more thoroughly. There were often animal skeletons and plants covering the billiard table for weeks or months while he studied their intricacies.
Exhibitions at Down House
Follow the route at Down House and head upstairs to see several exhibitions. One of them highlights Darwin’s round the world voyage of discovery with information about the sailing route he took, the discoveries he made of tribes, animals and plants and the places where he left his mark.
There are approximately seventeen places around the world named after Charles Darwin. One such place is Darwin in Australia, which I have visited, and so it was fascinating to understand more about how he discovered this land back in the 19th century.
Darwin also sailed to Tasmania in Australia and the Cape of South Africa. And, of course, who can forget the Galapagos Islands and the giant tortoises that call the Charles Darwin Research Centre their home.
Birds intrigued Darwin, and in particular finches. He studied them to see how their beaks evolved depending on the foods they were eating. They proved to be a big part of his theory of evolution, and the species are now called Darwin’s Finches. Other exhibitions show Darwin’s diaries, collections, books and scientific equipment used in his experiments.
Charles and Emma’s Bedroom
Darwin’s bedroom has beautiful views of the garden and was a place he relaxed and read fictional books. Charles Darwin passed away in this room in 1882 after many years of ill health. The mulberry tree beside the house was planted by Darwin and still blooms each year.
If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.Charles Darwin
Into the Garden at Down House
Down House garden was Darwin’s outdoor laboratory and was pivotal in carrying out important horticultural experiments. Every day, he would do five laps of the thinking path, a wooded area known as the Sandwalk, while working out his theories He used to count how many laps he had done by knocking stones off a pile at the end. If his children walked with him, they sometimes added stones back to the pile when he wasn’t looking!
He would spend hours in the greenhouse cross-cultivating plant species and observing the importance of insects in the pollination of flowers and plants. Carnivorous and exotic plants from his trips were often used in plant experiments.
Stroll Around Down House Garden
Darwin’s garden is not huge but is pretty to see. You can follow the footpath and read the multimedia boards that will tell you about the horticultural experiments that Darwin carried out in his garden. The start is at Darwin’s weed garden, illustrating the struggle for existence in nature and bringing awareness of the natural world.
Apple blossom trees are plentiful in the small orchard, and several beehives are nearby.
Cafe, Gift Shop and Plant Corner
Before leaving, treat yourself to tea and cake at the small cafe in Down House. The cafe was once the old kitchen where Emma prepared her husband’s meals. There is also a gift shop selling Darwin-inspired gifts and plants for sale.
How To Find Down House
Down House, Luxted Road, Downe, Kent, BR6 7JT
Opening Hours: 10 am – 5 pm
Admission is £18.70 for adults / £11.20 for children during peak months.
Free Admission to English Heritage Members – Click here to join
By Car: Free parking on-site is available.
By Train: Orpington station is four miles away and then a taxi to Down House.