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Darwin's Travel on Home Shores:  Bonus Mini-Chapter

Demand for countryside access is said to arise from ’personal preference, shaped by means, mobility and fashion and facilitated or constrained by the real and perceived availability of opportunities’.1 Certainly I felt whilst growing up in London that ‘City life’ brought entrapment and was influential in preventing me from experiencing the countryside.  Instead, places like the local parks, River Thames, Kew Gardens and Richmond Park were my escape.  There was no car in the family until I was fourteen and even when there was, lack of time, lack of money and lack of knowledge of where to visit meant that day trips to the countryside were scarce. Destinations were often based on ‘safe’ National Trust locations. Until I turned 18, my interest, understanding and impressions of the countryside grew from school trips, precious ‘odd days out’ courtesy of my brother and his car, a couple of short breaks in Rye, Sussex, and one family holiday we had had in the Lake District.   It is perhaps why I later became a ‘sponge’, endeavouring to experience the countryside whenever means allowed.  Perhaps the hedgehogs and hoglets that visited our urban garden, the ‘contact’ with ducks and grey squirrels in the park and the memory of being lifted up above the height of a hedge to see two hares boxing inspired me as a very young girl and implanted in me a fascination for wildlife.


Darwin was keen on countryside visits.  He reported in his autobiography 2 that he would try to encourage his father to take trips out of the town ‘for exercise’ when he became older and could not walk, but that Robert would be reluctant saying  ‘Every road out of Shrewsbury is associated in my mind with some painful event’.  Bowlby 3 writes ‘Darwin’s mode of travel between Shrewsbury and Cambridge was by coach via London.’  Would his route on the highways have taken him through much of Shropshire?  A map of Shropshire by Thomas Moule was published in Barclay's Universal Dictionary in  1841-1852 4; this shows a number of key highways in the county and that the county was well-served.  But which routes Darwin would have taken to London is difficult to tell.  


Darwin was very keen on taking walks from a young age.  Darwin wrote of his childhood in his Autobiography 5 ‘I was in those days a very great story-teller – for the pure pleasure of exciting attention and surprise…I scarcely ever went out walking without saying I had seen a pheasant or some strange bird’.  Darwin certainly sings the praises of walking.  He wrote in his Journal of Researches (1839) 6: ‘In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention.’  Here he was, despite his travels on the Beagle, referring the excellence of England in its variety.  

When Darwin first moved to Downe he reported to his sister Catherine (July 1842) 7 that ‘…The charm of the place to me is that almost every field is intersected…by one or more footpaths – I never saw so many walks in any other country.’ The Daily News (24th April 1882) 8 reported that ‘Up to ten or twelve years [before his death], his tall figure, seated upon a favourite old black cob, was a familiar object in the lanes round about … it was observed that he was rarely seen in the village or met on the roads, preferring, as he did, to take his way generally southward by the footpaths through the woods and meadows.’


Darwin was keen on horses.  He must have gone to watch horse-racing as one of his childhood pursuits, for in 18th May 1823, Erasmus writes 9: ‘PS. If you come up in July you will fall in with ye Newmarket meeting which….is not half such good amusement as ye Shrewsbury Races’. Bowdley 10 writes that even at the age of twelve  ‘Together with the two younger Maer boys, Frank and Hensleigh, Ras and Charles rode to Bangor in the north-west Wales to see Telfords’ suspension bridge being built across the Menai Straits to Anglesey.  They covered 255 miles in the course of about ten days’. We know that Darwin kept a horse at Cambridge and undertook much riding whilst there. When on the Beagle Darwin wrote to his sister in 1836 11: ‘Oh for the time, when we shall take a ride together on the Oswestry road.—My dear Caroline I do long to see you, & all the rest of you, & my dear Father.—God bless you all. Darwin rode horses whilst at Downe.  Francis wrote 12 ‘He’d enjoyed these rides extremely and devised a number of short rounds which brought him home in time for lunch.  Our country is good for this purpose, owing to the number of small valleys which give a variety to what in a flat country would be a dull loop of road.  He was not, I think, naturally fond of horses, nor had he a high opinion of their intelligence…He would say that riding prevented him thinking much more effectually than walking’. Darwin stopping riding after an accident in April 1869: ‘His horse stumbled and fell, rolling on him and bruising him badly. He was ill after this, and it shook his somewhat re-established health. It was a great misfortune, for his absolutely quiet cob Tommy soon became unsafe for him to ride, and he never afterwards found a quite suitable horse. Tommy was not only perfectly quiet and gentle but brisk and willing, and with most easy paces.’ 13


Darwin had relied much of his life on foot, horseback or horse and carriage.  Here was a changing time, the railways were now making a significant mark on the landscape. When at Downe we know that  Darwin invested in the railways; he felt that this was one way of improving living standards for the poor.  By 1865 14 he had investments in The Great Northern Railway, The Lancashire and York Railway, Maryport and Carlisle Railway, The Monmouth Railway, , Penarth Railway, The Mid Kent Railway, The Lanashire and Carlisle Railway, The North Eastern Railway and the Great North of Scotland Railway.  In 1881 14, Leeds and York Railway, South Eastern Railway, London and South Western Railway, London and North Western Railway featured in Darwin’s accounts.   Indeed Darwin took the train to Shrewsbury to attend his father’s funeral in 1848 (though he arrived too late to attend). He would have used the London and North Western Railway line (company formed in 1846) 15, 16 which stretched from Euston to Birmingham -  but this didn’t pass through any Shropshire countryside. There was no direct  line between Birmingham and Shrewsbury; one had to change at Wolverhampton (line opened in 1849). Shrewsbury General  station was built in 1848. Darwin would therefore have got a coach, seeing the northern Shropshire countryside through the window. There was an additional line of the company that stretched south from Shrewsbury to Bristol.  The section between Shrewsbury and Hereford was completed in 1853, and this passed through the middle of Shropshire.  It would have made the following stops: Church Stretton, Marsh Brook, Craven Arms and then either to Broome, Hopton Heath and Bucknell or Onibury, Bromfield and Ludlow (then to Bristol). I can find no direct evidence that Darwin used it, but if he did, he would have passed through the varied countryside of the Shropshire Hills.  So all in all it would appear that he would have experienced long distances within the Shropshire countryside by coach or horseback.


I came across an amusing description of one of Darwin’s railway journey to Shrewsbury 17:


My dear Emma.—


You are a good old soul for having written to me so soon.— I, like another good old soul, will give you an account of my proceedings from the beginning.— At the station I met Sir F. Knowles, but was fortunate enough to get in a separate carrigae from that chatter-box. In my carriage, there was rather an elegant female, like a thin Lady Alderson, but so virtuous that I did not venture to open my mouth to her. She came with some female friend, also a lady & talked at the door of the carriage in so loud a voice, that we all listened with silent admiration. It was chiefly about family prayers, & how she always had them at 12 past ten not to keep the servants up. She then charged her friend to write to her either on Saturday night or Monday morning, Sunday being omitted in the most marked manner.— Our companion answered in the most pious tone, “Yes Eliza I will write either on Saturday night or on Monday morning.”— as soon as we started our virtuous female pulled out of her pocket a religious tract in a black cover, & a very thick pencil,—she then took off her gloves & commenced reading with great earnestness & marking the best passages with the aforesaid thick lead-pencil.— Her next neighbour was an old gentleman with a portentously purple nose, who was studying a number of the Christian Herald, & his next neighbour was the primmest she Quaker I have often seen.— Was not I in good company?— I never opened my mouth & therefore enjoyed my journey.


At Bermingham, I was kept standing in the office 3/4 of an hour in doubt, whether I could have a place, & I was so tired, that I regretted much that I took one,—however to my surprise the Journey rested me, & I arrived very brisk at Shrewsbury. In the office at Bermingham, I was aghast to see Mr J. Hunt, an indomitable proser, taking his place.— He did not know me, as I found by his addressing a chance remark to me, I instantly resolved on the desperate attempt of travelling the whole way incognito.— My hopes were soon cut off by the appearance of Mrs Hunt, whom I shook hands with vast surprise & interest, & opened my eyes with astonishment at Mr Hunt, as if he had dropped from the skies.— Our fourth in the Coach was Mr Parr of Lyth,—an old miserly squire. Mr Hunt opened his battery of conversation,—I stood fire well at first & then pretended to become very sleepy,—the proser became really so, so we had the most tranquil Journey.— Old Parr, the miser, was sadly misused at the Lion, for he had ordered a Fly to take him home, & there was only one, & Mark persuaded the man to take me up first, & gave a hint to the Porters to take a wonderful time in getting old Parr's things off the Coach, so that the poor old gentleman must have thought the Porters & Fly men all gone mad together, so slowly no doubt they did everything, whilst I was driving up with the most surprising alacrity.—…..affectionate old Husband | C. D

Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, Emma

[5 Apr 1840]


Nothing seems to have escaped Darwin’s observations.  Even in the creation of the railways, Darwin saw the adaptation of nature 18 ‘Make the ground quite bare, as on a railway cutting, & it may be almost said to be chance by what plants it will be at first covered, being dependent on the nature of the soil, the kinds of plants growing near, the means of diffusion & number of their seeds & the direction of the wind; but in a few years, notwithstanding that the number of the seeds of the first occupants will probably have been increased a million fold, the proportions will greatly change, & ultimately become the same as on adjoining old Banks.’


Darwin seems to have been ‘burnt out’ by his travels abroad on the Beagle.  His son, Francis, 19 listed his periods away from home after moving to Downe as follows.


July.—Week at Maer and Shrewsbury.

October.—Twelve days at Shrewsbury.


April.—Week at Maer and Shrewsbury.

July.—Twelve days at Shrewsbury.


September 15.—Six weeks, Shrewsbury, Lincolnshire, York, the Dean of Manchester, Waterton, Chatsworth.


February.—Eleven days at Shrewsbury.

July.—Ten days at Shrewsbury.

September.—Ten days at Southampton, etc., for the British Association.


February.—Twelve days at Shrewsbury.

June.—Ten days at Oxford, etc., for the British Association.

October.—Fortnight at Shrewsbury.


May.—Fortnight at Shrewsbury.

July.—Week at Swanage.

October.—Fortnight at Shrewsbury.

November.—Eleven days at Shrewsbury.


March to June.—Sixteen weeks at Malvern.

September.—Eleven days at Birmingham for the British Association.


February/March.—Many visits to London re drawing of Cirripides.

June.—Week at Malvern.

August.—Week at Leith Hill, the house of a relative.

October.—Week at the house of another relative.


March.—Week at Malvern.

April.—Nine days at Malvern.

July.—Twelve days in London.


March.—Week at Rugby and Shrewsbury.

September.—Six days at the house of a relative. Visited Birmingham for meeting of British Association.


July.—Three weeks at Eastbourne.

August.—Five days at the military camp at Chobham.


March.—Five days at the house of a relative.

July.—Three days at the house of a relative.

October.—Six days at the house of a relative."


And then listed in Atkins 20:

End of 1854 – Darwin and Emma took a house in London for a month

1854-1858 – no recoverable records

July 1858 – Sandown and Shanklin on the Isle of Wight

1859 – Several visits in the summer to Moor Park

1860 – Ludbrooke, Moor Park and The Ridge, Hartfield

September-November  Marine Parade, Eastbourne

1861 –  April Linnaean Society, London

Summer in Torquay

1862 – Southampton and Bournemouth

1862 – April  Hartfield

September –October Malvern

1866 – Week at Queen Anne Street, London

1867 – Week at Queen Anne Street, London

1868 – Week at Queen Anne Street, London; month at Regents Park

July – Freshwater, Isle of Wight

1869 – Week at Queen Anne Street, London; Caerdeon, Barmouth Estuary, Wales.

1870 – Cambridge

1872 – October Three weeks in Sevenoaks, Kent

1873 – March  Month at Montague Street

August – Abinger Hall, Surrey

1874  - January  Queen Anne Street, London

1875 – August  Abinger Hall then Bassett

1876 – May Hartfield, Sussex

1877 – Summer  Cambridge; Leith Hill Place; Bassett

1878 – June  Bassett; Barlaston

1879 – May Bassett

August Coniston, Lake District

1880 – April Abinger Hall; Cambridge

1881 – June Patterdale, Ullswater

December – Bryanston Street



Rather than travelling, Darwin welcomed letters and visits from others.  Down House’s most local station at Orpington was not opened until 1868.  Darwin’s visitors would then often come by train.  For example, the following presents the travels of Mr. Fisher:


My dear Mr. Fiske:…you come for luncheon you must leave Charing Cross by the 11.25 train; if for dinner by the 4.12 train. If we can (but our house will be very full on most days for the next month) we will send to Orpington Station to meet you ; but if we cannot send a carriage you must take a bus distance four miles.

(Written by Darwin on June 10 1879) 21


‘After lecture went down by cars to Orpington in Kent and found Darwin's carriage awaiting me at the station. Drove four miles through exquisite English lanes (the air heavily scented with blossoms) to Darwin's house.’ (reported by Fiske on Wednesday, June 18, 1879) 22




1 Countryside recreation - Glyptis, Sue, Institute of Leisure & Amenity Management 1991

2   Darwin, C. R. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins.

3 Bowlby, John  Charles Darwin, A New Biography Century Hutchinson Ltd, London 1990

4 Welland Antique Maps & Prints (website)

14 Down:The Home Of The Darwins, The Story of a House and the People who lived there by Sir Hedley Atkins Kbe, Phillimore for The Royal College of Surgeons of England, Lincoln's Inn Fields London, 1974

5 The Autobiography of  Charles Darwin 1809-1882  The First Complete Edition Edited by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow, Collins, 1958

6 Darwin, C. R. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition. London: John Murray.

7 Letter from Darwin to Catherine Darwin, Sunday July 1842 in  Darwin, Francis & Seward, A. C. eds. 1903. More letters of Charles Darwin. A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters. London: John Murray. Volume 1  

8 The Daily News, 24th April 1882.

9 Letter from Erasmus Darwin to Darwin on 18th May 1823

10 Bowlby, John  Charles Darwin, A New Biography Century Hutchinson Ltd, London 1990

11 LETTER NO. 35 From Darwin to Caroline Darwin, APPROACHING ASCENCION July 18th. 1836 in Barlow, Nora ed. 1945. Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle. London: Pilot Press.  

12 Darwin, Francis ed. 1887. The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. vol. 1. London: John Murray.

13 Emma Darwin: A Century Of Family Letters By Her Daughter H. E. Litchfield

Cambridge University Press,1904

15 Personal Communication with Mr. Pennington, Librarian & Archivist

London and North Western Railway Society, September 2013 & Personal communication with Mr. Harris Co-ordinator, Midland Railway Study Centre, September 2013

16 Personal Communication with Mr. Pennington, Librarian & Archivist

London and North Western Railway Society, September 2013 & Personal communication with Mr. Harris Co-ordinator, Midland Railway Study Centre, September 2013

17 Letter from Darwin to Emma Darwin on [5 April, 1840 in Litchfield, H. E. ed. 1904. Emma Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin. A century of family letters. Cambridge: University Press printed. Volume 2.

18 ‘The Struggle for Existence’, Darwin, in Stauffer, R. C. ed. 1975. Charles Darwin's Natural Selection; being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

19 Darwin, Francis ed. 1887. The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. vol. 1. London: John Murray.

20 Down:The Home Of The Darwins,The Story of a House and the People who lived there by Sir Hedley Atkins Kbe,  Phillimore for

The Royal College of Surgeons of England, Lincoln's Inn Fields London,1974

21 Letter from Darwin to Mr. Fiske from Down, June 10, 1879.

22 Fiske Wednesday, June 18, 1879 add

Sourcing of a number of letters and Darwin manuscripts has been possible due to and