In Search of Tennyson on the Isle of Wight: A Gathering of Friends
Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight
THERE IS A PLACE LIKE NO PLACE ON EARTH
A LAND FULL OF WONDER, MYSTERY & DANGER!
SOME SAY TO SURVIVE IT, YOU NEED TO BE AS
MAD AS A HATTER WHICH LUCKILY I AM
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Dimbola Lodge, home of Julia Margaret Cameron, The front view
My first stop during my stay on the Isle of Wight, was to visit Dimbola Lodge; the home of nineteenth-century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. It is an operating museum free of charge with a lovely café. It is located right off the main motorway with a view of Freshwater Bay. You can walk down to the water where you can enjoy the beach, surf or just sit and enjoy the view. I was lucky enough to be able to visit Dimbola several times during my stay. The first time, I remember simply walking up the front door steps, walking in, nodding hello to the woman at the small wooden front desk to the right of the entryway, the left was the café. No money required, I walked up the stained oak staircase complete with framed copies of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs on the walls. There is only the top floor to walk through. It has a sign outside Mrs. Cameron’s bedroom decorated in her style the way it was during her years she lived there 1860-1875.
As I walked further down the hall, I passed glass enclosed cases filled with some faded bits of original William Morris wallpaper that lined the walls of her bedroom. Still there were tiny glass bottles with chemical names on faded yellow labels which were the photographic chemicals she used to develop her wet collodion glass plate negative process as well as one glass plate negative image of Annie Chinery who was the wife of Ewen Cameron, Mrs. Cameron’s son. The next room was sunlit by one window with a standing sliding box camera; a copy of the camera Mrs. Cameron worked with. Still it was a fascinating experience to walk through this house. The creaking wooden floorboards, no other upstairs room is furnished in replica and the upper space seems to be presently used to line the walls with copy photographs by Mrs. Cameron. Two or three originals are housed under a glass stand. You can walk through the home in under a half an hour without taking part in a guided tour. Although, I seemed to visit on days when there was no guide available which disappointed me. However, later in the week, I attended a party at Redoubt House next door to Dimbola Lodge, which happens to be the former house of the Keown Family; former friends and photographic sitters to Julia Margaret Cameron. There I was visiting my two friends who invited me to their home to attend a terrific weekend party where it turned out I met fellow friends whom I had been speaking with for years on social media. I chatted, sat and talked with a few lovely ladies from The Tennyson Society and then met a lovely man who volunteered at Dimbola. So, on my next visit to the house, I met him for lunch at the Dimbola Café along with two other terrific and fun gentlemen. During my ploughman’s lunch, after much conversation and laughter, I was excused from the table where I had the shock and privilege of my life! He shall remain nameless, here, but suffice it to say, I was shown a cabinet full of original Julia Margaret Cameron albumen prints! They are in a locked room inside Dimbola Lodge but I was let in with a key and permission. So, eternal thanks to you sir.
Farringford House, front view from the driveway
Next visit included the home of my love, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) where at Farringford House, he lived (1853-1892) with his wife and two sons Hallam and Lionel Tennyson. Again, I repeat myself, to say the unexplainable feeling to be standing in front of a home you have read and researched for several years. I strive and seek to discover a more personal side to the poet laureate; here I was standing on the house grounds. Farringford House is currently under construction/re-development and is being restored to its original nineteenth-century glory when The Tennyson’s lived there. It was a beautiful sunny day as I walked freely around the house taking photographs as I tried in my head to find the various windows and doors where Lady Emily Tennyson would be pushed outside in her push chair by her husband and sons during her weaker and frail years. Was that the windows of Alfred’s library? Was that the kitchen, the back garden perhaps? There was so much scaffolding and workmen running in and out of the main front door, I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to scream out to them, ‘do you have any idea where you are? Do you understand the importance of this property, this home? What this building represents not just historically but personally? The poetry written there, the dinner parties housed there? The times when Alfred would carry his newborn sons up and down the stairs of the main floor while Emily rested?’ Oh, I was gutted every time that front door opened just a crack and I saw these men able to go in and out with such ease! Well, anyway, it was another breathtaking moment. For I could visualize in my mind, the boys standing and posing outside by the front white columns waiting for photographer friend, Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813-1875) to capture history in the making. I had to do it. I stood at the white column and took a selfie! Alright, a few selfies!
Lionel and Hallam Tennyson by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, 1862
I visited All Saints’ Church where the graves of Lady Tennyson, her sons, Alfred’s sister Matilda, and grandchildren, Harold Courtenay Tennyson are there. I also found the graves of Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sarah Monckton. It is a beautiful place, very quiet and peaceful with such an interesting church to walk around and visit.
On the advice of my friends, fellow Pre-Raphaelite fans, I was told we should visit a small church that houses stained glass windows by William Morris and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, St. Lawrence Church
I am so grateful that they recommended this church. It is so quaint, so beautiful, and just a beauty to behold. We also made a stop to take a look at St. Catherine’s Lighthouse also located in nearby Ventnor. I can fully understand why this lighthouse was a favorite of Lady Tennyson. It’s on the water and as if the lighthouse wasn’t beautiful enough you have the lush green British hills to look at.
St. Catherine's Lighthouse, Ventnor, Isle of Wight
The Needles, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight
We drove along the most stunning scenic roads one including the military road that takes you to a gorgeous upper cliff view of The Needles. I wanted to see The Needles so very badly. They are simply nature born chalk stacks jutting out of the bay but for me, I had to see them with my own eyes. Another connection to Tennyson and a better understanding as to why he fell in love with Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight.
A part of Carisbrooke Castle
On my itinerary was a day outing with those party friends that live near Dimbola who very generously offered to visit Carisbrooke Castle and Osborne House; the home of Queen Victoria. Being a fan of British and Irish Celtic history, Arthurian legends, Medieval England, this castle dates back to the 12th century. I had crossed into the Celtic Otherworld and was with the spirits of the living and the dead. Carisbrooke Castle is surrounded by stone walls, stone steps, a garden labyrinth reminding me so much of Kate Mosse novels up to including a focus on Charles I. I know I am repeating myself but we were blessed with beautiful weather and very few rainy or stormy days. We stopped to rest, to eat and keep hydrated. It is crucial here, whether or not you are a walker, trust me, you will walk your feet off but every step is more than worth it. I walked through an archway within the castle complete with black gate where I swore I was walking back in time and became a part of my favorite Edmund Blair-Leighton paintings. I even said so to my accompanying friends.
Osborne House, home of Queen Victoria
By the time we arrived at Osborne House we were rested and refreshed and ready to see where Queen Victoria lived during her visits to the Isle of Wight. What a beautiful and grand house filled with the finery of everything; china, porcelain, paintings, furniture, every aspect of a house was decorated with the best. We took the grand tour through every room and every floor of Osborne House. I have to say, one of the rooms that emotionally affected me was Victoria’s bedroom. A tiny room with a tiny bed against the wall just filled me with such sadness as I walked in, not sure why but I couldn’t stay inside that room for too long. The kitchens were located downstairs in a basement floor which was curious and really interesting to take a look at. I’ve always loved those black aga stoves. The property is so large, small vans are available to drive you from the house itself to the outside gardens, down to the beach front property where you can see her bathing machine and walk in her footsteps once again. My friends and I did enjoy our rest stop for a bit of lunch at their café where I drank a lot of ginger beer and again that ploughman sandwich and the bacon butty is so good and so bad for you! Yes, it’s really about the food isn’t it? Well, after you’ve walked around and visited all day, it turns out to be about nourishment and very good company.
I realized that I would be finally meeting up with my UK friends but never did it occur to me that one of them would choose to spend their Saturday driving hours to see me on the Isle of Wight. So, to you and your wife, I did not want to forget you or leave you out because getting to spend a few hours talking and walking around really is part of my visit I will not forget.
My unforgettable moments were shared with friends. So, a huge thank you again to everyone I finally met, hugged, ate, drank, chatted with. Thank you for taking me into your hearts and your homes, for sharing your personal life and your time with me. I truly am honored and grateful and I know it is only the beginning of my adventures! You will see me again…