Freethought Pilgrimage to London

Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

I traveled to London last November to speak at a women's conference sponsored by the International Humanist Ethical Union. It was great fun, but I found that the two free days I'd allotted for quick sightseeing were frustratingly inadequate.

During that visit, I spotted a poster advertising the world premiere of a two-part staging of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" at the British National Theatre.

The two ambitious full-length plays are based on Pullman's absorbing fantasy trilogy for older children-- Northern Lights(known as The Golden Compass in this country), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. A few years ago, friend and Foundation member Liz Uhr introduced them to my daughter, Sabrina. Enthralled, Sabrina pronounced them her favorite books, and was even inspired to start (but not finish) writing a play based on them.

British Pullman is unique, so far as I know, as a children's author who is openly atheist and touts a rationalist agenda. In countless press interviews, including The New York Times, Pullman has explained that his "Dark Materials" are meant as an antidote, an alternative, to the sickly Christian sacrificial themes in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronology.

When I got back from London, I half-jokingly suggested to Sabrina that we should go see the plays, and finish some of my deferred sightseeing. Before we knew it, we had booked ourselves a London adventure (at very reasonable rates for the off-season of March).

When obliging Jennifer Jeynes, Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society, learned we would be in town, she immediately scheduled Dan for a Sunday afternoon concert at Conway Hall on March 7, billing him as "The Singing Atheist."

Dan's "Singing Atheist" concert took place in the library of Conway Hall, bedecked with portraits of famous freethinkers such as Voltaire, Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell, its walls lined with row upon row of fascinating freethought books. Dan had an appreciative audience, and we enjoyed meeting London secularists. The event ended hospitably with tea and biscuits (cookies). Pointing out that the British government has proposed teaching atheism in the schools along with its usual religion classes, Jennifer Jeynes concluded the afternoon with the gracious wish that she could send the "Singing Atheist" into every British school.

Dan and I stopped at the park in Red Lion Square across the street to pay homage to the small bust of Bertrand Russell planted there, surrounded by daffodils.

Taking the advice of several Britons, and abiding by Sabrina's request to see a castle, we toured the Tower of London the next day. (Did you know the Roman conquerors originally built it to keep the Britons out? That fact was mysteriously omitted by the Beefeater leading our tour.) I suggested we skip the tour of the torture chamber. Dan noticed that one of the early King Edwards, according to a sign, was only nominally religious but was a great practitioner of charity. (No surprise there.)

Dan and Sabrina ventured eight miles out of London to Greenwich one day to see the place where "time" begins, straddle the prime meridian and tour the Royal Observatory, a nice science outing. I opted for flowers, taking a long trip to Kew Gardens. Sweeps of daffodils went on for fields, interspersed with blazing patches of purple and white crocuses, quite awe-inspiring to the spring-starved. Did you know freethought played a small role in these gardens? Queen Caroline, a noted Deist who refused to marry a Roman Catholic or to take the "oath," was an early promoter of what became Kew Gardens.

I detoured to the nearby "Maids of Honour" bakery, which originally served kings, thanks to a kind tip and directions from Foundation member and volunteer Phyllis Rose, to indulge in their delicious "cream tea"--tea with fresh scones accompanied by double-whipped cream and jam. In fact, I detoured almost everywhere I went for "cream tea" or "high tea," although finding this tradition is increasingly difficult in Starbucks-infested London.

That evening we went to the National Theatre for the first of the two-part Pullman play. We returned for a matinee of Part II the following day. Sabrina was enchanted. Dan, who was new to the material, was a bit confounded. But the freethought philosophy, even if buried in a dizzying plot, was unmistakable. Lyra, the 12-year-old protagonist, is destined to "kill" God and create "the republic of heaven on earth." Not your everyday plotline!

We concluded our sixth and final day with a "pilgrimage" to Down House, Darwin's home in Downe. I'd longed to visit it ever since reading of its restoration by the English Heritage, which acquired it in 1996.

This excursion involved a ride on the Tube, transferring at Victoria Station to a real train. The 16-mile train trip ended in Bromley, where we discovered the bus to Downe departs only once an hour. We were in luck, and waited only 15 minutes in the unseasonable cold as snowflakes fell. We took that bus to the end of the line, then walked a quarter-mile to the outskirts of the pretty village, and into the welcome warmth of Down House's tearoom. (First things first.)

After warming and fueling up, we took the fascinating self-guided audiophone tour of the ground floor of Darwin's home, where such personal effects as his wife's collection of novels are showcased. Emma Darwin regularly read Dickens, Thackery and Austen aloud to her husband and eight children. (She gave birth to ten, if you can imagine such stamina; two died, including little Annie, Darwin's favorite, at age 10.)

In Darwin's study, where a "water closet" and bath were installed for the invalid's comfort, we learned that the indulgent father let his children run riot among his collections, including his famed barnacles. Children would wheel themselves around in his "microscope chair." A son, imagining all fathers were like his, once asked a neighbor boy, "Where does your father do his barnacles?"

Also unVictorian was the Darwin attitude toward servants. After fixing up the house, which they first considered "ugly," they felt the servants were entitled to comfort as well, enlarging and improving the servants' quarters. When Darwin's mind needed more of a break than could be provided by his three regular constitutionals, he rang for his manservant, and they repaired to the billiards room, both men looking forward to the sport. It makes a cozy picture.

Aside from the children's nursery, where you can spot the children's carvings on shelves, the upstairs has become a museum. The exhibits, including one geared at children, are thoughtful, and include more samples of Darwin's work, equipment and collections. One room is devoted to documenting the outcry, mainly religious, greeting the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Origin was followed by the even more controversial The Descent of Man (1871). Darwin's skepticism was not stated outright in the museum scripts, but it was certainly implied.

We saved for last the long-anticipated "Sandwalk," located beyond the gardens and vegetable fields, whose path Darwin blazed pacing back and forth, working out kinks in body and mind. We took a quick but satisfying hike down this "contemplation trail" in the frosty cold.

In the gift shop, we discovered the perfect memento: pretty blue and white decorative plates bearing Darwin's profile, produced by the Wedgwood Company. Potter Josiah Wedgwood had a special place in Darwin's heart as the advocate who had persuaded Darwin's father to let him take his historic voyage of the Beagle. Wedgwood was not only Darwin's uncle, but became his father-in-law when Darwin, in very 19th century fashion, married his first cousin Emma. What could be more appropriate than a Wedgwood plate honoring Darwin? The little plates had been marked down to under US$4. How could we resist? We purchased one for the Freedom From Religion Foundation office and one for our home.

We thoroughly enjoyed our whirlwind trip, and all its details, from riding the Underground and the endangered double-decker red buses to sampling British chocolate bars and gawking at historic sites on every corner. Sabrina, with a 14-year-old concept of time and money, even suggested, "Let's come back every year." The play and the British Museum, which has not lost its charm for one Egyptian-crazed girl, were Sabrina's favorite memories. Dan and I most enjoyed our unexpectedly moving visit to Down House.

Next stop on our Darwin pilgrimage, someday: Galapagos!

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