It pains me to say it, but the UK government's decision to withdraw its nomination of Downe as a World Heritage Site was probably its most sensible option. At least it can now renominate Downe in two year's time—which would coincide nicely with Darwin's bicentennial.
But, like the government, I am completely stumped as to why Unesco might think for one second that Darwin's former home and its environs might not be a suitable location to celebrate achievements in science. Indeed, I can think of few other places that fit the bill so admirably. Where else in the world (apart from the Galápagos Islands, which already have World Heritage Site status) can you visit a living landscape that inspired the natural world's greatest genius?
I was genuinely apprehensive about visiting Down House. I live eight miles from Haworth in West Yorkshire, home of the Brontës. I have only visited their famous parsonage once, and came away with the impression that, had I known or cared the first thing about the Brontës, I would have been dreadfully disappointed. There's nothing to see, basically: it's just an empty building with a few insignificant Brontë mementoes. I feared Down House would be the same.
But my fears were unfounded. Visiting Down House was one of the most moving and—dare I say it?—spiritual experiences of my life. It's almost as if Darwin has just popped out for a stroll around the Sandwalk. Indeed, the Sandwalk—Darwin's thinking path—alone should be enough to justify Downe World Heritage Site status.
Let's hope Unesco sees sense in 2009.
See also: My Down House photos