In the leafy county of Kent in southeast England there are two large fairly isolated houses set a few kilometres apart. Neither has any architectural merit yet both are lovingly preserved by the British people.
One of the houses is Down House near the tiny village of Downe. The second is 10km away on the other side of the M25 motorway snug in the Kentish Weald.
The three storeys of blandness that are Down House hold a central place in the history of science.
This is where, from 1842, Charles Darwin the English naturalist lived until his death aged 73. Darwin lived in Down House for 40 years and it was from here that he demonstrated evolution and its operating principle and so revolutionised our perception of humanity’s origins and of the entire living world.
And it was from this house that Darwin, without malice aforethought, finally broke the church’s stranglehold on science.
Science was now free to seek the truth. Yet Darwin was never knighted - probably because of his challenge to the church - but was interred with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
The house to the south is Chartwell. It is bigger than Darwin’s house and not so bland. It is where Sir Winston Churchill lived for more than 40 years - from 1922 until his death in the house in 1965. Churchill was yet another commoner given a “royal” funeral by a grateful nation.
Not long ago I visited Down House on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth in the English Midlands and the 150th anniversary of his bombshell book on the origin of species.
I had visited Chartwell a year before.
One can learn a lot about a man from his house.
Darwin was the nicer person of these two great men.
Darwin had enormous respect and affection for his wife Emma who was of the famous Wedgwood family and who bore him 10 children.
His relationship with his children was equally as affectionate and the house was lively and noisy at times. The children would accompany Darwin on his routine twice-daily walks down a sandy track which had a circular path at the end. One can still walk that trail and see the tortoiseshell butterflies and the bluebells and the chaffinches that Darwin knew so well.
A £1 million museum opened this year on the floor where the bedrooms were. Here one can view Darwin’s original letters and his notebooks and tools. There’s Emma’s wedding ring and the children’s stuff and Darwin’s hat.
In his large dark-panelled study, which is much as he left it, is the chair from which he wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and many other works that galvanised 19th century natural science. The chair was custom made and set on wheels for Darwin was very tall. His children took great delight in scooting around the room in it.
The study table is still cluttered with various objects which were part of his ceaseless and incredibly varied experiments involving anything from worms to pigeons, from insects to plants, from dogs to barnacles.
His garden is the epitome of a country garden and featured a great deal in his research. It is where he dusted bees with flour so his children could follow where they went and report back.
Because Darwin was not funded by commercial, industrial or specialist societies he was free to publish his findings without the spin that nowadays sometimes contaminates science. He was unburdened by all the bureaucracy that goes with working at a university, museum or government research lab.
He was to have been ordained into the Church of England but was drawn into natural science.
Established religion at the time insisted that every species of living thing was separately created by God. It saw the theory of evolution as a contradiction of the Book of Genesis. But Darwin showed there was no room for divine guidance in the perpetual changing designs of plants and animals. Genesis may be a neat metaphor but that was all.
He showed that over millions of years creatures that were able to adapt to changes in their environments survived. The others became extinct.
Darwin never had the courage to state that man evolved from apes though the inference in Origins was clear enough and it drove clergymen wild.
I walked down to the village and in the churchyard found the mossy grave of Darwin’s faithful butler and confidant, Joseph Parslow.
I had a fish and chips lunch at the cosy pub in which he and Emma stayed for months while Down House was being renovated.
Despite the ecclesiastical storm that Darwin unleashed he had many close friends within the church but he was well aware of the church’s fear of the truth.
Darwin’s faith in God was terminally damaged as he watched the slow death of his favourite daughter, the affectionate, effervescent, 10-year-old Annie. It was an event that he wept over for the rest of his life.
Few of his children enjoyed robust health (one died at birth) and, Darwin, having married his fist cousin, Emma (they were both grandchildren of Josiah Wedgwood the famous potter) wondered whether the Darwins, through inbreeding, were not doomed like a genetically impaired organism.
Darwin himself was a chronically sick man and possibly neurotic - a very unlikely scientist hero. He was modest and retiring and avoided confrontations and public speaking.
Thomas Huxley, the 'British Bulldog' who made it his life's work to defend Darwin’s ideas was more typical of an ambitious scientist. He was aggressive, belligerent and enjoyed confrontation and public speaking.
It was Huxley who at a famous 1860 debate on evolution at Oxford rebuffed a derogatory jest by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Huxley inferred he’d rather be descended from an ape than from a hypocritical bishop.
Darwin wrote many letters a day and would have thrived with the internet and email. More than 27 000 of his letters survive at Down House and in other archives.
Emma remained a devout Christian and was greatly distressed by her husband’s work and feared he would go to hell .
Darwin would have known Biggin Hill just over the rise from his house. This is where, 100 years after Darwin moved into Down House, there would be a vital Battle of Britain RAF fighter base whose activities would have been audible from both estates.
During World War 2 Chartwell was considered too tempting a target for the Luftwaffe so the Churchills moved out.
Winston had bought the place in 1922.
I was there in spring when the 40ha gardens were filled with birdsong and the giant trees in full fresh leaf.
The house is altogether more impressive than Down House. So are the grounds from a landscape point of view.
One enters the front door - a threshold crossed by many of the great figures of mid-20th century Britain.
As at Down House one gets an intimate view of the man and his family life. In Winston Churchill’s large beamed study with its wooden floor and recessed bookshelves the desk is cluttered - there’s one of his a cigar cutters and little ornaments and many small pictures of his children - and in the forefront a sketch of his one-time mortal enemy, Jan Christiaan Smuts. They would have gladly killed each other during the Boer War but, 40 years later, Churchill decreed that should he, Churchill, be killed, Smuts should head Britain’s War Cabinet.
At Chartwell one gets quite vivid glimpses into the mind and soul of the man who pulled Britain through its most perilous years. Churchill’s books are still in their places and one can spot his well-thumbed favorites. The one and only novel he wrote is there along with other books he wrote.
The red-brown house is set upon terraces with interesting walled sections - walls built with great skill by Churchill himself. The water features were also engineered by Churchill and they draw their water from the nearby Chart well.
The house looks down into a small valley at the bottom of which is what Churchill called Swan Lake - a lake he excavated and which he and a gardener landscaped. If the house isn’t stately the garden certainly is.
Lady Churchill (“Clemmie”) hated the house at first. The architect who was called in to make alterations shared her view. But it was transformed into something approaching beautiful and when Churchill was ousted from Parliament in 1929 he spent the next ten “Wilderness Years” working in the garden, painting and writing.
Churchill’s untidy studio in the garden below the house is filled with his easels, brushes and many of his paintings.
The house itself has a great deal of artwork including a Monet and some by Lavery the Irish portrait painter and quite a few by Churchill himself and his daughter Sarah.
Oil painting was one of his hobbies but his income for much of his career came entirely from freelance journalism and writing books. One tends to forget how good a writer he was. In 1953 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He was never wealthy. In the 1930s, realising his writing was not enough to maintain the house, hee He decided he had to sell it. An unknown South African mining magnate stepped in and settled his debts enabling him to stay on.
In 1945, by which time he had moved back to Chartwell, the Labour Government swept into power and he again lost his seat in Parliament - the “wilderness years” all over again. At the age of 72 he again announced he had to sell Chartwell. This time half-a-dozen friends bought it and donated it to the National Trust with the stipulation that the Churchills stay there as long as they lived.
Further information: One gets to Chartwell just as one gets to Downe - via Charing Cross station. But for Chartwell, instead of going to Orphington from where one gets a bus to Down House, one gets off at Sevenoaks and catches a taxi.
© James Clarke 2011 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Designed by SKALLIE