A Day Out With Darwin

Last week was half term. Much needed by everyone. We had a fairly chilled out break, mostly hanging around in our local park, but we did decide to do a proper outing one day.

I say outing, but this wasn’t just a fun day for the kids. We visited Down House, the home of Charles Darwin. The place where he spent years forming his ideas, wrestling with his beliefs and writing On The Origen Of Species. As a biologist and a non religious person, it’s about as close as I can get to holy ground.

The upstairs of the house has an exhibition about Darwin’s life and work, his voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle and how he turned his observations into the theory that is now so fundamental to science. Downstairs there are rooms more or less as they would have been when the man himself lived and worked there. You can stand in Darwin’s office and listen to David Attenborough telling you about it on the audio guide. MissE, a massive fan of the recent Attenborough series’, was absolutely captivated.

But the really moving thing for me about Down House isn’t the history and work of a great man. It’s not a sterile laboratory or academic institution. It’s a family home, and walking around you get a sense that Darwin wasn’t a severe, emotionally detached Victorian Father. He was a man who deeply loved his wife and Children and actually spent a lot of time with them.

One of the most touching exhibits was a slide. Darwin’s wife Emma had it made to fit on the staircase and wrote about it to one of her older children, telling him that she and the governess had had a go. I can just picture two ladies in their 40’s in corsets and crinolines, giggling their way down an indoor slide, it seems like just the sort of thing I would do with my kids, although I’d probably be more comfortably dressed.

Darwin isn’t the perfect model of fatherhood, certainly not by modern standards. His sons were all highly educated at expensive boarding schools and universities, many went on to have very distinguished careers of their own. But he didn’t think it was worth educating his daughters to the same standard so they were taught at home by the slide riding governess instead. Famously he decided to get married only after drawing up a list of pros and cons on the subject and deciding that, overall, it would be of benefit to him.

MrSB was very pleased to find a Darwin hat that fitted him in the dressing up room, he may need to work on he beard to get the full look though

But his life did make me think about a debate I was following on Twitter recently. It started with a tweet that seemed to glorify long hours at work, suggesting anyone not putting in at least 70 hour weeks shouldn’t expect to get to into a senior academic position. It’s the sort of thing that makes my heart sink. A survey a few years ago asked male scientists how they juggled work and family and one older respondent simply said: “That’s what wives are for”.

But what if you are the wife? What if, male or female, you are passionate and brilliant in your field but don’t want to come to the end your days, known for your great works, but a stranger to your own family? Never having experienced the richness of life outside the lab? Could a bit more time living actually make great scientists even better? The death of a much-loved daughter hit Darwin hard. But this family tragedy, all too common in those days also pushed Darwin to look beyond the accepted dogma of the day and solidify the ideas he’s been battling with. Would that have happened if he’d spent 70 hours a week working away from home and not been so closely involved with loving his child? Who knows,  had Darwin not spent so much time traveling, collecting, living life and loving his family, perhaps we would have been visiting a different house last week. Perhaps he’d be just another Victorian gentleman and someone else would be the scientific hero who gave us the theory of evolution.

Of course, it’s not a fair comparison. Darwin’s lifestyle would be a fairy tale for modern scientists. In Darwin’s day there was no Publish Or Perish. He wouldn’t have had to constantly turn out papers in top journals and write grant proposals to be able to keep working. He wouldn’t have had to change jobs, moving city or country every few years as he worked through the PhD and Postdoc process. He was a wealthy man. He had a large house and servants to look after everyone. He could afford to spend years thinking through one big idea and breaking off to play in the garden. Sadly, this is not how modern academia looks.

But I still don’t think glorifying presenteeism is the answer. It was both awe-inspiring and heart warming to walk in the rooms where Darwin once walked. To watch my kids climb a tree that his children probably climbed many times and to know that one of the greatest and most revered scientists of all was also a parent, like so many of us, that life beyond the lab is just as important.

Visiting Tips

Down House is now run by English Heritage so members can get in free, for nonmembers a family ticket is £30.70 which includes the audio guide.  There is parking at the house but it is a bit limited and was getting busy by the early afternoon when we left. I noticed quite a few people arriving by bike too.

If you have a baby I’d recommend taking a sling rather than a buggy as there are some narrow bits inside which can get quite busy. But there is a lift to get to the top floor.

The girls loved the little dressing up area in the master bedroom, and when we were there they were also hosting animal handling sessions with snakes, lizards and tortoises, although not the giant type that Darwin would have seen (and apparently eaten) on his travels.

We had lunch in the cafe, thankfully there were no tortoises on the menu but there were generously sized kids food boxes and some much needed hearty soup for the adults. But being a very cold day the indoor seating was much in demand. I’d recommend getting there early. There are toilets, including a large disabled loo with baby changing facilities, near the outside seating.

Outside the house there are large gardens and an audio tour voiced by Andrew Marr will take you around these but as it was freezing cold and the kids just wanted to run around we abandoned the tour at this point and just explored a bit. I was very pleased to find some heated greenhouses. In warmer weather, you could spend a lot of time outside and maybe bring a picnic.


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