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Down home with Darwin, at 200

Bicentennial events include opening the quiet English retreat where

February 12, 2009|Henry Chu

Perhaps that made him value his quiet country life all the more and the temple of domesticity he built with his wife, Emma, in the village of Downe. (The village added an "E" to its name before the Darwins arrived, but the couple never bothered to change the spelling of Down House.)

The home has undergone a three-month, $1.3-million makeover for the bicentennial and is to reopen to local residents on Darwin's birthday, today, and the general public Friday.

The organization that runs the house, English Heritage, hopes visitors get a sense of Darwin the man as much as Darwin the scientist.

The study where he painstakingly cataloged and pored over innumerable plant and animal specimens from his garden still boasts his wheeled black chair, which he used to glide from one part of the room to another, his books on the shelves and the stool he inherited from his father. A few steps away is the billiard room where Darwin shot pool with his butler, Parslow, during breaks from work.

Outside, visitors can retrace Darwin's steps around the Sandwalk, the route he strolled three times a day without fail. In the garden, 60% of the plantings are of varieties of flowers and plants that were there during Darwin's time, said Cathy Power, a senior curator with English Heritage.

"This is his home. This is where he worked. This is where he wrote 'Origin of Species,' " Power said. "It places him in context. . . . He had his massive voyage, but after that he didn't go anywhere else."

By all accounts, Darwin was an indulgent, loving father to 10 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. At the Museum of Natural History, one of the few precious surviving manuscript pages of "On the Origin of Species" has a colorful drawing on the back by one of Darwin's boys, Francis.

The death of his eldest daughter, Annie, at age 10 devastated Darwin and apparently confirmed his rupture with religion. He never attended services again, but would leave his family at the door of the church on Sundays.

Then he would walk back home, his haven for four decades.

"My life goes on like clockwork," Darwin wrote, "and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it."

True to his word, Darwin died at Down House on April 19, 1882.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Darwin celebration

* "Darwin: Big Idea, Big Exhibition" is at the Museum of Natural History in London through April 19.

* Down House, in Kent, reopens to the public Friday.

* For more on events marking Charles Darwin's bicentennial in Britain, go to www.darwin200.org "> www.darwin200.org .

Source: Times reporting

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