Downe

Downe, Bromley

A country village of ‘extreme quietness and rusticity’, located three miles south-west of Orpington

geograph-2488357-by-Marathon - Down House seen across The Great House Meadow

The vil­lage’s name was first record­ed in 1283 and derives from the Old Eng­lish dun, a hill. It was often spelt ‘Down’ and it has been claimed that the Post Office encour­aged the addi­tion of a super­flu­ous ‘e’ to avoid con­fu­sion with Coun­ty Down in Ulster.

This is a very scat­tered vil­lage, with weath­er­board­ed cot­tages and brick and flint hous­es dot­ted around in all direc­tions but espe­cial­ly to the south. A chapel was built in 1291 and may have stood on the site of St Mary’s church. The fab­ric of the present church dates pri­mar­i­ly from the 16th cen­tu­ry.

Downe Court was built in 1690 on the site of an ear­li­er manor house, which was prob­a­bly sur­round­ed by a moat. Eng­lish Her­itage has placed Downe Court on its reg­is­ter of build­ings at risk because it is “start­ing to show the effects of long term neglect.” On Luxted Road, a hand­some house called Pet­leys was built in the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry and lat­er became a home of the Wedg­wood pot­tery fam­i­ly.

In 1842 Josi­ah Wedgwood’s daugh­ter Emma came to live at Down House, a for­mer par­son­age at the south­ern end of the vil­lage, with her hus­band Charles Dar­win. In his (posthu­mous­ly pub­lished) auto­bi­og­ra­phy Dar­win recalled his sat­is­fac­tion with his new home:

“After sev­er­al fruit­less search­es in Sur­rey and else­where, we found this house and pur­chased it. I was pleased with the diver­si­fied appear­ance of veg­e­ta­tion prop­er to a chalk dis­trict, and so unlike what I had been accus­tomed to in the Mid­land coun­ties; and still more pleased with the extreme quiet­ness and rus­tic­i­ty of the place. It is not, how­ev­er, quite so retired a place as a writer in a Ger­man peri­od­i­cal makes it, who says that my house can be approached only by a mule-track!”

The great sci­en­tist took a dai­ly stroll around a cir­cuit of the grounds known as the ‘Sand­walk’, set up a lab­o­ra­to­ry in a brick hut and cul­ti­vat­ed orchids in the green­house. Dar­win lived at Down House until his death in 1882 and he wrote all his most impor­tant works here, includ­ing The Ori­gin of Species.

Charles Darwin’s study
Charles Darwin’s study

Downe remained a farm­ing vil­lage into the 20th cen­tu­ry, pro­duc­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles for the Lon­don mar­kets. With its iso­lat­ed loca­tion, the vil­lage attract­ed walk­ers and cyclists to its tea­rooms and pubs. Down House became a Dar­win muse­um in 1929 and was acquired by Eng­lish Her­itage in 1996.

Darwin’s study, where he did most of his writ­ing and micro­scope work, has been recre­at­ed from pho­tographs. Crammed with books, files and spec­i­mens, its ameni­ties includ­ed a spit­toon and a dis­creet­ly cur­tained privy. Mod­ern edu­ca­tion­al dis­plays fill the rooms of the first floor.

To the south-east of the house is Downe Bank – or Orchis Bank, as Dar­win knew it. Now a Kent Wildlife Trust prop­er­ty, the wood is rich in orchids and pro­vides one of Britain’s best dis­plays of blue­bells in spring.

In 2009 the gov­ern­ment nom­i­nat­ed Down House and the sur­round­ing area in which Dar­win walked and thought as a world her­itage site that it called ‘Darwin’s Lab­o­ra­to­ry’. As the Depart­ment for Cul­ture, Media and Sport (DCMS) point­ed out: “Few prop­er­ties and their envi­rons can claim to have been as cen­tral to the life and work of one per­son as Down House.” Unesco’s world her­itage com­mit­tee reject­ed the bid but it appears that the DCMS intends to keep try­ing in future years.

Down House is locat­ed near the bot­tom of the map below. Please zoom (and drag) the map to see a detailed plan of the grounds, includ­ing the route of the Sand­walk.

Postcode area: Orpington, BR6
Further reading: Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Jonathan Cape, 2002
Websites: Down House, Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory

 

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* The picture of Down House seen across The Great House Meadow at the top of this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Marathon, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.