Wednesday, 2nd September 2015

Trust sows seeds of idea for Darwin land

Shropshire Wildlife Trust has launched an appeal to buy part of a Shrewsbury garden which once belonged to Darwin’s family. Sarah Gibson, the trust’s communications officer, reveals more about the project.

Sharon Leach is a keen gardener. Forking through an old heap of rotting vegetation she turned up a smelly, slimy rag which she threw onto her compost heap.

As she did so out fell two small objects which she stuffed into the pocket of her jeans and got on with her weeding. Days later she found them again after her trousers had been through the washing machine.  She looked at them closely and wondered what they might be. Her garden was once part of the Darwin family’s garden, so everything here is potentially interesting. She decided to show them to Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

And that is how the conversation began.  Sharon spoke to the trust’s Sara Bellis, organiser of the Darwin Festival and author of The Curious Life of Young Darwin. First they talked about her slimy garden find and then about the garden. It was Sharon and her husband John’s wish that the wooded slope that drops down towards the river at the end of their garden should be handed on to an organisation which would look after it and share it with others.

The original garden at The Mount was vast, encompassing orchards, flower gardens, glass houses with a banana tree and palm trees and a farm. Susan Darwin, Charles’s sister, lived in the house until her death in 1866, after which the house and all its contents were sold.

The dispersal sale catalogue includes a long list of garden items including pots of camellias and ferns, a daisy rake, fumigating bellows, a manure tub and several garden seats.

Following its sale, the grounds were split up and, as Shrewsbury grew, houses were built on parts of it. The land now offered to the trust belongs to one of these houses in a street that retains the memory of its former existence in its name: Darwin Gardens.

At its top boundary this steep section of woodland adjoins ground at the back of The Mount. Here you can see an old brick building, once Charles’s brother Erasmus’s laboratory, where they conducted noisy scientific experiments together and which was converted into a laundry while Charles was on voyage on The Beagle: “Erasmus when he came home found everything topsy-turvy, people ironing in his lab,” his sister Caroline wrote to him.

A brick ice house can be found among the trees. During the winter, ice and snow would be brought inside and packed with straw or sawdust to insulate it. The ice would mainly be used for the storage of perishable foods but also to cool drinks and to make ice cream.

Next to it runs a path, which stops abruptly where badger excavations have heaped an enormous mound of sand. It was probably along this very path 200 years ago, that the young Darwin walked every day before breakfast with his father and brother. A long, elliptical path that ran along the terrace and through the wood was known as the Thinking Path, providing as it did, a regular opportunity for thought and reflection.

“I often think of the garden at home as a paradise: on a fine summer’s evening, when the birds are singing, how I should like to appear like a ghost amongst you,” Charles Darwin wrote in a letter to his sister in 1833, while aboard The Beagle.

If successful in buying this land, the trust wants to develop this aspect of the garden’s history, sharing it with people in a quiet way, inviting them to explore the wood, look around them and observe, and then to think about what they have seen.  The extraordinary thing is that Darwin’s passion for nature and his tremendous spirit of enquiry started right here, in his garden at The Mount,” says Sara Bellis.

“We hope to inspire young and old to do the same thing – to look in their own back gardens, keep their eyes open and look at every living thing about them; to be curious about nature in all its shapes and forms.”

Which brings us back to the two objects found in Sharon’s garden. Clean from the washing machine, they were placed in the kitchen window. Then investigations began. Natural History Museum researchers thou-ght the objects might be the semi-fossilised remains of a pine seed, possibly from South America. They regretted the loss of the now bio-degraded rag, because they think it might have been the remnants of an oil rag used to preserve items on The Beagle. Cambridge University is currently investigating the objects, which show signs of dissection. In this garden, you really are in touch with Darwin.

The trust will need to carry out work to make the wood accessible and open up views. The aim is not to create a major tourist attraction, but provide a much-wanted place where people can see where young Charles Darwin lived and the landscape he loved. The wood will also have its place at the heart of the Darwin Festival which has been run by Shropshire Wildlife Trust for the last two years.

All contributions to the appeal will be very much appreciated. Donations can be made at winsgarden by phone on (01743) 284280 or by cheque to Shropshire Wildlife Trust, 193 Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury SY2 6AH.