Charles Darwin’s daily round

Down House

Down House, Charles Darwin’s home for forty years, lies in the village of Downe, south of Orpington in what is technically the London Borough of Bromley, but is a part of Kent really. Darwin purchased the house in 1842 and remained there until his death in 1882.

It is a functional rather than a beautiful building, feeling as much like the school that it became for a while after Darwin’s death as a family home. That said, it has been marvellously preserved by its present owner, English Heritage. There is the study, the living room, the billiard room, the bedroom, and other rooms given over to imaginative displays covering Darwin’s science. What were the kitchen gardens in Darwin’s day are a marvel of abundant flowers and vegetables with a long greenhouse, dedicated to same forms of study as Darwin followed there.

It is not just the family rooms and the fine gardens, but the sense of a place of happy calm. That is what the Darwins sought – a refuge from London’s noise and smoke, a place in which to bring up their children in the kindest environment, and an ideal location in which Darwin himself might think.

Darwin’s study

The extraordinary thing about Charles Darwin’s life was the absence of adventure. Of course there was the five-year voyage around the globe on HMS Beagle, begun when Darwin was twenty-two, through which he uncovered the evidence that led to the theory of natural selection. But thereafter, he went nowhere. After a few years in London he and his wife Emma, with their growing family (they had ten children in total, two dying young), moved to the countryside setting of Down House, and there he stayed. He wrote and communicated prodigiously, discovering continually, but had no need of further field trips. The primary reason for this was his health. The Wikipedia entry on Darwin’s health lists a daunting range of symptoms that Darwin’s undiagnosed ailment, or ailments, produced:

malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting, tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.

Coupled with this was a desire for quiet, domesticity and above all routine. Day after day after day Darwin did the same thing:

  • Health permitting, rise early
  • A light breakfast, eaten alone
  • Walk
  • After eight, start work in study
  • Work for ninety minutes
  • Rest for an hour on a sofa while wife Emma reads to him, usually from a novel (their taste tended towards the sentimental) or correspondence
  • Work for another ninety minutes
  • Midday, main walk around the Sandwalk
  • One o’clock, family lunch, followed by rest on sofa, reading The Times
  • Write letters, then a smoke with Emma reading to him once more
  • Rest, followed by walk
  • Work for an hour
  • Hour of relaxation
  • Rest
  • Family supper
  • Emma plays piano to him
  • A game of backgammon
  • Ten thirty, bed

The unwavering nature of this routine is often commented upon, an old man’s day begun long before Darwin was ever old, designed to keep his ill health at bay and his mind sane. However, it is also a highly commendable routine. Bouts of work are interspersed with lengthy rests, solitary moments are mixed with family time. There is certainty and practicality in the predictability. It was a fine regime for keeping the human machine going. One feels for Emma Darwin, whose time was pinned to his and who might have welcomed some variety, but equally the routine may have helped preserve her sanity too.

The Sandwalk

Key to Darwin’s daily round was the Sandwalk. This was a quarter-of-a-mile gravel walk that Darwin had laid at the back of his gardens, on a strip of land rented from a neighbour. Here he would take a walk three times a day, whatever the weather. The walk was a line followed by a loop through woodland, and it was round the loop that Darwin would walk a number of times, using pebbles to keep a record of how many circuits he made (his playful children would remove pebbles from the pile so he would forget how many revolutions he had made). This was all the journeying that he undertook, for forty years. In the words of his biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore, in Darwin, it was Darwin’s “thinking path leading his mind to untold destinations”.

The Sandwalk remains, much as Darwin knew it. One can walk round it and think as its creator did, if not quite so profoundly. There is something about the circular walk that is particularly satisfying to the mind. We set off around the perimeter of the object, taking it in from every angle, til returning to the point from where we started, having conquered the territory. It’s the feeling I get when circumnavigating one of the Cumbrian lakes. There’s the simple satisfaction of having completed a circle, but also something atavistic about it. That we can weave a circle about a place makes it ours, conquering the fears it engenders. It’s a sublimated survival strategy.

Charles and Emma Darwin’s bedroom

Darwin walked the Sandwalk circle to put his mind order and to conquer the infirmities of life. The encirclement was an unconscious part of the strategy; the routine was the conscious part. Darwin made a circle of his daily life, the same steps through the hours until he returned to his bed and could begin again, knowing what the next day would bring. Routine is what we as children crave, which we fight to overturn when reaching adulthood because its routines are not of our making, and to which we then necessarily return. It makes the days bearable, and the world understandable.

Down House is a fine place to visit. It is constructed – from house to exhibition to gardens to gift shop – to make any visitor think about the processes of the world that Darwin so brilliantly observed and explained. It is also, in all that it tells us of the happy domesticity of the Darwins’ family life, a paean to the routine. In doing the same things at their appointed time, in taking pleasure in this, we keep the enemies at bay. It can condemn us to pettiness, but – properly managed – it makes us free.



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2 thoughts on “Charles Darwin’s daily round

    1. It makes his achievements all the more astonishing. He made the illnesses focus his mind.

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