Up to Down House

Down House in Kent, where Charles Darwin and his family lived for forty years, is now in the custodianship of English Heritage. On the right of the house is the old mulberry tree that stood outside the nursery in Darwins day and is still standing now

Darwin and his wife Emma moved to Down House in 1842 when Emma was pregnant with their third child. Charles had not married until he was thirty because much of his twenties had been spent exploring the World on HMS Beagle.

As well as the mulberry, many other old trees on the estate have been around since Darwin’s time
Using 19th century photographs, the layout of the garden has been returned to how it was then

The Darwins went on to have ten children, seven of which lived to adulthood and the family had been there for forty years by the time of Charles’ death in 1882. He had come up with his theory of natural selection when he lived in London before moving to Down House and, once in Kent, he set about testing this theory by observing and performing experiments on many different things. He spent eight years studying barnacles as well as earthworms, carnivorous plants, orchids, fancy pigeons and much else. He was very apprehensive about how his ideas would be received by a Christian society who, up until then, had thought that everything had been created at the same time by God. So he delayed twenty years before finally publishing ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859.

I love the anecdote that when one of Darwin’s sons went to play with a friend and was shown round this friend’s house, he asked “but where does your father do his barnacles?”

Charles Darwin’s study

It had been nearly twenty years since we last visited Down House but we had remembered Charles’ Thinking Path – in fact we had it in mind as we established our own well-worn circuit around the meadows. He used to make five circuits of his thinking path every day for exercise and headspace and, so that he didn’t lose count, marked each completed round by kicking a stone across from one pile to another.

Charles Darwin’s Thinking Path

As we walked in Charles’ esteemed footsteps around the path, we were delighted to spot several largish patches of toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, a parasitic plant that lacks chlorophyll of its own but which obtains its nutrients from the roots of other plants – mostly hazel and elm.

Named because it is supposed to resemble molar teeth, we have long wanted to see this rare treasure of a plant.

In Darwin’s 1862 book on orchids, he said that the green winged orchid was abundant around Down House and was a conspicuous feature of the vegetation. Unfortunately this orchid is now totally extinct in the area but an admirable reintroduction programme has been underway here since 2019.

Green-winged orchids growing protected by chicken wire as part of the reintroduction programme

We were captivated by the collection of special plants in Charles’ greenhouse:

A collection of carnivorous plants
A carnivorous Drosera species, related to our native sundews, with all that stickiness on its stems to catch flies
Tiers of different orchids

We had a lovely day at Down House. It was the start of the coronation weekend and the English Heritage cafe had the official coronation quiche on the menu. With its delicate flavours of tarragon, spinach and broad beans (the chef’s tip was to be sure to remove the skin from the beans before adding to the quiche) we liked it very much – I plan to try to produce it myself soon.

Coronation quiches at the cafe

Returning to the meadows, there are noticeably more rabbits around this year. We are pleased because the resulting small patches of short-cropped grass and collections of bunny balls create additional habitats for other things such invertebrates requiring higher temperatures at ground level and dung beetles.

The number of rabbit droppings on this trunk tells the story that rabbits like look-out points to watch for predators.

And talking of predators:

The One-eyed Vixen and her mate continue to both have mange and it doesn’t seem to be getting any worse but also isn’t getting better. I have sought advice from the charity The Fox Project and they advise to just wait and see for now.

I love this pair of photographs. The One-eyed Vixen’s mate approaches another fox in the gathering dusk:

And then this happens:

The pair of mallards are still visiting the pond every day but only briefly and just before it gets dark. Presumably the eggs have not yet hatched but it can’t be long now:

Herring Gulls are also nesting somewhere close by although thankfully not on the house:

And the starlings have at last arrived to start to nest. There are eight birds here and four pairs is about normal I think:

We have seen the first baby bird of the year for the meadows, and this year it’s a magpie:

The butterflies are so late this year. We would normally expect to see green hairstreaks from around 20th April but we have just seen the first one of the year on 4th May:

A blue helops beetle, Helops caeruleus, with its lovely blue-black sheen. It is a large, flightless and nocturnal species found near the coast usually in rotting wood, although we found this one deep within a roll of pond liner:

I wonder if it’s going to be a good year for St Marks flies, Bibio marci? Sometimes there are clouds of these billowing around the hedgerows, flying with characteristically dangling legs, but they were very low key indeed last year:

These mating snails are brown-lipped snails, Cepaea nemoralis. A common species, they come in a variety of colour forms but usually have that dark brown band around the shell opening. Although these snails are hermaphrodite, having both male and female organs, they need to mate in order to get sperm for each snail to fertilise its own eggs. Interesting!

Over in the wood, I found this exciting little thing in the marjoram clearing:

This is a glow-worm larva.

Glow-worms are beetles rather than worms and this larva is a predator, feeding on slugs and snails. The adults are only around for a short while in late June and early July and, while the male looks much like a standard beetle, the female is not dissimilar to this larva. At night in warm, still weather when there is little moon she will climb up a plant stem and the end of her abdomen will emit a greeny-orange light to attract a mate. This is something I have always wanted to see but never have – but I will definitely be trying to put that right this summer.

All remains quite quiet at the owl box – surely the bird is still on eggs? Arrangements are now all in place for the bird ringers to look in the box on Friday.

The bullfinch are back in the wood for their summer breeding and it’s lovely to see them again. When they are here they are frequently on the cameras because they love to bathe:

I have not seen any badger cubs this year yet, either in the meadows or the wood. It is always a surprise to see a badger out by day and so far from a sett:

I finish today with plant that grows near my brother’s house in North Somerset. It’s the purple gromwell – a native plant that is now very rare, occurring in a few places in the South-West and Wales. He stumbled upon it by accident a couple of years ago but now visits every year.

I had hoped to accompany him this year but it is looking like it is going to have to be next year now.

5 thoughts on “Up to Down House

  1. What a great trip to Down House. I keep meaning to go since it seemed like it ought to be a compulsory pilgrimage for biologists!

    1. It was definitely strange. So pleased I’ve got a plant recognition app on my phone now so that I find out what these things are while I’m still at the plant.

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