A House in the Country

What did these three famous people have in common: Charles Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, and Ralph Vaughan Williams the English composer? Or these three objects: a rock known as a worm-stone, a display of pottery and an upright piano?

South of London lies England's most densely wooded county, Surrey. It is thickly populated with stock brokers, media celebrities, and Russian oligarchs, but it also has hills and valleys covered with deciduous trees, some very ancient. These are also the hills through which medieval pilgrims made their way to the Christian shrine at Canterbury.

One of the best known of these 'downs' (that says, in our perplexing idiom, a hill) is Box Hill where Jane Austen staged a fractious family picnic in her eighteenth-century novel Emma. Another is Leith Hill, famous for a brick tower built so that the summit could be said to exceed one thousand feet and the hill be called a mountain (the benchmark for 'mountain' is set very low in southern England).

On the lower slopes of Tower Hill, there is a house. It lies deep in the woods, reached by a minor road. From the main rooms, there are fine views: across the lawn, beyond the ha-ha and over miles of fields and hedgerows. Ha-ha? A walled ditch separating the lawn from the fields so that the family has uninterrupted views over the countryside while cattle and deer are unable to invade the garden.

The house, Leith Hill Place, is rather shabby – it has suffered from being occupied by a school for many years. When my wife and I visited recently we found scaffolding outside, but that was encouraging: it was one of the signs of a restoration project by the National Trust who own it.

One of the early owners was a lady, Mary Millet, who held it for forty years from 1664. Since that was unusual I imagine there is a story to be unearthed. This was the time of the restoration of the monarchy after England's civil war and our short-lived republic, so this house would have experienced some turbulent times. Later it was occupied by one Richard Hull who built the tower and was buried beneath it.

The house came into different hands during Queen Victoria's reign when it was occupied by Josiah Wedgwood III of the famous pottery dynasty. He must have found it relatively convenient for London although several counties away from the Potteries. On the day of our visit, there was even an exhibition of fine Wedgwood pottery in an upstairs room. But the most interesting aspect of Josiah Wedgwood's occupation was his marriage because his wife was Caroline Darwin, sister of Charles Darwin the naturalist.

Darwin's historic voyage in the 'The Beagle' was behind him; publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man lay for a time in the future, but Darwin was an active scientist here. His own house was some twenty-five miles distant and is also open to the public today. You can visit his study and explore the gardens where he studied nature, although he also carried out experiments at Leith Hill Place.

His curiosity had been aroused by one of the world's humblest creatures: the earthworm. He measured the effects of worms on the soil, noting how they caused stones to sink, and a stone known as Darwin's 'worm-stone' can be seen in the grounds. A large smooth rock of local sandstone, Darwin noticed how it sank slowly, earth banking up around it. He postulated that earthworms were ingesting soil beneath the stone and excreting it on the surface.

Fortunately for us, his sister Caroline's love of nature took a more conventional route. She designed a woodland garden of rhododendrons, some of which were only newly brought to England. We were lucky: the early varieties were coming into glorious bloom.

Indoors we found an upright piano on which Ralph Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending and other well-known works. The composer, being the grandson of Caroline and Josiah Wedgwood, had grown up at Leith Hill Place: his father died when he was three and his mother brought him back to her parents' home. It was here that he first learnt the piano, even making tiny compositions at the age of five. Boarding school, Cambridge and the Royal College of Music took him away but Leith Hill Place remained in the family and became his own in 1944.

Although Vaughan Williams' compositions included work on the Church of England's hymnbook, he himself became an atheist, then settling into agnosticism. If you look up biographies on the internet you find a story that, as a young child, he asked his mother about Charles Darwin's controversial theories. It is said that she replied "The Bible says that God made the world in six days. Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way".

Let me finish with a happy coincidence: shortly after drafting this Letter I turned on the radio and found they were broadcasting a live performance of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. It is absolutely gorgeous. And as deeply English as Leith Hill Place.