There are many historical legends in Britain, but Charles Darwin is probably one of the most well known and admired. His work on ground-breaking theories led to the publication of books such as On the Origin of Species.
It wasn’t just his work which will interest you, his personal life was fraught with sadness. You can discover so much about the man, the scientist, and the father when you visit the family home in London. Down House is currently cared for by the English Heritage, so it’s an ideal place to visit if you’re a member. We spent a few hours there as part of a road trip and we fell in love with the area and Darwin’s beautiful home.
Who Was Charles Darwin?
Born in Shrewsbury in 1809, Charles Darwin was a naturalist, geologist, and biologist. His father had hoped he would become a doctor and as such he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland at the age of sixteen. But Charles found he had a dislike for blood and a greater interest in natural history.
At the age of twenty-two (1831) he boarded the British Royal Navy ship the HMS Beagle, as a naturalist. The ship’s purpose was to survey the coastline of South America and chart the harbours in the region. Darwin’s work was seen to be an addition to the trip, and he spent most of it collecting samples of animals, plants, fossils and rocks. The HMS Beagle explored a number of regions including Brazil, Argentina, Chile and famously the Galapagos Islands.
He returned to England in 1836 and began his research which led to the discovery of many scientific revelations. The fossils that were collected, assisted with geologists understanding of the processes that shape the Earths surface. But it was his innovative study of the plants and animals he collected, which helped form his opinion that species evolve over time. This is the research he became famous for, otherwise known as natural selection.
Natural selection also known as evolution is the process where living organisms change so that they have a greater chance of surviving their environment. Genes are passed on from parents which best suit success and as such you can find that new species are developed.
Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and it was seen to be incredibly controversial. The fact that it describes species evolving over time, suggested that the planet was far older than many believed at the time, which went against what was believed in the Bible.
At the age of seventy-three, Charles Darwin died and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London, England.
What is Down House?
Down House is a Georgian manor in the town of Downe, which is 15 miles south of London. Charles Darwin lived there with his wife, children, and servants for 40 years, between 1842 and 1882. It was within the house that Darwin worked and wrote On the Origin of the Species, which makes it a place of historical significance. You will then find the 20 acres of gardens surrounding it which acted as his ‘living laboratory’.
During their time in this remarkable home the Darwin’s nurtured their family of ten children. Three of the children died at a relatively young age at Down House. They originally had a London home which was becoming cramped as their family grew.
Although they loved the small village nearby, Darwin originally found the house “being situated on rather high table-land, has somewhat of desolate air…. The charm of the place to me is that almost every field is intersected (as alas is our’s) by one or more foot-paths – I never saw so many walks in any other country”.
There were numerous elements he liked and disliked about the building, as such he decided to lease it for a year to try it out. After that period, even though Charles and his wife found many faults, they were tired of looking for somewhere else, so decided to purchase the property. Over the years they made many alterations to the house and grounds, including the angled bay which extended up through all three storeys of the home and provided more space, better views, and lighting.
Outside a large strip of field was modified into a kitchen garden, and later greenhouses were built which gave him a space to conduct experiments. Darwin also rented a strip of land nearby and named it Sandwalk Wood. Here he planted a variety of trees and would walk regularly to exercise and ponder his research.
In 1858 an extension was added to the north end of the house which provided a large drawing room, a family room and 2 extra bedrooms. Then a verandah in 1872 and a billiard room in 1877, which was converted into Darwin’s study in 1881.
Both Charles and his wife died in the house, and it was then rented out to tenants. For a time, it became a girl’s school, but from the late 1920’s there were attempts to preserve it as a monument to Darwin. Down House became a Grade I listed building in May 1954 and the gardens and Sandwalk were added to the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England at Grade II in September 1988. Then in 1996 it was purchased by the English Heritage and restored.
Visiting Down House
This is the fun part, because you can actually visit Down House and walk in the footsteps of the genius Charles Darwin. They are open daily from April until the end of October, then from November until the end of March it is weekends only. During the winter months the house will undergo routine conservation work, so you may have areas closed off or historic items removed during that period. For opening times, we would advise that you check the English Heritage site, but we arrived as they opened at 10am so it was very quiet.
Because of the location of the house there is not a lot of parking, as such we recommend that you get there early. As stated above, we arrived as they opened, and we were the only car there. During our visit there was no additional charge for parking, which we have seen in other English Heritage sites. But if you look at their website it does state that there may be an additional charge, so be prepared. The spaces are quite tight and it’s a gravel surface, which can be unsafe for those of you who need assistance walking. You will see directions sign posted and it is at the front of the house where you will enter.
Due to the fact that parking is so limited, you may wish to use public transport instead. It is recommended that you get the bus 146 from Bromley South railway.
Because we were on a road trip, we booked on the day, but they do recommend that you book in advance, especially in the summer. There is a discounted price online and you can book in advance up to 8.45am on the day you choose to visit. There are walk up tickets, but they are subject to availability, so we’d highly recommend the online route.
By booking a ticket it means you have access to the home and gardens within the hours of opening, for as long as you like. As you can imagine there are peak times such as bank holidays and between the hours of 11am and 2pm, so if you can visit around these times then you’ll enjoy the experience more.
Adult tickets as of August 2022 are £16.30 and children aged 5 to 17 years are £9.80, a family ticket is £25.70. English Heritage members will be able to enter for free when they show their membership card. We ended up purchasing an annual membership because we planned on visiting a few places that day and over the following couple of days. It worked out much cheaper for us and we still have until August 2023 to visit any of the other English Heritage sites. If you’re interested here are the current membership prices.
- Family 1 adult and up to 6 children is £5.50 per month or £66 for a year.
- Family 2 adults and up to 12 children is £9.58 per month or £115 for a year.
- Joint Adult which is 2 adults over 18 years is £9.58 per month or £115 for a year.
- Adult and Senior which is 1 adult (under 65 years) and 1 senior (over 65 years) is £8.58 per month or £103 for a year.
- Joint Senior which is 2 adults over 65 years is £7.67 per month or £92 for a year.
- Individual Adult is 1 adult aged 26 year and above is £5.50 per month or £66 for a year.
- Senior is 1 adult aged 65 and above is £4.92 per month or £59 for a year.
- Young Adult / Student (18 to 25 / with a valid NUS card) is £4.42 a month or £53 for a year.
- Lifetime Membership – Individual Adult (18 years plus) is £1,580 for life.
- Lifetime Membership – Senior (1 adult 65 years plus) is £1,240 for life.
- Lifetime Membership – Joint Adult (2 adults 18 years plus) is £2,140 for life.
The House Itself
So, you parked or travelled in and you’re heading into the front of the house. The first place you will arrive is a wonderful big shop. It is here you will purchase your tickets or validate your online tickets before you enter the house. When you enter the house, you will have access to a number of rooms which have all been resorted to how they would have looked when Darwin lived there. This includes the study, family room, billiards room, dining room and kitchen. Some of the original furniture includes his wheeled armchair and writing board. Towards the back of the house, you will find a small café with a few tables inside and outside. If you’re looking for toilets, then you will find them outside in their own little annex.
Once you have finished downstairs you can take the stairs in the large hallway. Upstairs was originally the children’s school room and the bedrooms, but this section of the house has now been turned into a museum. Each room will go through the various phases of Darwin’s life, including his time on the HMS Beagle, his family life and children, and the theory of evolution. There are lots of items on display which were owned by Darwin and his wife Emma. This includes various scientific instruments and notebooks, specimens from his studies, correspondence between Darwin, his family and friends and items of clothing, to name a few.
We don’t want to detail everything in the house because it’s better if you enjoy it when you go. Knowing too much will take the fun out of your visit.
Because it was so quiet when we arrived, we stood and talked to one of the guides in the house. He was so knowledgeable on everything Darwin, so he helped us navigate the house and pointed out a few special things to look out for.
You finish upstairs and head down a different set of stairs back to the lower floor. If you head back to the shop, you can then make your way out to the garden. To the right of the house is Sandwalk Wood and at the back is the greenhouses and kitchen garden. Wandering around you gain a great insight as to how life was in Darwin’s time. The gardens are so peaceful and relaxing, we could quite imagine spending our days wandering around happily.
After you’ve finished in the garden you can head back into the house to wander around again, go to the café, or the shop.
The Café at Down House
If you’re enjoying a day out with the family, then you will want to find somewhere to eat. So why not eat in the location where Charles Darwin’s meals were made in the mid-19th century? There is seating available in the kitchen, in the butler’s pantry and on the patio if the weather is nice.
The menu at Down house is seasonal because many items are grown in the gardens. You can find homemade soups, sandwiches, toasties, and salads. If you have a sweet tooth then you’re in luck, because there is a great choice of cakes, shortbread, brownies, and flapjacks. If you want an extra special treat then make sure you book a traditional cream tea, or afternoon tea. As you can imagine there are the usual drinks such as tea, coffee, and various fruit juices.
On the English Heritage site, they confirm that there is vegetarian, vegan, dairy free and gluten free options available. There is a designated picnic area which you can use, if you prefer to bring you own food.
Should I Visit Down House the Home of Charles Darwin?
The first thing to consider is why Charles Darwin is important in the first place. His development of scientific and humanist ideas brought about an understanding of the evolutionary process, which showed how humanity changed and became what it is today. This theory was published in On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it caused upset due to the fact it questioned whether there was a need for a creator/God.
Because of Darwin’s impact on science, it is no wonder that the place he called home would have such historical significance. He pretty much changed the way we understood biology in humans and other species. The fact that we have access to the office where he wrote his iconic book and even the furniture he sat on, is thrilling.
Aside from the scientific theory and the story of Darwin, there’s more to Down House. The history of the architecture is well preserved, which makes it a beautiful place to wander around. You can also discover about the family who lived there, Darwin’s wife Emma and the children. There’s a room dedicated to their lives and the toys they loved to play with.
But it’s the gardens which we personally loved, especially seeing what was being grown in the kitchen garden. The Sandwalk Wood was so peaceful, we could imagine Darwin pondering his latest theory as he strolled there.
As to whether you should visit will completely depend on your interest in Darwin, science, and the theory of evolution. It’s a great day out for most visitors, but we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for youngsters as they may get bored.
It’s probably the quickest we have walked through an English Heritage property, because we were only there for a couple of hours maximum. But how long it takes will depend on whether you stop for a bite to eat, stroll around the gardens and maybe wander around the house for a second time.
If you do visit Down House, then please tag us on your pictures on Instagram, we love to see what our readers are up to.