Farringford House, the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson for 40 years, is one of the Isle of Wight's hidden treasures. If it was owned by an organisation like the National Trust, its picture would doubtlessly be on every biscuit tin and tea-towel in the UK. Now, though, it is a privately-run hotel all-but-forgotten by all but the few visitors lucky enough to stay there. This is an indescribable shame as it is a perfect relic of the island's pre-eminent Victorian society, second in importance only to Osborne House, Queen Victoria's beloved palace.
The Surrounding Area
Farringford is located on the island's western side, less than three miles from the Needles, and Alum Bay, home of the famous multi-coloured sand cliffs. Farringford is only a few minutes' walk from Compton, Afton and Freshwater Bays, some of the island's award-winning, but quiet, beaches. It is situated just outside of the small, sleepy village of Freshwater, a village whose church, All Saints' Church, dates from the 7th Century. Also nearby is St Agnes's, the island's only thatched church, built on land donated by Tennyson's family from the Farringford estate.
Farringford is in an area nationally recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Much of the surrounding countryside is owned by the National Trust, including the Needles Old Battery, West High Down, Afton Down, Compton Down, Headon Warren, much of the cliff and coastline, and Tennyson Down itself.
The Tennyson Trail, a 15-mile-long footpath running from the Needles to Newport1 runs by Farringford, and Afton Marshes is also only a few minutes' walk away. All of this means that it is a nature-lover's paradise, surrounded by the finest countryside views in all of England. It was, after all, for this reason that Alfred Lord Tennyson came to live at Farringford.
Although Farringford itself is not open to the public, a house that was the home of one of Alfred Lord Tennyson's closest friends is. Next door to Farringford is Dimbola Lodge2 and was the home of Julia Margaret Cameron, the greatest portrait photographer of the 19th Century. In her studio she photographed many of Tennyson's friends and guests.
Dimbola Lodge is interlinked to Farringford as Julia Margaret Cameron was able to record how Farringford House became the focus of a literary and artistic circle of the foremost artists in all mediums of the era. On display are her photographs of Alfred Lord Tennyson and his friends and associates, people such as Charles Darwin3, artist GF Watts, who painted several portraits of Tennyson, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray4, who lived on the island, as well as Lewis Carroll5, poet Robert Browning, artist William Holman Hunt, artist and thinker John Ruskin, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edward Lear6 and Sir Arthur Sullivan7. These give an invaluable insight into the life of Alfred Lord Tennyson and the importance of Farringford as a source of inspiration to many of the most influential men of the 19th Century.8
Farringford Before Tennyson
Little is known of the history of Farringford before the coming of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The area was certainly settled in the stone age, as Paleolithic and Neolithic tools and flint implements have been discovered nearby, as well as bronze weapons. The earliest discovery on the grounds of Farringford itself was a hoard of third century coins. The area was certainly important in Saxon times, as the nearby All Saints' Church9 shows.
For much of the Middle Ages the area around Farringford was owned by the Abbey of Lyre and was the site of Prior Manor. In the 14th Century the estate was owned by Walter de Farringford.
In 1806 construction of the present house was begun, built as a Georgian house. In 1810 it was enlarged and embellished with Gothic parapets and wood-mullioned casements. Alfred Lord Tennyson described this decoration with the words 'It is like a blank verse, it will suit the humblest cottage and the grandest cathedral. It has more mystery than the classic.'
By the 1850s Farringford was owned by the Seymour family.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson10 was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire on 6 August, 1809, the fourth of twelve children. In 1827 he published his first collection of poems Poems By Two Brothers with his brother Charles11 Also in 1827 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, although he left in 1831 without a degree.
Tennyson published his first solo volume of poems, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in 1830, and in 1832 published his second volume, simply entitled Poems. By 1842 Tennyson had won wide acclaim with the publication of his two-volume collection of poems which consisted of a mixture of previously-published poems as well as new work. In 1845 he was awarded a Civil List annual salary of £200. In 1847 he published The Princess, a poem concerning the question of women's rights.
In 1850 Tennyson finally married Emily Sarah Sellwood, after a fourteen-year engagement which had begun in 183612. Also in 1850, on William Wordsworth's death, he succeeded as Poet Laureate and moved to Twickenham near London, which he continued to visit each year for the remainder of his life.
Alfred Lord Tennyson moved to Farringford in 1853. During his time there he wrote many of his most famous works, including The Charge of the Light Brigade and Maud, while another, Crossing The Bar, was written on a voyage between the mainland and his home.
From April 1862, Queen Victoria summoned him to court several times. In 1883 he finally accepted his barony title on Queen Victoria's insistence, having declined the invitation from Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone. He became First Baron Tennyson of Aldworth And Freshwater, and first took his seat in the House of Lords in March 1884. Alfred, Lord Tennyson died on 6 October, 1892 at the age of 83 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Tennyson At Farringford
...Take it and come to the Isle of Wight:
Where, far from the noise of smoke and town,
I watch the twilight falling brown
All around a careless ordered garden,
Close to the ridge of a noble down.
You'll have no scandal while you dine,
But honest talk and wholesome wine.
And only hear the magpie gossip
Garrulous under a roof of pine:
For groves of pine on either hand,
To break the blast of winter stand;
And further on the hoary Channel
Tumbles a billow on chalk and sand.
This is how Tennyson described his life at Farringford in a poem to his friend Reverend Maurice in January 1854.
Tennyson first came to the Isle of Wight in 1846 when he came with Edward Moxon to visit James White of Bonchurch. On that occasion he rowed around the Needles, and found the view unforgettable. He returned to the island in 1849, and again in 1853 when he was on the lookout for a house. He heard of Farringford, and fell in love with the view from the drawing room, which persuaded him to make Farringford his home. He summoned his wife Emily from Twickenham. Her diary records her impressions of that fateful trip to see Farringford for the first time;
'The railway did not go further than Brockhurst then and the steamer, when there was one, from Lymington felt itself in no way bound to wait for the omnibus which brought as many of the passengers as it could from the train. We crossed in a rowing boat. It was a still November evening. One dark heron flew over the Solent backed by a daffodil sky... Next day we went to Farringford and looking from the drawing-room window I thought "I must have that view," and I said so to him when alone.'
Tennyson himself said 'we will go no further, this must be our home.'
On 11 November, 1853 Tennyson agreed to rent Farringford, furnished, on a three-year lease for £2 a week13. The lease came with an option to buy. On 25 November Alfred and Emily moved in and their staff consisted of a housekeeper, butler, cook, page, lady's maid, parlour and kitchen maids, gardeners, grooms and a coachman. In March 1854 their second son, Lionel, was born in Farringford14. By 1856 Alfred, Lord Tennyson's income from his writings was over £2,000 a year and he bought the house, park and farmland of Farringford for £6,900.
In the years that followed many of Tennyson's most important poems were written at Farringford. Tennyson also received visits from many of the world's most influential intellectuals. In June 1860 the Tennysons witnessed the eclipse of the sun from Farringford. Garibaldi also planted a Wellingtonia tree on his visit to Farringford in 1864.
Farringford And Royalty
On 13 May, 1856, on the arrival of Tennyson's own furniture, pictures, boxes of books and other assorted ornaments and antiquities, Prince Albert called. Tennyson, flustered in the middle of arranging the unpacking, is reported to have forgotten to offer Prince Albert a chair. Despite this, Albert remained standing, talking pleasantly, and took a bunch of cowslips home for the Queen. Tennyson did not meet Queen Victoria herself until April 1863. Queen Victoria's diary described the event as follows: 'I went down to see Tennyson who is very peculiar-looking, tall, dark.'
Alfred Lord Tennyson is reported to have been so emotional at the event that his eyes were filled with tears and he could not stand still. He was also unable to remember the Queen's words, and wrote 'I only remember what I said to the Queen - big fool that I was... Why, what an excellent king Prince Albert would have made.' Queen Victoria however was impressed and asked Tennyson to return and bring his family with him. Hallam Tennyson, then ten, wrote 'Observations: You must always say 'mam' when in Her Majesty's presence. You must stand until the Queen asks you to sit down. Her Majesty does not often tell you to sit down...'
Few buildings of such historic age and importance escape tales of ghosts and hauntings, and Farringford is no exception. Perhaps through being a hotel, where guests are able to stay overnight within its haunted rooms, the chances of visitors to the site coming across something other-worldly are increased. Or perhaps its inspiring views and gothic appearance encourages the imaginations of those who sleep there to run wild in flights of frightening fancy. Perhaps we will never know for certain, but one thing we do know are the tales that those who stay there have told.
Chief among the tales of Haunted Farringford are those of Emily Tennyson, who is said to have loved life at Farringford so much that she remains there to this day. She is said to haunt the hotel bedroom that was her nursery, looking after and watching any children that stay, and rocking an invisible cradle.
Emily Tennyson is also supposed to have been seen walking on the lawn, and Alfred Lord Tennyson himself has been reported to have been seen smoking a pipe and relaxing in a chair in the library15 as well as walking on Tennyson Down, the nearby hill named after him.
There are also tales of a phantom horse-drawn carriage seen around the grounds and the road outside Farringford...
Farringford today is a luxury hotel, and has been since the late 1940s. Although this has the disadvantage of meaning that it is not open to the public in the conventional way, it does mean that those lucky enough to stay are perhaps able to appreciate their visit more and savour the atmosphere of living in Farringford, even if only for a short stay, which is something which people who visit a stately home for an hour or two cannot experience.
The hotel has sympathetically preserved the fabric of the house, somehow enabling it to be a hotel without spoiling it, and instead embracing the fact that this was Tennyson's home. This is perhaps due to the hotel remaining small - its 19 rooms prevent it seeming like a vast block of flats, and in each room, in the place of the familiar Gideon's Bible, are copies of the works of Tennyson to browse through and enjoy.
Farringford is set in thirty-three acres of parkland and gardens. The hotel has a nine-hole private golf course, a swimming pool, tennis court, croquet, bowling and putting greens as well as a children's play area. These, and the cheaper accommodation in Farringford's converted stables, are discreet and unobtrusive. A series of 24 chalets, called 'Garden Cottages,' are not quite so successful, but thankfully are positioned out of view of the main house from the drive, and therefore do not spoil the poetic atmosphere which protrudes through a unique building that was a fundamental part of the Victorian Isle of Wight society, and the inspiration for some of the world's greatest poetry.