Tennyson at the hub of fashionable Freshwater
Those who know Freshwater as it is today could easily be forgiven for failing to realise just how famous it once was. The sprawling village, with many of its old shops now gone, and encroached by ever more housing but few new attractions or amenities, is a far cry from its golden heyday.
artists and musicians was his friend George Frederick Watts, the painter and sculptor who produced several portraits of the great man. Watts later became a near neighbour and built The Briary for both himself and their close mutual friends, Henry and Sarah Prinsep. The latter, whose salon at Little Holland House in London was famed throughout the 1850s and 60s as the centre of a fashionable Bohemian artistic and literary circle, brought other significant connections. Among the gifted group of family and friends was Sarah’s brother, Charles Cameron and his wife Julia Margaret. In 1860 they first visited Farringford, and at once falling for the area, bought and combined two houses nearby, creating Dimbola, named after one of their tea plantations in India.
The arrival of the Camerons as near neighbours to the Tennysons further encouraged the train of well known names to descend on the area. Happily for us, many of those visitors were recorded through the new artistic skill soon adopted and quickly honed by Julia. Many of the visits to Tennyson by eminent friends and associates were thus combined with sittings for the camera of Mrs.Cameron, who rapidly became an accomplished and widely recognised portrait photographer. Among those recorded (termed ‘victims’ by Tennyson) were people as diverse as naturalist and evolutionist Charles Darwin, scientist Sir John Herschel, novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, writer Lewis Carroll, and poets Robert Browning and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
There were also artists William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, multi-talented Edward Lear, composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and of course GF Watts and his young bride, the actress Ellen Terry. In contrast, the famed art critic, draughtsman and social thinker John Ruskin, and Italian ‘Liberator’ Giuseppe Garibaldi, both refused to sit! These famous figures, in combination with the beauty of the downs and surrounding sea, which appealed to the blossoming Victorian fad for fresh air, seabathing and exercise, drew tourists aplenty to Freshwater in the secondhalf of the 19th century. They also ensured that many well-to-do visitors created a demand for large new houses and villas near Freshwater Bay, as they simultaneously did in stylish Totland.
The hotels thrived and grew too; the ‘Cabin’ developing into the Albion and Plumley’s becoming Lambert’s, now Freshwater Bay House. As Napier observed: “After Tennyson’s fame encircled the globe, Farringford became one of the most overrun spots in Europe.” By the late 1860s the numbers trying to glimpse or gawp at the great man, reluctantly drove him away in the summer months, and the Camerons moved back to India in 1875. But the Tennyson family remained dedicated to Farringford and Freshwater, even beyond Lord Alfred’s death in 1892, when the popularity of the area was still increasing. From 1889 until 1953 Freshwaterwas linked by train with Yarmouth and Newport, served by a handsome station at the eastern end of the main village. After Tennyson’s passing, the vibrant vogue of ‘fashionable’ Freshwater may have faded, but far into the 20th century Freshwater as a whole thrived. In the popular area between Farringford and the Bay, Hallam, Tennyson’s eldest son, in 1908 gave the land for the thatched St. Agnes’s church opposite the then Stark’s Hotel and a flourishing community of shops. Of these, the splendid Orchards family grocers, founded in 1865, survives, a delightful and still evocative reminder of bygone days.