I am walking the still-damp streets of Shrewsbury in late morning. I am searching for the first stop on the self-guided tour through town on what is officially called “The Darwin Town Trail.”
It was here in this western England city of 71,000 that the great naturalist and so-called Father of Evolution, Charles Darwin, was born in 1809. It is said he spent the first 27 years of his life in Shrewsbury but that does not account for his college years in such places as Cambridge and Edinburgh. The “Trail” loosely touches those early days before Darwin left in 1831 on his famous trip around the world on the Beagle.
Although it is late July, the air is cool, 65 F. The clouds have lifted and taken with them the pre-dawn showers. Sunlight bursts through the cumulus. In my light jacket, I already begin to feel warm as I walk at a leisurely pace.
I am using a Trail guide and map picked up the day before at the cozy, two-person Visitor Information Centre off Barker Street, uphill a piece from the Welsh Bridge. The Centre is loaded with Darwin material. Books by Darwin and about him abound. Strange to me, this very churchly city not only accepts Darwin but celebrates him. Unlike in America, where he and his generally-accepted evolutionary ideas are attacked by the wild-eyed Creationists.
Coming down Pride Hill, the bustling pedestrian street with numerous shops and restaurants, including a two-floor mall, the Darwin Centre, I reach stop No. 1 at the intersection with Mardol Head.
I had passed yesterday under the stop, Darwin Gate, but had not noticed it as we hustled along in the rain looking for our night’s lodging at the Old Post Office, a pub off High Street.
Darwin Gate is a modern tribute to the scientist. Three poles within a circle, topped by facing metal “claws,” 15-20 feet high. The guide says the design was inspired by elements from St. Mary’s Church where Darwin attended: “As night falls, (diffused) light shines through the columns suggesting stained glass windows and the tops of posts mimic ecclesiastical arches.” Underneath it sits a man on a bench smoking a cigarette, seemingly unaware of what some might call hallowed ground.
While I want to finish the Walk if possible, my interest is trained on the old Darwin house, The Mount House, to the west across the River Severn. Why it is not one of the Walk’s eight stops I do not know. This is my last day in town, and I do not want to miss it.
I head out on Mardol, a narrow street whose name means “devil’s boundary” then amble across the Welsh Bridge. The Severn is muddy and moving steadily as I look down. It is England’s longest stream at 220 miles, starting high in Welsh mountains and discharging into the Bristol Channel far to the south. Shrewsbury itself is called “Gateway to Wales,” and is only nine miles from the border.
The way to Mount House is not marked. The guide is not clear. I begin to feel its location is a secret. A middle-aged couple, on the way home with groceries, direct me up the Mount toward the Darwin home. At a driveway, the woman looks back at me, smiling, and points. “It’s in there,” she says and moves on up the hill.
There are two small signs in front. Without them you would not know this was the house. “The Mount,” it says. “Charles Darwin was born here 12th February 1809.” The one on the right is more detailed regarding Darwin’s career and his fame.
Another sign says The Mount is now the office of Shrewsbury’s District Valuer.
I am relieved to see as I mosey up the drivewaythere are no tour buses, no clusters of bug-eyed tourists and their 8-year-olds shooting dozens of digital photos as fast as you can say “evolution.”
A large two-story Georgian building greets me. Red brick, lots of windows, a small portico supported by four columns. Home to a wealthy person once. Darwin’s father was a physician. A large green lawn, towering trees, a few cars parked here and there. I try to imagine what it was like up here two centuries ago. A commanding view of Shrewsbury and the Severn is blighted by rows of townhouses. The woods that once surrounded the place are long gone, chopped up into subdivisions. I shoot a couple of photos and leave satisfied that I’d made the effort.
Back across the bridge in town, Stop No. 2 of the Walk awaits. The Bellstone. First, I stop at a Subway to get a Coke. The jaunt up the Mount has left me thirsty. Across the street is a smooth granite boulder called the Bellstone. It’s about 30 inches in length and standing maybe two feet. A glacier transferred it here from far off Cumbria, the sign says. The rock rests at the far end of a courtyard at the entrance to Morris Hall Yard and, from a Mr. Scott, Darwin was introduced to the Bellstone, and it is assumed, geology. Enthusiasts meet here in the courtyard every year on Darwin’s birthday to celebrate him with a toast.
At 13 Claremont Hill is No. 3, a privately-owned house where Darwin was tutored by a Reverend Case prior to attending Shrewsbury School.
On up the hill is the high-steepled, time-stained St. Chad’s Church, No. 4, where Darwin was christened in 1809.
I walk across the street, not suspecting the huge surprise that awaits in No. 5, The Dingle. Quarry Park is spacious, lined with trees and virtually empty this day if it weren’t for workers putting up tents for a regional flower show later in the summer. I see an attractive arch to the left, the entrance to The Dingle. It was here, in the pond, “whilst studying with the Reverend Case, the young Charles Darwin would often fish for newts.”
The Dingle may sound obscene but it is anything but. As I walk through the arch and down a paved path, a world of beautiful color opens up. It is startling at first. The landscaped gardens with manicured grass rests ahead with a pond, fountains and statuary on the right. Along the paths are nicely-kept wooden benches. Enough for a few hundred people at least. But I count only a half-dozen in the park. An elderly man, seated up at the far end, seems lost in contemplation. It is quiet except for the burbling fountains and chirps of birds.
The Lion Hotel is No. 6. I passed it yesterday exploring the inner city. On hearing he had a chance to sail with Captain Fitzroy on the Beagle, “Darwin raced across Shrewsbury to the Lion Hotel,” the guide said, “to catch the next coach to London hoping that Fitzroy hadn’t offered his place to . . . another.”
I had already been inside No. 7, the Library, to use a computer and access the Internet. A large dark statue erected in 1897 of an elderly Darwin seated and looking out on Castle Road rests in front of the building. The library was the former Shrewsbury School that the young Darwin attended.
I may have passed No. 8 at some time but do not remember it. It was at the Unitarian Church where Darwin worshipped with his mother until she died when he was 8.
It was late afternoon when I finished the tour. The sun was shining, and I felt good. I like harmony, and that this medieval city has embraced Darwin — even though his evolutionary ideas of slow geologic change fly in the face of the Bible and Genesis’s story that God created the world in six days — gives me hope that at some point soon America will become a less discordant, less irrational place.