A little while ago I made the journey to Farringford House on the Isle of Wight to see the former home of Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Following a major restoration project to restore the building and grounds to its mid-19th century glory, it has recently been re-opened to small groups of visitors. Details below.
The building is early Gothic revival style, with later Victorian additions. After a short period of rental, it was bought by the the poet, Alfred and his wife Emily, in 1856. They lived there for much of the latter half of the 19th century, alternating with another residence in Sussex. Following Tennyson’s death in 1892, it remained in the possession of his family until 1945.
The last time I was there was during the bicentennial exhibition of 2009. The new owners were just embarking on its very earliest days of restoration then. And it still retained a lot of the incongruous character of its more recent past as a hotel. It was for a time even owned by the holidiay-camp firm Pontins!
Since those shadowy days, when the precious heritage of the place could possibly have been lost, there have been enormous positive changes. And for anyone interested in the work of Tennyson or for any enthusiast of Victorian history, it really is worth a visit. This is largely due to the authenticity of what has been achieved during the restoration, undertaken privately, and which, one has to conclude, has surely been a labour of love on an heroic scale.
Thanks to journals and a detailed inventory made by Emily Tennyson in 1887, many original items of furniture and art from the house have been reinstated or brought back from elsewhere. These include Tennysons desk and some fine watercolours by Helen Allingham.
The Tour of Farringford House
Perhaps because we went on a relatively ‘off-peak’ time, our group of eager tourists consisted of less than a dozen individuals. After assembly in the music room we were each presented with an audio device with headphones. This could be controlled easily and provided a co-ordinated guide to each room as we were shepherded through the house by no less than four individual guides. They were all delightful, informative and knowledgeable, and answered questions with all the enthusiasm of those devoted to a project close to their hearts.
In fact, this is really part of the charm of the whole experience. There are no commercial temptations to deal with: no shop, very few souvenirs. You simply have the feeling of being shown around someone’s home by friends in their absence, which I suppose is exactly what is taking place. Only the ‘someone’ in question was a the famous poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson and his family who lived there 150 years ago.
Some of the highlights …
No photography allowed inside on the tour. So I have borrowed pictures from the internet and credited to their source wherever possible. If you spot your photo here, by the way, and have objections, do let me know and I’ll remove it.
The Dining Room
With table set for a modest family dinner, this is a delightful space full of authentic period detail. There’s even a mock-up of the Tennyson’s favourite dessert of apple pie! Tennyson and his wife Emily entertained numerous distinguished and clever people over the years. Visitors included Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, the poet Swinburne, George Frederic Watts, the Allinghams, Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, and the Italian statesman Giuseppe Garibaldi. Prince Albert is also recorded as having visited briefly.
The drawing room at Farringford House is probably the largest of the 11 rooms open to the tour. Consequently, it has the most to see, and very evocative. It has plenty of fine 19th-century period furniture, portraits and fantastic decorative detail on walls and ceiling. This includes an enormous gilt-framed mirror and a magnificent central rose.
The large, east-facing windows have stunning views over the garden and lawns beyond, with some magnificent trees and glimpses of the sea. You are permitted to stroll here, by the way. There is also an ongoing project restoring the walled-garden to the west of the house. And visitors are able to walk here, too.
Tennyson was a great outdoor man. His walks were a constant source of inspiration, and he also did much of his writing in a specially built summerhouse that once existed in the gardens surrounding the building.
The Library at Farringford House
The library is on the upper floor with fine views through a large, central window. This is the room where the poet would have done much of his research and study. It contains his original writing desk, windsor chair and, curiously, two globes. One of these is a terrestrial globe, the other celestial showing the constellations. It reminds us that Tennyson numbered astronomy and the practical observation of the stars among his many hobbies. He constructed an observing platform attached to the upper part of the building, access to which has only recently been re-located. Out of bounds for visitors, alas, due to safety reasons.
A nice interactive touch: there is an earpiece through which you can listen to a crackly old recording of Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade. This was made originally on wax cylinder by Thomas Edison in 1890.
The beautiful wallpaper here, as in many of the rooms, has been specially printed and has been copied from fragments found during the restoration. Likewise with several other decorative features throughout the building, such as the details on cornices and ceilings. A lot of expertise and detective work involved, for sure.
Tennyson’s cloak and hat
Surprisingly, these iconic objects are not prominently displayed. They can be glimpsed on a mannequin lurking in a small side chamber off one of the smaller rooms. The cloak (I think it is, in fact, what is called an ‘Inverness Coat’) is the very garment the poet would wear during his daily treks across the downs nearby. He would walk for miles in all weathers. It has always been kept at Farringford House, while the broad-brimmed hat is on loan from elsewhere. Wonderful to see them!
Apart from these very real connections to the Victorian past, is there any sense of ‘presence’ at all – of the great man himself or his family? No, not quite. It will take a little while for the dust to settle and for the newness of the restoration itself to mellow. But I do not doubt that things will alter. If the spirits of the past have any sense of nostalgia, they will return eventually. And when they do, it will be to a place that will look far more familiar and ‘at home’ to them than it has for many a year – until you will, I am sure, soon be able to sense a tap on the shoulder or the fragrance of vintage port on unseen lips as you wander among them.
The Tours – currently £11 per person- take place on a pre-booking basis only from Wednesday to Saturday. (Not sure whether there might be a pause during the winter months.) Phone in advance, anyway, to reserve a place: 01983 752500. Website: https://farringford.co.uk