The great estate
A one-woman mission to restore a famous Victorian poet’s home has given the Isle of Wight a glorious new attraction, says Fiona Sims
The Isle of Wight has had many illustrious residents, most famously Queen Victoria at Osborne, which was her seaside retreat for 50 years from 1845. But next on that list must be the renowned Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Tennyson chose a modest, recently Gothicised Georgian lodge called Farringford to be his main home, from 1853 until his death in 1892. Located in West Wight, it’s nestled in the wooded hills of Freshwater, below the cliffs and downs that take you to The Needles. He snapped it up for a cool £6,000 and then let his wife Emily get down to the business of transforming the place.
It remained the family home for successive generations, before becoming a hotel in 1945. Then, in 2009, the new owner, art expert Rebecca Fitzgerald, realised a longstanding ambition to return it to its former Victorian glory, finally opening its doors to the public last summer.
This was where Tennyson, Poet Laureate, composed many of his most famous works, including “Maud”, “Enoch Arden” and “Idylls of the King”. But while Farringford provided a tranquil haven, it also attracted many of Tennyson’s eminent friends, becoming a hub of intellectual and artistic activity. He was an enthusiastic host, too, scandalously encouraging female guests to let their hair down as well as allowing children to join the adults for dinner, unheard of at the time.
Among the many guests were renowned children’s authors Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Edward Lear; and famous Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. One of the most famous guests of all, though, was military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, with whom he discussed Italian poetry.
There are 11 rooms currently on show, the most startling of which is The Blue Room. Emily Tennyson was apparently given the original electric blue Azure wallpaper as a gift: “But as neither of the couple were fans, it was relegated to this anteroom, where guests left their calling cards,” explains one of the four tour guides on hand to answer questions. Visitors also learn how, after scraping off thick layers of emulsion slapped on during the hotel years, the renovation team discovered that 70% of the original ceiling mouldings were still intact.
And there’s a goose bump moment in Tennyson’s bedroom, where visitors are invited to sit on the window seat and listen to a recording of an actor reciting excerpts from “Memoriam” and “Ulysses”, as they stare out to sea as Tennyson once did, through the branches of the cedar tree that was standing there in his day.
The biggest thrill, though, is reserved for Tennyson’s study (once the hotel’s TV room), where headphones relay the voice of Tennyson himself reciting his most famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, in an eerily powerful monotone, recorded by his friend Thomas Edison at the very desk he sat to compose it. Visitors can also check out the concealed spiral staircase, which he used to race down when fleeing unwanted visitors.
The grounds have also been returned to their authentic Tennyson-era condition, including a walled garden with a planting scheme based on contemporary descriptions and artistic depictions by the poet’s friends.
Farringford.co.uk Pre-booked tours operate from Wednesday to Saturday; £11 adults, £6.50 children