Tennyson's Island - Isle of Wight

" ... one feels that western Wight is an earthquake poised in mid-explosion and ready any day to burst its turfy covering of wild, distorted downs."

“ … one feels that western Wight is an earthquake poised in mid-explosion and ready any day to burst its turfy covering of wild, distorted downs.”  

Words spoken by a 20th century Poet Laureate, capturing the essence of a place that for 39 years a 19th century Poet Laureate called home. “In its best days”, continued John Betjeman, “Tennyson knew it.”  When its best days were over, he left. But in between times, this wild explosion of a place would inspire some of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s greatest poems, and provide the setting for perhaps the happiest period of his life.  “I require quiet, and myself to myself, more than any man when I write”, Tennyson told his wife Emily in 1850. Paradoxically, he also needed the distraction and stimulation of interesting people. And in 1853, with a wife and the first of two baby boys in tow, he desperately needed somewhere to live. As luck would have it, on the leeward side of that wild distorted down, Farringford had become available. The seclusion of this ivy-clad gothic house ‘half-hid in the gleaming wood,’ coupled with the sheer magnetism of Tennyson’s personality, would enable the paradox – and his family – to live happily together under one roof. Nearby Freshwater – then only a scattering of cottages and farms, would never be the same again.

Once so remote that the Yarmouth porter would shout for the benefit of departing travellers, “This way to England!” the Island was fast becoming a tourist trap and a lucrative hotspot for housing developers 

Popular demand“Is there no one who is commonplace here?” a bemused passer-by was once heard to exclaim. “Is everybody either a poet, or a genius, or a painter, or peculiar in some way?” Sure enough there was a time when this then sleepy backwater woke up to a parade of peculiarly extraordinary people with immediately familiar names – Charles Darwin, John Everett Millais, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear – none of whom had come to admire the view or to get away from it all – they had all come to see Tennyson.As had dear, bossy, eccentric ‘Mrs C’ – Julia Margaret Cameron was recently hailed as ‘the greatest pictorial photographer of the 19th century’.  When she upped sticks, and settled half way between Farringford and the sea to be beside her devoted friend Alfred Tennyson, her craze for taking pictures hadn’t even begun. But once armed and dangerously skilled in the use of the camera given to her by her daughter in 1863, there would be no stopping ‘this woman of volcanic energy, with a romantic passion for the arts and an immense capacity for hero-worship’. Tennyson’s ‘peculiar’ circle of friends, and anybody who happened to be passing Dimbola Lodge, would have to watch out. “You have to do whatever she tells you,” Tennyson advised the poet, Longfellow, when dropping him off for a portrait session in 1868. “I’ll come back soon and see what is left of you.”  Alfred could be Alfred Bossy Julia might have been, but insensitive and ungenerous – never, and always respectful of Alfred and Emily’s unique relationship. “When he is with her”, she explained, “I do not often go up. They are so complete in themselves.” Complete as a couple – and with their two little boys, Hallam and Lionel, as intimately connected as the four chambers of one beating heart, with Farringford its ribcage. Though physically frail, Emily was Alfred’s mental and emotional rock, a stabilising influence, happy to play hostess, housekeeper, and highly efficient personal assistant, so that Alfred could be Alfred, could do whatever he had to do in order to write poetry.  This meant much thinking time alone – with his breakfast, his pipe and his dogs on the top of High Down, drawn continually ‘to the scream of a madden’d beach dragg’d down by the wave’. Less solitary walks too, with friends, or with the boys helping to pull Emily often as far as Alum Bay in a hand-cart. The roof was the place to gaze at stars, spot comets, even to fly kites, making the boys ‘wild with delight’. And then there was the garden. “Poetry”, Alfred believed, “ought to go hand-in-hand with digging”, or rolling the lawn, or sweeping up leaves, or gravelling paths and cutting new glades into copses – as Emily, huddled in his cloak, looked on. And poetry was to be recited almost every evening – always by Alfred.

The seclusion of Tennyson's wild distorted down, and the family's intimate 'life in life' at Farringford were under intolerable threat.


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The curse of celebrityBy the mid 1860s, Tennyson was becoming a victim not only of his own success, but also of ‘progress’. Time was almost up. Once so remote that the Yarmouth porter would shout for the benefit of departing travellers, “This way to England!” the Island was fast becoming a tourist trap and a lucrative hotspot for housing developers.  Because of his unique appearance and a sudden boom in portrait photography (ironically pioneered by dear Mrs C), the Poet Laureate had become instantly and uncomfortably recognisable to people for whom celebrity held a deeper fascination than poetry. The seclusion of Tennyson’s wild distorted down, and the family’s intimate ‘life in life’ at Farringford were under intolerable threat. Almost as quickly as it had exploded into life, western Wight’s Tennyson era petered out and was over. Dear Mrs C departed first, dying of an infection on her husband’s estate in Ceylon, though not before passing a final characteristic comment in response to the starry night sky – as to the world itself – “beautiful”.  Alfred and family beat a rural retreat to Aldworth, a secluded, gothic, this time tailor-made house near Haslemere in Surrey, returning to Farringford only in the winter when the day-trippers had long gone. And with the loss of the magnet, what could possibly now pull in the poets, the painters, and the ‘peculiar’ people?  It seemed that all seismic and volcanic activity around Freshwater had ceased.

Mrs C’s HouseOr perhaps it was merely lying dormant. In the summer of 1970, on a plain between Afton Down and High Down, over 600,000 people watched and listened transfixed as the sun set behind a stage that had been pulsing for just under a week to the sound of such legends as The Who, Jethro Tull, The Doors, The Moody Blues and Jimi Hendrix. But the eyes of one young student in the crowd were drawn beyond the stage to a silhouette of a Celtic cross high on the top of the down, a monument to Alfred Lord Tennyson. Twenty years later, the same student, now a doctor of English literature, would storm into a meeting of the Isle of Wight Tennyson Society and indignantly proclaim: “They’re going to knock down Mrs Cameron’s House!”  Something would have to be done!

Farringford for saleLater in the 70s a young boy cycled with his friend from his home in Godshill all the way to Fred Pontin’s Farringford Hotel. They hid their bikes in the bushes, climbed to the monument on top of the down, and ran back for tea and cake on the drawing-room terrace – the same drawing room from which Emily Tennyson, looking from the window for the first time, had called a halt to Alfred’s endless house-hunting with the simple statement, “I must have that view.”  Years later, the same boy, now a Victorian art expert at Christies with a new wife in tow, returned to his favourite cycling haunt, needing a place to live. Lying on the lawn with their backs to Emily’s precious view, they stared wistfully, wishfully, until one dared to share what they had both been thinking – “We must have that house!” Twenty years later, divorced but still close, and united in their passion for all things Victorian, both pricked up their ears on hearing that Farringford was up for sale…

Visit the IslandVicky Kimm travelled to the Isle of Wight with Wightlink: www.wightlink.co.uk, tel. 0871 376 1000. For details on what else to see and do on the Isle of Wight, visit www.islandbreaks.co.uk or tel. 01983 813813