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Word from Wormingford

31 July 2007

Ronald Blythe is drawn to the former parish of Darwin’s parson friend

STEPHEN and I are having one of our Suffolk meanderings when all at once a signpost waves to us. Hitcham, it says: come to where one of the mightiest of all village outings took place.

The rain-filled skies are low and propped up by oaks and church towers, and the windscreen-wipers click fretfully. But here, and all unplanned for, lies Hitcham. And here in my memory are dull Sundays in Cambridge marvellously enlightened the moment I open the gate of the Botanic Garden with the Sunday key that has been loaned to me by my friend Denis Garrett, the celebrated mycologist.

Once the Garden had been created, the question arose whether it would be breaking the sabbath to visit it on a Sunday, and this key was given to people who could be trusted to do this without enjoyment.

But we are about to visit the parish of the wonderful John Stevens Henslow, who, practically single-handed, removed a small physic garden in the middle of Cambridge to some 40 acres of farmland along Trumpington Road, and thus formed one of the world’s finest botanic centres.

He arrived at Hitcham in 1837 to discover a wretched village of warring farmers and child labour, and left it with a good school, allotments, cricket and athletic clubs, and a history of railway excursions, the great one being that of Thursday 27 July 1854, when he took no fewer than 287 Hitchamites to Cambridge to see his Botanic Garden.

He gave each one of them an 11-page booklet that he had written and illustrated — he was a splendid botanical artist — and they all arrived at Cambridge station at 9.20 a.m. They walked the Garden, had dinner at Downing College at two p.m., and, in effect, owing to their formidable and scholarly rector, had their lives changed.

As did an undergraduate named Charles Darwin. Henslow was only 13 years Darwin’s senior. Together, they laid the foundations of the neglected science of botany and natural history, as they explored the Fens, the college gardens, and, in the vacations, further afield.

When Henslow was asked to recommend a naturalist for a ship called the Beagle, he recommended Charles Darwin. Unknown to both of them, the voyage of the Beagle would shake Christianity to its foundations.

On Henslow’s memorial in Hitcham Church, by way of the usual flourish, we are required to look up Job 29 — which Stephen and I did in what we thought must have been John Henslow’s own lectern Bible.

It is the passage in which Job recalls his own honourable conduct. “I delivered the poor . . . and him that had none to help him. . . I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. . . I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. . .”

And no country clergyman could have done more for all his parishioners than this brilliant botanist. It took him out of Cambridge, of course, and there were moanings at this. He died, aged 65, and lies in the churchyard at Hitcham, under the nearly bursting rain clouds, a hero of mine.

In his Autobiography (1873), Darwin wrote of his old friend, “His judgment was excellent and his whole mind well-balanced, but I do not suppose that anyone would say that he possessed much original genius.” But, as a recent Director of the Cambridge Botanic Garden rightly observed, “Without Henslows there are no Darwins.”

Some time ago, recalling the Hitcham excursion, I took a dozen or so of our parishioners to walk in the lovely intellectual Garden, and must do so again.

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