Part Four

Posted By on August 9, 2007

“A Walk Around Downe”

.: Earlier in the day we stopped by a bookstore and purchased half a dozen books between the two of us (at surprisingly reasonable prices, even factoring in the exchange rate). Oscar also bought two souvenir guidebooks and a book about Christ at the British Museum. We never returned to the hotel and subsequently had to carry our ever-growing burden wherever we went.

.: Eventually we consolidated everything into the museum bag. This meant, given any moment, one of us was happy while the other had a sore shoulder. We quickly developed schemes to shift the sack from one to the other. A common tactic involved buying a drink and asking the other person to hold the bag while unscrewing the cap. This was my favored method. Not only would I no longer have the bag, but I’d also get a refreshing drink out of the deal.

.: Another equally effective approach took advantage of the numerous photo opportunities. You couldn’t very well take a steady picture with a heavy bag weighing down one of your hands; simply pass the bag to the other guy and take the shot from every attainable angle, making sure to be as meticulous and time-consuming as possible with each framing. Twenty shots later and he’ll likely have forgotten that he agreed to hang on to the bag for “just a second.” And so we swapped the entire trip to Downe.

.: So what would bring two young science majors a young science major and a slightly younger psychology major to a small, obscure English village? There’s not much there. It has two pubs on the same block, cozy flats, and equally cozy black cars. But there is something there of international interest: Down House, the home of England’s most famous and influential invalid: Charles Darwin.

.: We hopped off at the town’s only bus stop and quickly found our bearings. We located a historical marker pointing towards the house, followed its helpful advice, and soon found ourselves at another sign pointing towards the house, only it didn’t. Rather, it pointed towards a driveway, which led to a cottage called Lilac. Lilac is in no way similar to Down; the names share no sounds, syllables, or letters.

“It’s definitely pointing to the driveway,” I told Oscar. (See here for photographic evidence.)

“Maybe it means the left up ahead?”

“But the road curves, it doesn’t actually make a left turn. It should just point up if that’s the case.”

Finding Darwin’s house proved nearly impossible, but finding this church was a cinch. A sign?

.: Oscar eventually persuaded me and we walked up the curved road. The sidewalk quickly terminated, and we turned around. We asked a passing local how to get to the house, and he pointed back towards the confusing sign and said, “Just go back there, take a left.” Understand, we were walking back to the sign at this point, so the man was telling us to go the opposite direction indicated by the sign. We reappeared before the sign and immediately dismissed his counterintuitive and nonsensical directions.

“It is definitely pointing that way,” I said, arm gesticulating towards the driveway.

“Maybe it means this way?”

What kind of death are we talking here? Spiritual or physical?

.: To the left of the gravel driveway appeared to be a second grass driveway. It looked like private property, but it was in fact a public walkway. (I should note that while walking this path we encountered our first noisome bugs in England.) We trekked a few meters until we reached the barbed wire fence and “Danger Of Death” sign. We returned to the puzzling sign once more and reconsidered the local’s directions.

“There’s a trail over there,” I beckoned to the right. And so, British museum bag in hand, we embarked on a short-lived journey through the passageway on the right. Doubts emerged. It seemed implausible that the footpath to Down house would be dark, narrow, lined with poisonous plants, and blocked by this fence:

.: But this is England, I reminded myself, and things are done differently here. Maybe the gate was a precautionary measure designed to keep out the occasional unwanted fundamentalist protester, who would invariably be an elderly person and thus unable to surmount it? Though I had seriously entertained that idea for nearly two seconds, my more rational side eventually convinced me that we were not where we were supposed to be.

.: We marched back to the sign, and at least one of us took the time to quietly beseech the gods to smite or otherwise seriously harm the unhelpful (and unpleasant looking, I’ve now decided) local who gave us the bad directions.

“Maybe it’s not a driveway.”

“I don’t think that’s the way,” Oscar correctly responded.

.: I was partially correct: it was also a parking lot. Back to the sign. Oscar wanted to try the public pathway again. When you’ve exhausted every option, your only choice is to repeat them.

.: We ventured pass the barbed wire and danger sign and carefully maneuvered around exposed roots and various animal droppings. I believe I was carrying the museum bag at this point, because I somehow managed to scratch my lip with it (more on that in a later post).

This is not how you get to Down House.

.: We glimpsed decrepit tool sheds filled with antiquarian farm equipment clearly still in use, which was not out of place at all because we were walking through a farm. Mind you, Down House is not an obscure curiosity; it’s a fully fledge museum with a sizable staff and a listing on most tourist maps of England.

.: Several friendly notices on wooden posts helpfully reminded us that we were still on public grounds, so there were no fears of farmers rushing off their porches toting shotguns and yelling, “Git yer ass off my land before I blast you!” or whatever the rural English equivalent is.

.: Eventually we emerged from the woods onto a road with no sidewalks. Another local passed us just in time to hear me demur, “I definitely don’t think this is where we’re supposed to be.”

“Where are you trying to go?” she offered.

“Down House.”

“Oh, it’s right here.”

.: She didn’t have vomit on her shirt or look like she was stumbling her way to or from a pub, so we decided she was trustworthy. We stepped across the road and ran into one more set of conflicting directions before finally entering Down House.

.: The museum required an entrance fee (understandable) and didn’t allow photography inside (grr), so I can’t quite remember much about the interior. I don’t get it. Pictures from Darwin’s house can’t possibly sell for much, and the natural lighting was acceptable for flash-less photography, so why the prohibition? When will museums the world over stop being dicks?

.: I learned a few interesting factoids from the audio guides. For instance, I didn’t know Darwin was a justice of the peace (these kind of things don’t make it into biology textbooks), and I found it interesting that Darwin could be so practical when it came to books: when studying a hefty science tome, he would often split the spine in half for easier reading.

.: Upstairs the house took on a more typical museum feel, with furniture replaced by informational murals. One of the more interesting rooms featured various criticisms from Darwin’s contemporaries. Oscar was astonished by how little the objections to evolution have changed over the years.

The experimental Darwin.

“And what good is half a wing?” was more novelly put — and just as easily refuted — back in the 19th century. Of course, that doesn’t stop smug creationists from asking it today, even after having the answer explained to them.

.: We exited the elevator — oh! but was Darwin ahead of his time — and went out back to the garden. Most people think of Darwin as a great theorist, a man of penetrating insight and ideas, but he was also an accomplished and meticulous experimentalist. His garden reflects this fact more than anything. (For more on the experimental Darwin, I strongly suggest Afarensis’s appropriately named series, The Experimental Darwin.)

.: The more childish element in me giggled when we walked past a plant specimen labeled “Urine Treatment.” Not because “Urine Treatment” is an inherently funny phrase (though it is), but because the thought crossed my mind that someone on the museum’s roster is responsible for replicating a century-old experiment by regularly urinating on potted plants.

.: At some point Oscar received a call from his mother, and I overheard this fragment: “Estoy en Down visitando la casa de Darwin . . . Charles Darwin . . . evolution guy . . . all right!” While on the phone with his madre he leaned up against a large tree, the roots of which blended seamlessly into the ground. He finished his conversation and looked up at the tree, then down at his shirt, alternating several times in excitement:

.: Could this be the same tree that inspired Darwin’s famous tree of life? Probably not, but it is a charming thought nonetheless.

Dawkins on the Sandwalk.

.: Another feature of the garden is the Sandwalk, a 2-mile dirt path Darwin used for his daily constitutional. The Sandwalk closed thirty minutes before our arrival, but we defied the posted warnings and walked it anyway. We remain to this day unpunished.

.: We rounded the Sandwalk and headed back to London, finally passing through the proper entrance for the first time. Turns out a sharp curve in a road is enough to warrant a sign and new street name. Oscar’s initial intuition to follow the main road (with the terminating sidewalk) was correct.

Just what makes the British think there is anything appealing about an item named “Syrup Sponge”?

.: The bus wasn’t going to arrive for another half hour, and we were hungry. We tried our luck at the Queen’s Head pub earlier when we were hopelessly lost. I wanted to order an apple pie at the time, but in England the chefs go home during non-peak hours, the lazy bastards. At the other pub we encountered two roisterous englishmen. Reconstructing their dialogue requires a fair amount of speculation, owing to a nearly indecipherable combination of rural English and insobriety. The following is my best effort from memory:

“He’s out back,” said the sitting man of the chef, “he’ll be back in a moment.”

“Nah he won’t.”

“Don’t listen to him, he’s drunk.”

“Nah I’m naught.”

“He’s a drunk.”

“I’m naught a drunk.”

“Don’t listen to him.”

.: I cannot tell you anymore, because we slowly backed out of the pub before the conclusion. We ordered two drinks at the Queen’s Head. England still hasn’t completely learned the many benefits of ice. Not only does it keep drinks cold, but it also gives the customer something to snack on when the drink is gone. And, from the business angle, ice takes up considerable volume. It’s simple logic: more ice = less drink. Less drink = less cost. It’s win-win.

.: Returning to London, we found an inviting pub and ordered Fish ‘n’ Chips. I was disappointed to learn they no longer serve Fish ‘n’ Chips in newspaper baskets. (Technically I didn’t learn it that night; Oscar told me before we landed. “It’s unsanitary, Cody.”) Here’s what arrived at our table:

.: And here’s how I compensated for the deficiency:

.: Much better!

Next: seeing Darwin’s statue in a cafe, seeing his grave in a famous abbey, and seeing a tourist attraction that felt like Disneyland without any rides.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six

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15 Responses to “Part Four”

  1. Pharyngula says:

    Another visit to Downe…

    Somebody else has visited Darwin’s house and taken a stroll on the sandwalk. I can testify that it is surprisingly difficult to get to the place, unless you have a trusty native guide — but once you get to the……

  2. Shicklgruber says:

    Visting down house gave me the same feeling when I visited Hitlers Eagles Nest in Bertstesgarten.

  3. Mom says:

    Perhaps the 2 entrance signs point to a portal between them?

  4. You are correct about we (the British) being faintly embarrassed about Darwin and try to avoid secular, scientific pilgrims finding where he lived. After all, Darwin did his great things in an Age of Empire from which (it has been decreed) no good could possibly emerge.

    Unless you revise your views on syrup sponge, we will not be friends. You obviously had a bad one: properly done with custard, it kicks ambrosia’s ass.

    And those fish and chips look like grounds for prosecution. For good fish and chips you needed to be about 200 miles further north.

  5. Kevin Pluck says:

    Yes, we british do tend to do things differently, very differently. The roads in england can be, sometimes, a thousand years old! Way before modern conveniences such as footpaths. Where the footpath terminated for you on the road to Down House is probably where the road got too narrow to include a footpath, so to carry on one would need to walk on the road, this tends to also mean that any traffic would have to go quite slow, slow enough for you to safely share the road.

    Did you wonder at the curious nature of the fence you came across apparently blocking your way? It must have been very strange to have a path that goes for a bit and just stops at a fence, why have the path there? The fence you came across is actually a “stile” cleverly designed to climb over without too much difficulty ( You simply step onto the plank of wood, gripping the post and step over the fence onto the same plank of wood on the other side. Stiles are design for humans to clamber over and animals to stay where the are.

    I hope I have provided you enough information now so that you can navigate around the many by-ways of england like a “trusty native guide”.

  6. […] else has visited Darwin’s house and taken a stroll on the sandwalk. I can testify that it is surprisingly difficult to get to the place, unless you have a trusty […]

  7. Larry Moran says:

    Dawkins on the Sandwalk

    Somebody else has walked the walk [90% True]. They took a picture of Dawkins’ book but if they have pictures of themselves on the Sandwalk I’d be happy to post them.

  8. Andrew says:

    I visited Down House a couple of years ago and didn’t have any problems finding it, but then being a Brit perhaps I knew how to use our signs. It’s worth saying that the house has been brilliantly restored by English Heritage (a government organisation) and visiting it is a wonderful experience. You get the feeling that Darwin and the family have just popped out and left the house for you to wander around. (One reason – perhaps – that photography is banned: it wouldn’t feel the same if it was filled with flashing cameras.)

    I don’t agree with my compatriot who suggests that we’re slightly embarrassed by Darwin – in fact I’m proud to say that he features on our bank notes (bills.

    I came across another blog entry recently where the writer (another American), who was on holiday with his family in Europe, spent the whole of a long post complaining about poor signage in Italy and generally whining about the fact that Europe wasn’t as well organised as the USA.

    We Brits also have a reputation for complaining a lot when we’re abroad, although I try to avoid doing so myself. There are two reasons for that: firstly, in my view, people complaining about the state of countries their visiting often come over as loud mouthed pricks. Secondly, why bother traveling abroad if you want it to be exactly like home?

  9. Geoff says:

    I have a feeling that Oscar’s face makes every picture better.

  10. […] else has visited Darwin’s house and taken a stroll on the sandwalk. I can testify that it is surprisingly difficult to get to the place, unless you have a trusty […]

  11. Jonny says:

    Do remember that the world does not revolve around America.
    I simply cannot believe you never figured out how to use the stile, that itself is cause for concern over how stupid you are.
    And before attacking British signage, please note that when I was in Florida, we travelled 100 Miles too far because the signs on the motorways are too close to the turn off’s.
    Also, Pubs only put ice in your drink if you ask for it, thats because anyone with half a brain running a company in a civilised country would do that. Thats like selling a toothbrush with toothpaste on it.

  12. Cody says:

    Do remember that the world does not revolve around America.

    What?! Since when? I simply must have a word with my congressman…

  13. Jonny says:

    lol, well, nice blog, I was up last night reading it, very interesting, gonna finish off reading your british journey of mistakes now.
    You should revisit England, but totally avoid London. The government have allowed every paki and blackman into the countries cities, and so they have taken over.

  14. Cody says:

    Right, well, enjoy the rest of the blog. I must say I’m rather dismayed that my writings have been found entertaining by someone as clearly racist as you, but I suppose I’m not in the position to tell other people what to like and not like. On the other hand, I’m pleased to learn more about the character of someone who just recently expressed concern over how stupid I am.

  15. Cinderella says:

    That’s a creative answer to a diiffcult question

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