Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks | 1st January 2019

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Sue Brooks:

In October I made a long-promised visit to Charles Darwin’s home – Down House in Kent. The seed had taken root years before when I heard Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4 celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth with guests at Down House, and there was such enthusiasm and affection in the voices, especially Melvyn’s, that it stayed with me. There must be something about this man that touches people deeply; something beyond reputation, beyond books and biographies and research papers. I vowed to make the effort to get there and in 2018 it was accomplished.

All the better by public transport I thought, sitting on the early National Express from the Forest, negotiating Victoria Station to buy a ticket to South Bromley and queuing for the bus to Downe Village. I was the only passenger as it rattled away from the suburbs and into narrow treelined roads. Darwin hated London, and so do I in many ways. It stopped outside the church in the tiny village. It was raining and bitterly cold, the edge of the N.E. wind that would eventually bring the first snowfall of the winter. The signpost pointed the way – Down House a quarter of a mile. I felt slightly unbalanced and tearful, walking with my umbrella, looking through every gap in the tall hedges for a glimpse of the House. But the car park came first and a side gate into the garden, before I could stand under the monumental oak tree I had seen in illustrations, and stare at the west face of the House, where wysteria frames the study where Darwin worked. He designed it with large windows to catch the best light for using a microscope.

The Sand Walk. The rain is a blessing: there is no one else walking, no one in the greenhouse or the kitchen garden and best of all, the Sand Walk is empty. This was Darwin’s daily constitutional. He would take a turn before breakfast and often several before lunch, marking the circuits by kicking a stone into a small pile. I want to walk as he did, as best I can, seeing what is there, paying attention. I want to absorb some of his qualities during this brief visit. I do two circuits of the Sand Walk, anti-clockwise to seal it in the memory, walking slowly past the hollies, sweet chestnuts, yews, beeches and oaks planted by Emma and Charles which are now about one hundred and seventy six years old.

The Greenhouse.  This is the hothouse where Darwin grew orchids, climbing plants and carnivorous plants for research into Natural Selection. They were his passion for several years and the subject of many books. Why do some orchids have extravagantly long spurs? Most, but not all climbers twine to the right. What is the purpose? The wooden benches are crowded with sundews, virginia creeper and a huge variety of orchids.

The Study.  Darwin worked in this room for the 40 years he lived at Down House, sitting in the horsehair chair with the castors added to elevate it a little and make it easier to move from table to window. He wrote The Origin Of Species here, and many other books about geology, coral reefs, volcanic islands, the movement and fertilisation of plants – and kept up an astonishing correspondence, an average of ten letters per day. Down House was his refuge, his family home, his laboratory and his place of safety where he could do the work he loved, away from London and the wider world. Eight years devoted to barnacles, and another eight years at the end of his life in praise of the earthworm. I stand behind the rope barrier trying to take it all in.

Upstairs the bedrooms and schoolroom for the eight children of Charles and Emma have been converted into an exhibition of the Beagle voyage and the journals and publications that followed. It includes a video of visitors to the House answering the question “What does Darwin mean to you?” Well known scientists, explorers, historians, writers, members of the Darwin family, gardeners, staff members – and most gratifyingly for me, Melvyn Bragg. Each one had something unique and personal to say about this man who fell in love with very small things – a barnacle, an earthworm, a primrose – and from patient observation over many years changed our understanding of the world.

There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

Yes, this last sublime sentence in The Origin Of Species is something to take into the coming year – to see the world as Darwin saw it only two human lifetimes ago, with all its grandeur, beauty and wonder, and to ask if there is any good news – anywhere?

There is: George Monbiot is alive and well. Isabella Tree’s Wilding is a bestseller, and a most remarkable event took place in the Forest of Dean to gladden the heart of any reader. On December 11th the Forest of Dean Council became the first rural district in the whole country to declare a Climate Emergency with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. It was passed by a unanimous vote of all 37 members. Extinction Rebellion came to Coleford, passionate speeches were made and against the odds this conservative majority Council (with a conservative M.P.) was moved to agree.

Happy New Year.