Cambridge Darwin pilgrimage

When I learnt of there was to be an exhibition entitled Darwin in Conversation at Cambridge University Library to mark the completion of the Darwin Correspondence Project, I realised a trip to Cambridge was an absolute must. My long-suffering partner, Jen, and I finally drove down at Halloween, staying for a couple of nights, and making our trip into something of a Darwin pilgrimage.

As luck would have it, a long-term online contact, Julian Derry (@JFDerry), emailed me a couple of days before the trip to alert me to an event being held by the Cambridge Philosophical Society to tie in with the exhibition. So we booked tickets and agree to meet afterwards. At the event, chaired by Dr Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, three scientists who are all direct descendants of Charles Darwin spoke about what it was like to be brought up having such an illustrious ancestor, and how he influenced their own careers. A video of the event was later made available on YouTube. Afterwards, we met briefly with Julian, who introduced us to Dr Francis Neary, Editor and Research Associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project, and we agreed to meet for beers the following evening.

Next morning, Jen and I made our way to the university library for the exhibition. It was a treasure-trove of Darwinalia: letters, maps, more letters, manuscripts, children’s doodles, more letters, notebooks, books, caricatures, more letters, and displays of various aspects of Darwin’s work, from writing books to investigating insectivorous plants, from following the flight-paths of bees to exploring human emotions. Also on display were two welcome, unplanned late additions to the exhibition: Darwin’s notebooks B and C, stolen from the library several years ago, anonymously returned only a few months earlier.

By prior arrangement, Alison Pearn briefly joined us at the exhibition for a quick chat about Darwin and the Correspondence Project, during which I took the opportunity to thank her and the rest of the team, past and present, for their astonishing scholarship over almost five decades.

After the exhibition, the rest of our day was spent on a whistle-stop tour of various Darwin-related Cambridge attractions: Christ’s College, in torrential rain, for the young Darwin statue; the Museum of Zoology for Darwin’s beetles, Beagle-voyage specimens, and barnacles; the Whipple Museum for his microscope; and the Sedgwick Museum for his geological stuff. Then, after fish and chips at The Eagle, it was down to the Maypole pub for real ale and enthusiastic Darwin conversation with Julian and Francis, during which I finally got to prove to Jen once and for all that it isn’t just me: there really are other Darwin nerds out there.

Thanks to Jen, Julian, Francis and Alison: it really was a very special trip.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

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