Darwin's Garden to Feature on BBC Radio 4's Open Country
19 May 2022

BBC Radio 4 are making a programme about Darwin’s childhood in Shrewsbury for Open Country, with the help of local Darwin experts and Shropshire Wildlife Trust - to be aired on August 18th.  Pictured: Mount House on The Mount in Shrewsbury, where Darwin was born in 1809. 

Stan Sedman who is known for his wonderful guided tours of town, was approached by BBC Audio Bristol to help with content for a Shrewsbury-focused episode of 'Open Country,' with a focus on the Darwins' garden. He immediately thought of Bibbs Cameron, of Shrewsbury Civic Society, who has worked tirelessly to research the history of young Darwin in Shrewsbury.

There has been renewed interest in the Darwins’ former home on The Mount, since it was bought by Welshpool businessman Glyn Jones, who is restoring it with a view to using part of it as a museum. Charles Darwin was born in the house on February 12, 1809 and spent his childhood in Shrewsbury, attending Shrewsbury School. For many years, the house was leased for use as government offices (the Valuation Office Agency) but it now looks as though at least part of it may soon be open to the public. 

In her recent book The Ghost in the Garden Jude Piesse finds herself inspired by living next door to the Darwins’ former garden and asks what impact it might have had on the famous naturalist’s work. Around two acres of the site still remain, but much is now buried under housing. 

Her book inspired BBC Audio Bristol to make an episode about the Darwins' garden for Open Country, which is due to be aired on BBC Radio 4 on August 18th. 

Town guide Stan Sedman was asked if he could contribute to the programme: “They wanted someone to talk about various areas of his childhood. I was honoured to be asked and always enjoy sharing Shrewsbury's wonderful history with a wider audience."

In the programme, Stan talks about the Darwin family’s former tool shed which lies behind two gardens in Darwin Gardens. If you walk along Hermitage Walk, towards Frankwell, you can see the rear wall of the shed, in what was the garden wall of the house.

Darwin family gardens in Shrewsbury

Pictured: The former Darwin family garden attached to Mount House in Shrewsbury

“I also talked about Darwin’s chemistry experiments with his brother Erasmus and how he got the name ‘Gas’ and was called ‘poco curante’ by his old schoolmaster Dr Butler,” Stan says. 

Stan put the producers in touch with local historian Bibbs Cameron, of Shrewsbury Civic Society, and also the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, which owns the land at the rear of Darwin’s childhood home, Mount House. 

Rachel Schofield, Communications, Campaigns & Marketing Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, said: "We were delighted to contribute to the Open Country programme, specifically about how Darwin was inspired through his time spent growing up in Darwin's Childhood Garden. Whilst in the Garden we spent time walking along the infamous Thinking Path, a route taken daily. Our Engagement Officer Dr Cath Price gave an entertaining account of how this walk in nature defined Darwin's ability for incredibly detailed thought processes, for which his lifetime's work is renowned. It felt symbolic to literally be walking in his footsteps and we should let nature be an inspiration to us all."

Bibbs Cameron has been involved with Darwin and Mount House for about 15 years, firstly working with architect and author Mary de Saulles, who died in 2020 aged 95, who was very anxious for there to be a Darwin museum in Shrewsbury (it was Mary who initially put together architectural drawings for a museum in the stables when the Valuations Office had the lease.)

As Vice Chairman of Shrewsbury Civic Society, Bibbs was asked to join the Mount House partnership, a group put in place to secure the building for the town. 

“This was unfortunately disbanded when a buyer who would have closed the house and grounds to public access, put in an offer,” Bibbs said.

“I carried on searching for a suitable solution to this situation, then came along Mark Scutt, a fellow member of the society, who did a lot of work into understanding the administrative background and history of the house lease and then found a supportive private buyer who was a local called Mr Jones. 

“The Darwin Birthplace Trust was formed, a group with similar goals to set up a museum but with an added advantage; the fact the house was now in private hands. At this point in time a Project Manager is being recruited to oversee the work to help get the museum up and running.

“Young Darwin’s life in Shropshire intrigued me, but very little was written about it. I have researched his life as a Salopian, his love of our countryside on his long walks and how he learned by observation. I learned of his love of collecting from a very young age, how he read about all things that interested him, a self-taught natural scientist in the early days.”

The young Charles Darwin

Each year, during the Darwin Festival, Bibbs curates a two week exhibition on young Darwin’s life for The Civic Society Shrewsbury. This year, she gave a talk about his voyage on The Beagle. This year, she organised a special 213th birthday celebration for Darwin at Mount House.

“BBC 4 wanted someone who had knowledge of  The Young Darwin, and I was recommended by Stan Sedman who knew the work I had done in Shrewsbury on Darwin. I was honoured to be asked,” Bibbs said.

“There are many learned people who have researched Darwin, there is so much written about him and by himself. His notebooks, journal, diaries and hundreds of letters, most pertaining to his later life (although there are many from and to his family), also his autobiography and a lot of what I have read, has enabled me to piece together his life in Shrewsbury, a town he loved growing up in and never forgot.”