Is everyone here a genius?

By John Medland

Friday, December 6, 2013


Is everyone here a genius?

The Camerons converted two cottages in Terrace Lane to form Dimbola Lodge.

WIGHT LIVING IMAGINE a time when the Island was the cultural heart of the country, the place where the great minds of the day chose to spend their time and where curious crowds waited for hours at a time to catch a glimpse of revolutionaries and poets.

While Queen Victoria hid herself away at Osborne after the premature death of her husband, over in the West Wight things were very different.

The country's greatest poet strode daily on the downs, a woman pioneered the art of photography, a celebrated European revolutionary spent a summer holiday, while writers, thinkers and scientists found it to be the perfect place to stay awhile.

From around 1853 to 1875, the settlement west of Freshwater Bay was the destination of choice for cultural celebrities of the mid Victorian era. 

In this Victorian Mile, artists and astronomers, poets and painters, sculptors and scientists, historians and novelists, classical translators, philosophers and theologians, singers and actresses and the odd archbishop, met in a liberal social setting where individual ability counted for more than social status.

"Is there no-one who is commonplace here?" one visitor exclaimed, "Is everybody either a poet, or a genius, or a painter or peculiar in some way?"

The 'discovery’ of Freshwater had begun in the late 1700s, with adventurous tourists exploring the dramatic West Wight coast in fishing boats. 

In the 1790s, artists like George Morley, Thomas Rowlandson, John Nixon and J.M.W. Turner sketched and painted here. 

The Cabin, where they stayed, grew into the Albion Hotel.  In the 1860s, the novelist Anthony Trollope hired a suite of rooms for friends.    

The real making of Freshwater as an intellectual centre came after 1853, when Alfred and Emily Tennyson moved to Farringford House.  Alfred discovered Farring-ford while staying at Bonchurch, where there was already an established network of writers and artists.

He had been made Poet Laureate in 1850 and needed somewhere "far from the smoke and noise of town" to think and write. 

The Tennysons’ Freshwater was, for them, a rural idyll.  Inland from the dramatic coast there were "sparsely scattered about the winding lanes of elm and whispering oak, old stone cottages and 17th century farms with roofs of thatch or stone".  

The Tennysons were part of the pre-Raphaelite social set in London.  They invited many of this artistic and intellectual circle to enjoy this bypassed bucolic paradise.  Some of these friends subsequently moved to Freshwater, attracting more summer visitors as guests.

The poet and writer William Allingham took up residence in Myrtle Cottage with his young wife, the artist and illustrator Helen Allingham. 

Pannells was the summer home of William Makepiece Thackeray and the literary critic Leslie Stephen and his daughter, Virginia Woolf, also lived there.  

The most significant newcomer, however, was the Tennysons’ extraordinary friend, Julia Margaret Cameron. 

In 1860, she and her husband, Charles, purchased two cottages in Terrace Lane and joined them with an elegant tower to create Dimbola Lodge. 

Here Julia entertained visitors with theatrical performances, concerts and dances that spilled onto the lawn.  This was more fun than an evening with Tennyson. 

He could entertain his guests with up to three-hour poetic monologues.   

At Easter 1872, to celebrate a Cameron family wedding  "parties of 20 or 30 met every evening in Mrs Cameron’s hall or in the Farringford drawing-room".

The 63-year-old Alfred "joined the young people in their midnight walks to the sea…and danced as vigorously as the youngest present". 

At the top of Terrace Lane, Terrace House was rented by the Tennysons to the university reformer Benjamin Jowett. 

Charles Darwin stayed at Redoubt House in Terrace Lane in 1860, following the publication of Origin of the Species. He returned in 1864, again as a guest of Tennyson.

That summer, the Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi planted a Wellingt-onia tree at Farringford and crowds waited at the gates for two hours to get a glimpse of the great man.  

That same summer, Charles Dodgson — Lewis Carroll — stayed at Freshwater Court, while the family of Alice Liddel, his Wonderland inspiration, stayed at Whitecliffe House.

Across Gate Lane from Dimbola, Hazelhurst was built and became another hotel. 

Beyond Hazelhurst, the Camerons built a guest cottage called The Porch. It was used by Professor Jowett when he was translating Plato.  Thackeray’s daughters lived there from the death of their father in 1863. 

"This is The Porch, the gate of heaven," wrote Anne Thackeray, "The sitting room opens into a tiny conservatory and through an open window one hears the enchanted moan of the sea and the song of the birds."   

In 1873, the painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts completed The Briary on Moons Hill for his friends, the Prinseps. 

It included three large studios for Watts to work in. Val Prinsep was a significant painter. 

Guests included Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, the poet Robert Browning and the designer William Morris.  

From 1871 to 1881, Queen Victoria commissioned the grand terrace of houses on Gate Lane opposite Dimbola for retired sea captains. The stone and thatched church, St Agnes’s, was built in 1908.

The fire went out of the Freshwater scene after the Camerons packed their coffins for Sri Lanka in 1875.  The Tennysons increasingly took refuge at Aldworth House, their second home in Surrey. The 19th century was catching up in Freshwater.  "Yonder lies our young sea village" Alfred complained, "Art and Grace are less and less. Science grows and beauty dwindles — roofs of slated hideousness!"  

In the intervening decades, much of the built legacy of the Victorian Mile has been redeveloped.  The Briary was lost to fire in 1934 and The Porch was blown up by a German bomb in the Second World War, when one 5ft beam speared the tower of Dimbola "like a crooked flagpole". However, much of the built heritage remains.  In 1875, Orchards and Sons opened their new grocers shop at the end of Gate Lane. It was a purpose-built, modern design and remains essentially unchanged, the same business in the same family, a retail reminder of the clientele it once served.  

However, the greatest record of the people of the time was made by Julia Cameron herself. From 1863 to 1875, she persuaded many of her visitors to endure five-minute rigid poses to be recorded in extraordinary photographs. 

When Dimbola was threatened with re-development, it was rescued by a remarkable local effort. Thanks to the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, Dimbola is now an award winning photographic museum and gallery. 

Farringford House itself is now being painstakingly restored to its 1870s prime by its owner, Rebecca Fitzgerald. 

Fred Pontin’s horrible chalets will be removed to restore the original kitchen garden. Her aim is to reopen the original house as a study/exhibition centre with the later extension being used for accommodation.

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