Botany, Gardens and The Origin of Species

2 - 6 Aug 2021
  • Cultural Tours

About the tour

This rewarding tour with expert tour leaders, Bill and Helen Bynum, takes you deep into the UK’s long connection with all things botanical. Darwin’s botany is often overlooked in the story of The Origin of Species, yet it’s a story that invites you into that most English of places: the garden. Here it is possible to experience history, science and nature, learn the stories of plants and people, and think about how garden ecology helped shape the way we see the world around us today. Encompassing Selbourne, Lichfield, Cambridge, London and Kent, the tour includes visits to many beautiful, important and historic gardens, as well as Darwin’s home at Down House.

Your tour leader

Picture of JBT tour leader, Bill and Helen  Bynum

Bill and Helen Bynum

Bill Bynum is Professor Emeritus at University College London. A Yale graduate in medicine, he began his career in the history of medicine with a Cambridge PhD before moving to the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. His 'History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction' and 'A Little History of Science' have been translated into 14 languages.

After a PhD in the History of Medicine from University College London, Helen Bynum lectured at the University of Liverpool before beginning a freelance career as a medical historian and popular science writer. Together with Bill she edited 'Great Discoveries in Medicine' before turning their attention to the world of plants and their histories in 'Remarkable Plants that Shape our World' and 'Botanical Sketchbooks'. ‘Team Bynum’ have led and lectured on successful tours and cruises for Jon Baines Tours.

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Itinerary at a glance

  • Day 1: Selbourne (Mon, 2 Aug) Start the day with a visit to Gilbert White House and Garden. Gilbert White was a "parson-naturalist", a pioneering English naturalist, ecologist and ornithologist best known for his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. This book greatly impressed Darwin during his youth and it has been said that might not have come to the theory of evolution without White’s pioneering fieldwork establishing the importance of close observation. Explore the gardens where the work of garden designers such as William Kent inspired Gilbert White to create a garden in the spirit of the English landscape movement by creating a series of landscapes where nature could be admired from viewpoints marked by urns, obelisks and statues. Visit St Mary’s Church which was founded in Saxon times and mentioned in the Domesday Book, the present church with its Norman tower and nave, largely dates from 1180. The church was greatly restored in the mid-19th-century by the great nephew of Gilbert White, the naturalist, who was Curate for many years until his death in 1793 and who is buried here. In the afternoon, continue on to the Hanger walk up the zig zag path, as walked by Gilbert White where he would observe the comings and goings of the natural world at his doorstep. At the top of the zig zag path, White would observe and take notes particularly on the migratory patterns of swallows.
  • Day 2: Lichfield (Tue, 3 Aug) Spend the morning exploring Lichfield. Start the day at Samuel Johnson House, the family home and now converted museum of the literary giant Samuel Johnson. Best known for his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson spent the first 27 years of his life in this atmospheric Grade I listed trader's townhouse. Continue to Lichfield Cathedral, dedicated to St Chad and St Mary. A grand example of 12th century architecture, the only medieval English cathedral with three spires. In the afternoon, continue on to Erasmus Darwin House, nestled in Lichfield’s idyllic Cathedral Close. Once the family home of doctor, inventor and published poet Erasmus Darwin. With its unique place in Georgian history Darwin House showcases the breadth of Erasmus Darwin’s interests and achievements which laid the foundations for his grandson and evolutionary biologist Charles. Discover the herbs in the tranquil garden and learn about the medicinal qualities of plants with which Erasmus treated his patients.
  • Day 3: Cambridge (Wed, 4 Aug) Start the day at Christ’s College, where Darwin spent his years at Cambridge. View the portrait of Darwin which hangs in the College hall, a copy of the one commissioned by the Darwin family in 1875 as a birthday present for Darwin. Darwin quipped the portrait made him look like "a very venerable, acute, melancholy old dog". Get to know the young and exuberant Darwin by hearing about his days at Cambridge, which Darwin was quoted to say “the three years I spent at Cambridge were the most joyful of my happy life”. View the sculpture in The Darwin Garden by Anthony Smith which gives a sense of what Darwin was like as a student. The garden is planted with a selection of plants that Darwin would have encountered on his botanical voyages on the ship HMS Beagle. Visit Darwin’s room, which as part of the 2009 celebrations has been painstakingly restored to how it would have been when Darwin lived there. Go to the Old Library’s to view some of their collections including priceless material related to Darwin, including letters exchanged
    between Charles and his cousin (and fellow beetle enthusiast) William Darwin Fox. After, walk to Sedgwick Geology Museum. Learn about Adam Sedgwick who was Darwin’s geology professor and a great influence on him. Meet with the curator to see and learn about fossil plants and how difficult they are to understand and appreciate. Also see Darwin’s geological collections from the Beagle. Continue on to at the Cambridge University Botanical Garden and Herbarium. The fourth largest collection in the UK, the Cambridge University Herbarium is a rich resource for many scientific and historical fields of research, from evolutionary genetic studies to present day conservation science and investigations into colonial history and the development of scientific ideas about the natural world. The Herbarium is especially rich in ‘type’ specimens, the original specimens used to describe new species (numbering an estimated 50,000 individual specimens), specimens of historic importance, and British plants. Meet with a botanist to discover notable collections from the 19th century include the collections of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s botany professor. Henslow inspired Darwin with a passion for natural history.
  • Day 4: London (Thur, 5 Aug) Start at the Natural History Museum to meet with a curator to view the Darwin botany collection, collected on the five-year voyage of HMS Beagle. Afterwards, Take the tube down to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew*. First, pass Hooker House, where Sir William Hooker, botanist and maltster, lived as well as his son Joseph. They were consecutive directors of the Kew Gardens, with Sir William being the very first Director. Joseph Hooker was a great friend of Charles Darwin and was asked to classify the plants that Darwin had gathered in the Galápagos. Meet with a curator to discover the art and archives at Kew which features an abundance of Hooker. Continue on to explore the Economic Botany Collection, started by William Hooker, an extraordinary range of artefacts, all derived from plants, including 500 items that are from fungi. Have a break for lunch at Kew. After lunch, meet with a botanist at the Herbarium, a collection of preserved plants that are stored, catalogued, and arranged systematically for study. Learn which plants were important to Darwin. The rest of the afternoon is at leisure to explore Kew Gardens at ease.
  • Day 5: Kent (Fri 6, Aug) Visit Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, founded by John Rogers, a great botanist; one of the founding members of the Royal Horticultural Society and a friend of Charles Darwin. His passion for the newly discovered rhododendrons and azaleas from the East, led him to choose to purchase Riverhill; the views across the Weald of Kent were fabulous and the lime-free soil and sheltered hillside was perfect for newly introduced trees and shrubs. Riverhill has been owned and managed by the Roger’s family ever since. Charles Darwin referenced a Myanthus collected for Rogers in Demerara, in an 1862 paper. Have lunch at Ottos, who only use the fresh and local ingredients. As part of Otto’s pledge to the environment, they will not serve drinks in takeaway cups, so if you wish to have a drink to walk around with, do remember to bring your reusable cup. In the afternoon visit Down House, Charles Darwin’s family home. See the gardens that were Darwin’s ‘outdoor laboratory’ where he spent many hours making observations and conducting experiments that helped develop his ground-breaking theories. Stroll down Darwin’s ‘thinking path', take a wander past bountiful vegetable patches and enjoy fragrant flower beds surrounded by the tranquil countryside. In the last two decades of his life, Darwin’s botanical experiments in the gardens and greenhouse at Down House characterised his working life after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

*Please note that in the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew access to collections will be subject to Kew policies at the time of the visit.

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