Shropshire Star

Marking out Darwin's way

There's a spring in Jon King's step. Workmen are busy outside key locations in Shrewsbury town centre, laying keystones that commemorate significant places in the life of Charles Darwin.


One of the new Darwin markers

There's a spring in Jon King's step. Workmen are busy outside key locations in Shrewsbury town centre, laying keystones that commemorate significant places in the life of Charles Darwin.

"Good work chaps," says Jon, as they cement the keystones into the ground. "Those look great."

Jon is relishing this week like no other. For years he's been working towards today – the 200th anniversary of naturalist Darwin's birth. In recent days, he's welcomed TV crews from America, Australia, Norway, Germany and other parts of the world. "The whole world is looking at Shrewsbury," he says. "There's never been anything else like this in the town's history."

Darwin's bicentenary is being celebrated in a variety of ways. There are events in schools, musical celebrations, lectures, parties and even a toast at The Bellstone. Education projects, public artwork and other events form part of the anniversary.

Charles Darwin 200th anniversaryThere is also the new Darwin Trail, which people can wander along at their leisure. Jon says: "The idea of the trail is to give people an opportunity to follow in Darwin's footsteps. They can wander around Shrewsbury, looking at the places where Darwin studied, was born, or that provided inspiration."

The trail starts at The Bellstone, in the courtyard of The Morris Hall. A vast chunk of rock lies harmlessly in the public corner. Jon says: "The stone seems innocuous but it was actually a crucial part of Darwin's development."

The stone illustrates the power of Darwin's young and inquiring mind. Jon takes up the story: "Darwin was told by a Mr Cotton, who was an amateur naturalist, that nobody knew how the stone had come to be there. He said the world would end before anybody knew. But within 18 months, Darwin found himself at a geology lecture at Edinburgh.

"He was told how the last ice age had carved through the landscape and moved boulders with it. Then he remembered what Mr Cotton had said about it. He worked out how it had travelled to Shrewsbury, during the ice age, and he marvelled at the progress of geology."

Jon KingThe next place on the Darwin Trail is 13 Claremont. That was the address at which Darwin received his first formal education, at the home of the Reverend Case, the Unitarian Minister in Shrewsbury at the time. Nearby is St Chad's, where Darwin was baptised, and nearby is the Lion Hotel, another key part of the Trail.

Jon adds: "The Lion Hotel was of crucial importance. There's a marvellous story attached to it.

"Charles Darwin originally went to Edinburgh to study to become a doctor. However, whilst there, he witnessed an operation on a small boy. This, of course, was in the pre-anaesthesia days. That really put him off medicine for life.

"He attended a number of science lectures in Edinburgh that put him in touch with the natural world. He was so impressive during lectures that Fitzroy put him on the shortlist for the HMS Beagle. However, when Darwin told his father about the invitation, he was told he could not go.

"Darwin's uncle then intervened and persuaded his father that young Charles should go. Charles' father relented but by then, Darwin did not know whether his place had been taken up by another person.

"So he went as quickly as he could to the Lion Hotel, which was the nearest coaching station. He got on the first coach to London and had his fingers crossed the whole way that he would still be able to go on the HMS Beagle. Thankfully, Fitzroy had not reallocated his place and Darwin was able to make the journey that changed his life and, indeed, our understanding of the world."

There are other stop off points on the trail, including Shrewsbury library.

Over coming months, Shrewsbury will be alive to the sights and sounds of Darwin. A new public artwork will be put up in Mardol Quay Garden. Jon can't wait to see the unveiling of the new statue, which will form the climax of the £500,000 Darwin bicentenary.

He says: "Darwin's ideas were inspiring and we believe the new public artwork is too. Rather than having another statue of him, we wanted something that suggested his interest in geology and philosophy."

By Andy Richardson

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