By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
As is often the case with London during the second weekend in February, the city was a roiling cauldron of demon lust. Even by its own standards, however, this past February was one to remember. For one thing, Saint Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, thereby increasing the pressure on couples to do something special (even as worrisome economic news led one BBC pundit to suggest that Londoners scale back their efforts and simply draw baths for each other).
For another, the country had just begun saluting the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, that great naturalist and champion of sexual selection. Preparations were also proceeding apace for a Britain-wide celebration of the 500th anniversary of the ascension to the throne of Henry VIII. (Ah, oft-wived, scandalous Henry!)
To top it off, Feb. 14 would mark the 25th anniversary of Torvill and Dean's sensual, gold-medal-winning ice-dance rendition of "Bolero."
People, London was marinating in the rewards and hazards of erotic exploit.
And then, just when it seemed the atmosphere couldn't get any more iniquitous, a young lad from Sussex by the name of Alfie blasted into the national consciousness courtesy of a Feb. 13 headline in the Sun:
"DAD AT 13."
Wow. And the thing was, Alfie looked even younger than that in the front-page photo, a doe-eyed kid clumsily cradling a newborn baby girl. He stared forlornly out of the tabloid at millions of Britons, who stared back with fascination and revulsion. Politicians felt compelled to remark on Alfie's tryst with 15-year-old Chantelle (the phrase "broken Britain" was heard a lot), while Alfie himself sputtered his way through interviews. (Reporter: "What will you do financially?" Alfie: "What's 'financially?' ")
It was a story destined for the water cooler, and the next day the tour guides at Hampton Court Palace, Henry's 16th-century abode outside London, did not disappoint, a trio of them gathering to see who was the most scandalized. Alfie-gate was variously an "outrage," "disgraceful" and, like seemingly everything else in recession-addled Britain these days, "Gordon Brown's fault."
And then the guides dispersed. It was time to lead groups of 20 or so visitors on merry tours of the home of a monarch with a sexual appetite so voracious it necessitated six wives, two beheadings and the Reformation. As the guides tell it, the large red-brick castle 12 miles southwest of London, which Henry took over from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1525, eventually devolved into a den of wantonness.
A story line like that makes for a ripping tour, you have to admit, especially now that Henry's refurbished royal apartments have reopened to the public to great fanfare, as has the stunning throne room. More to the point, tours include visits to the gallery where guards dragged Catherine Howard (wife No. 5) kicking and screaming after Henry charged her with adultery, ordering her execution. Or perhaps you'd rather stroll through Anne Boleyn's Gateway, seeing the place where wife No. 2 repaired after a spectacular coronation, or the tennis court where Henry supposedly was volleying when he was informed of her execution. And no fan of turpitude would dare miss the Great Hall. The premiere performance of that matchless paean to sexual jealousy, "Macbeth," is said to have taken place there in 1606 with James I and Shakespeare himself in attendance.
Contrary to belief, there apparently is no truth to the rumor that Anne carried out a secret affair with one of Henry's servants on the grounds of what later became Kew Gardens, but we take our segues where we can. The vast London green space, which is home to the world's largest collection of living plants, is having a birthday of its own this year, its 250th. Accordingly, all 300 acres have been spruced up, as have its famous Victorian conservatories. But it's what hasn't changed at Kew that truly astonishes.
"It might be the oldest potted plant in the world," hedges a sign under a cycad that dates from 1775. The African native, its 15-foot-long trunk in a pot the size of a dishwasher, sits in the south wing of the gardens' most iconic structure, Palm House. True, the trunk is these days growing almost horizontally, but you can hardly expect better from a tree that has lived through the French Revolution, two world wars and the career of Torvill and Dean.
Palm House dates to the mid-1800s, its steel-and-glass housing evoking the skeleton of a massive, upside-down ship's hull. At the center stands a giant attalea palm reaching far, far from the structure's floor, though not as far as the Chilean wine palm in another conservatory. That behemoth, hailed on its marker as "the tallest indoor plant in the world," stands at more than 50 feet, having been started from seed in 1848.
There are treasures to be found outdoors, too, including rambling pathways almost ridiculously romantic, as well as dozens of secluded trysting spots that make you sorry Anne missed them. You'll never see it all during a short visit -- the lake, the Chinese pagoda, the ginkgo tree planted when Kew was just three years old -- but if yours is the sort of lover who leaves one walking on air, don't miss the terrific Treetop Walkway. It's exactly what it sounds like: a winding wooden path on stilts, 60 feet off the ground and reachable by stairs or elevator.
"The sight of your hand-writing always rejoices the very cockles of my heart," begins a breathless 1861 letter from Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker, then director of Kew Gardens and one of Darwin's closest friends. The two exchanged more than 1,300 letters over 40 years, letters that demonstrate how Darwin's ideas on evolution by natural selection, well, evolved over time.
Darwin's epistolary habit began in 1842 when he and his wife and children decamped from London for Down House, a Georgian villa south of the city in Kent. There, Darwin was able to work in near-seclusion, ultimately producing "On the Origin of Species," which might well be the greatest scientific theory ever hatched in someone's home. Down House is a place that left the world forever changed but is also a completely unspectacular, if homey, suburban retreat. And it's that peculiar collision that makes a visit to it so intriguing.
Much of the house's second floor chronicles Darwin's early years, with an eye toward making him seem the unlikeliest of successes. True, he was a collector kid, as contemporary parlance has it, of "pebbles, birds' eggs, the wax seals which came on letters, anything and everything," according to a caption posted near a Darwin beetle collection. But he was also an indifferent student, something of a black sheep and destined to be "a disgrace to yourself and all your family," as his father once confidently predicted.
But in 1831, at age 22, Darwin began his five-year, around-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle, one that marked a turning point for both him and biology. A Down House exhibit brilliantly re-creates the naturalist's cramped cabin below the Beagle's poop deck, even adding a holographic image of Darwin himself dipping snuff liberally while taking notes on the animals he's seeing.
Much of the rest of the house (the billiard room, the study, the bedroom) probably looks much as it did in Darwin's day. The grounds, too, have been scrupulously maintained. You walk through the greenhouse where he methodically propagated orchids and carnivorous plants at a time when the world on the other side of the glass still refused to believe that plants participated in sexual reproduction (most thought they self-fertilized). You wander past the flower beds where he observed the climbing habits of clematis, the patch where he tried to determine whether earthworms could hear music, and yet you never quite put it together, never quite see how so gorgeous a setting gave rise to "one of the most explosive notions ever devised," as Sir Richard Attenborough forcefully intones on the audio tour.
The mystery only deepens upon a visit to London's Museum of Natural History. Its exhibit, "Darwin's Big Idea," begins with a provocative question: "If you had an idea that would outrage society, could you keep it to yourself?" reads a large poster in which Darwin seems to be shushing us. ("Sure, I do that every day," cracks more than one patron in line.) Inside, his story is told not chronologically but as a series of intellectual steps, starting with a pair of stuffed mockingbirds, almost identical but not quite, the very birds that helped spark Darwin's imagination, leading him to wonder how species might change over time. At the end of the intellectual road is a gallery devoted to Darwin's afterlife, detailing the uses and abuses to which his theory was later put.
When it was published in 1859, "On the Origin of Species" was an instant sellout, and the book hasn't been out of print since. London commuters devoured it on trains and debated its shocking ideas endlessly in salons. Darwin became an object of public obsession, a figure whose connection to the profane was as fascinating as Henry VIII's had once been.
As for Alfie, well, he's off the hook. The other day, a DNA test revealed -- surprise! -- he wasn't a 13-year-old dad after all.