An intriguing insight into the private life and times of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, one of Britain’s most celebrated poets, has been unveiled at his former home on the Isle of Wight, writes Peter White.
Tennyson lived at Farringford House, Freshwater, from 1853 until his death in 1892 at the age of 83, and it was there that he wrote some of his most famous works, including ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a dramatic tribute to the British cavalrymen involved in an ill-advised charge during the Crimean War.
As Poet Laureate of the UK and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, he would leave the house at 11.00am each day, to take an inspirational two-hour walk across the vast 250-acre Farringford estate which he owned. Wearing his famous cloak and hat, he would walk up to High Down, later to become Tennyson Down, and where his memorial now stands.
After his death, and that of his wife Emily four years later, Farringford remained the Tennyson family home for three more generations. Hallam, a son of Tennyson, owned the house until he died in 1928, and in turn it was passed on to his son Lionel, a famous cricketer.
Lionel didn’t have the passion for the house that his ancestors showed, so his cousin Charles Tennyson looked after it in the 1930s. However, Lionel was the one with the financial clout, only to lose virtually all his money to gambling, so the house was sold to British Estates Ltd, a subsidiary of Thomas Cook, to become a hotel in 1945. Then in 1960 it was acquired by Fred Pontin, founder of the Pontin holiday camp company, and he even lived there for a short while. Fred’s favourite racehorse ‘Specify’, which won the Grand National in 1971, is even buried in the grounds of Farringford.
Inevitably the years took their toll on Farringford. Due to water damage and the elements it might easily have crumbled into ruins, but for the intervention of Rebecca Fitzgerald. When she bought the house in 2007 a structural survey judged the building to be 87 per cent failing, virtually in the brink of collapse, underlining the huge restoration project that has subsequently taken place. After years of surveys and compiling historical documents for the building, restoration work began in 2012, and was completed earlier this year.
With as many original features as possible maintained, Farringford has been painstakingly transformed into a Tennyson time capsule, dating back to around 1860. Now 11 of its rooms have been re-opened to the public, magnificently refurbished with a mix of Tennyson’s own possessions, as well as original and reproduction furniture, photographs, paintings, and even wallpaper.
Farringford was originally built back in 1802 as a comparatively modest house, with just four main rooms on the ground floor, and it was when Tennyson and his wife Emily began their search for a house away from London as a retreat in 1853, that it became their first choice.
While staying with friends in Bonchurch, Tennyson travelled to West Wight to see the house; liked it, so went back to London to tell Emily all about it, and seek her approval. They returned to the south coast for a viewing, but missed the last steamer of the day that came to the Island.
So they were rowed across from Lymington to Yarmouth in a small boat. Although Emily was not particularly impressed at first sight, as soon as she went into the drawing room and saw the view (below) through the windows, she fell in love with the property, and it became their home.
Although extensions over the years made Farringford more like a castle from the outside, it maintained its warm, family feel inside, and was the perfect retreat for the Tennyson family, as well as a place that many of the poet’s friends and associates visited for social events, including Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Indeed, it is well catalogued that Tennyson, as well as being a literary genius, was a heavy smoker, puffing on his clay pipes while often drinking a bottle of port a night!
He spent much of his time in the library, where he would write his works before and after his walks. He often used a spiral staircase from the library to the ground floor to begin his jaunts, and it was down those same stairs that he darted when people he didn’t particularly want to see, turned up at the house.
In the grounds outside one bedroom stands a magnolia tree that has been there for more than 150 years. It is said that when the tree was in bloom, Tennyson picked a flower from it every night and put it on Emily’s pillow.
The current Lord Tennyson has loaned Farringford very significant pieces of furniture owned by Alfred Tennyson, and used in the library, including his writing desk, the Windsor chair he worked at, and his two globes — one terrestrial and one celestial — which he consulted because he liked to ensure the scientific accuracy of his metaphors!
The Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, close to where Tennyson was born, has loaned an oak table and a beautiful painted metal chest original to the house. The original items are complemented by a collection of items tracked down from the period by Rebecca Fitzgerald, based on the inventory of Emily Tennyson, which proved to be most helpful during the restoration and refurb of the whole building.
The Tennyson Research Centre has also loaned one of Tennyson’s hats. It is displayed alongside his famous cloak, which remained at Farringford throughout its years as a hotel. He would wear the striking outfit when striding out on the Down for his two-hours walks.
Other items on show include clay pipes and a tobacco bowl belonging to Tennyson, along with his velvet smoking cap and his hip flask, as well his microscope and turn-of-the-century board games belonging to his son Hallam’s family.
Local craftsmen were involved in the painstaking restoration and refurbishment of Farringford, with attention to detail very much in evidence throughout the whole project. A lot of the cornices in the rooms somehow survived the years, but the parts that were destroyed have been meticulously replaced to blend in seamlessly with the originals.
Entering the house, you move into the Blue Room, perfectly recreated, with its striking blue wallpaper. The original wallpaper was a gift to the Tennyson family by renowned photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, which had to be replaced because Emily and her sons suffered the effects of arsenic poisoning from the contents of the paper.
During restoration, several more small fragments of the original wallpaper were discovered, and as part of the restoration, the paper was replicated as closely as possible to give Farringford an even more authentic feel.
Tennyson rejected his peerage several times before Queen Victoria personally requested he should become Lord Tennyson, so in 1883 he finally agreed to it. He may have died 125 years ago, but his poems remain as popular today as they have always been.
Thankfully, due to the passion that Rebecca has shown for Farringford over the past decade, the famous house will also live on.
“I visited the house on many occasions under previous ownership. When I saw the damage with my own eyes, it moved me.”
Rebecca, who is now one of the tour guides at Farringford, had no idea how long the restoration job would take, or how costly it would prove.
“I just thought it was possible. I didn’t realise it would be such an undertaking.
“Even the reports we had to submit to change its use from hotel to historic house, took two years to pass. Then the nuts and bolts of restoring the place took five years. In most cases there was very little left of original materials, but where we did find fragments, we got in wallpaper experts to date it, then I was able to get those copied.
“It was fortunate Emily Tennyson was very organised and kept her detailed inventory. That was a very useful guide for me when it came to building up furniture and effects for the individual rooms. It has turned out as well as I could have ever hoped or dreamed.
“What has been wonderful, and what I have I found very rewarding, is to have the rooms full of people just enjoying the house, and seeing the pleasure on their faces. I have loved being one of the tour guides.”
“Prince Albert made a documented visit here, but Queen Victoria never came, although it was often anticipated she would. Tennyson did go to Osborne House, and there was a wonderful friendship through correspondence between Tennyson and Queen Victoria.”
Story by Peter White, editor Beacon Magazine. Pick up your free copy across the Isle of Wight!