Saturday, 5 March 2011
Five times round the Sand-walk
Four of us only managed the one circuit when we visit the Darwins' Down House in the Weald of Kent over a week ago, just before the gardener came to tell us that closing-time approached, but the great man habitually walked around his 'thinking path' five times a day at noon, striking the iron tip of his walking-stick rhythmically on the ground.
The Sand-walk was very much Darwin's intellectual property, as granddaughter Gwen Raverat wrote in her childhood memoir Period Piece:
It was a path running round a little wood which he had planted himself; and it always seemed to be a very long way from the house. You went right to the furthest end of the kitchen garden
and then through a wooden door in the high hedge, which quite cut you off from human society. Here a fenced path ran along between two great lonely meadows, till you came to the wood. The path ran straight down the outside of the wood - the Light Side - till it came to a summer house at the far end [it's been replaced by a sheltered seat]; it was very lonely there; to this day you cannot see a single building anywhere, only woods and valleys [still true].
The path then turns to the left and loops along what Raverat as a child called 'the Dark Side, a mossy path, all along the trees, and that was truly terrifying'. She cites a hollow ash and an elephantine beech tree as the biggest horrors of the place.
Clearly more of a comfort in the 1890s was the mulberry tree which grew up against thw windows of the nursery: 'the shadows of the leaves used to shift about on the white floor, and you could hear the plop of ripe mulberries as they fell to the ground'. Too early for that in late February, but the gnarly skeleton of the propped-up tree is impressive in itself.
One more arboreal specimen impressed us before we headed back for the suburbia of Orpington - the one at the very centre of Downe village. I was too preoccupied with sorting out a timetable crisis - the youngest member of our party didn't have the energy to walk back another three and a half miles the way we come - to check out what it was, but clearly it's a beauty, even if the shoots have that peculiarly living quality Darwin notes in his insectivorous plants.
The bus situation may have been in a state of confusion, but the last kindness of the day was the driver ushering me on when my Oyster card - yes, we were still on the London fringes - had run out of juice. It was curious to see, and be seen by, the suburban world in the disguise of a respectable putative father, to find out how much nicer most people are to you - in this country, at any rate - if they think you're a family man with wife and kids in tow than if you happen to be two men, obviously a couple, together. Sad but true, though I don't think it pertains in the metropolis proper.