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A Poet's Island


© St. Petersburg Times

On the day the great man reached the island, one of his maids took a quick look and burst into tears. She wondered how she could ever endure the loneliness of the place he'd chosen. But to him, its solitude was a blessing, giving him the privacy he longed for: "far from the noise and smoke of town." So England's famed man of letters, Alfred Tennyson, settled on the Isle of Wight. It was 1853.

On an October evening in 1889, when he was in his 80s and someone rowed him home across the water, he scribbled lines on the back of an envelope that helped ensure his fame:

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And let there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea.

Not long ago, with my wife, Barbara, I caught a ferry to spend a few days on his island, its land green and hilly, its cliffs chalky and dramatic, its air cleansed by briny breezes of the Atlantic.

The crossing from Britain's southern coast took a half hour and we landed in Yarmouth, a pretty if touristy town; we set out to make day trips around the island.

The Isle of Wight is only 23 miles at its widest and about the same in length. It has Britain's most temperate climate, which since the 1840s has made it a favorite spot for vacation and retirement. About 100,000 people live there in villages and small towns, mostly along the coast. Despite the 2-million or so people who every year visit its towns of Bembridge, Freshwater, Sandown and Shanklin, the island is a time-warp world of double-decker buses and narrow-gauge steam trains, country pubs and overgrown churchyards, sailing boats and retirement homes.

One car in three, it seems, is a Morris Minor, and there's a tearoom or a fish-and-chip shop on every corner.

Actors and directors such as Jeremy Irons, Alec Guinness, David Attenborough and Ken Russell would probably play it down, but they have a soft spot for England's smallest county.

Despite the jobs provided by the tourist industry, it is an unemployment black spot, with an estimated 15 percent of the population out of work, nearly twice the national average.

But tourists do not notice most of this, especially when they make day trips into the countryside. We chose to see the island by bus, because the transportation system is smooth and frequent. You can get off in various towns, stay an hour or two, then reboard and ride to your next destination. The windows were wide, the seats comfortable, the buses never crowded.

We spent pleasant hours looking out at some of southern England's most unspoiled countryside, steep cliffs, marshy estuaries, sandy beaches and a sea that stretched beyond the horizon.

Twisting inland, narrow roads revealed decent pubs at regular intervals and gorgeous walks such as the National Trust's Coombe Down, where usually the only other creatures you will see are clusters of shaggy cattle.

The land itself was a pleasure to see with farms and fields, forests of beech and oak, ancient mills and tiny chapels, villages with thatched-roof homes, and here and there limestone manor houses, so sprawling they seemed to occupy half of the field they stood in. One morning we made the short trip to the village that had drawn us to the Isle of Wight in the first place. Freshwater Bay is a craggy hamlet set on the southwest shore, and it was here that Tennyson settled, to get away from crowds and fame, to pursue his writing in peace and solitude. He stayed 40 years.

During his time, a small colony of writers and artists grew up around him, including Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll and American poet Henry Longfellow.

At first glance, Freshwater Bay presents a rugged coastal scene. But when we walked to the edge of the village in search of the home where Tennyson lived, it seemed to unfold in a softer landscape of fields and woods and then Tennyson Down, a large swath of green beside the water where a memorial rises on the edge of a cliff.

The house he lived in is a 20-minute walk from the village. It's an imposing stone building set on a large lawn, with a circular drive in front and, behind it, more than 30 acres of elms and chestnuts. In these shaded glens, he walked the paths, enveloped in privacy and composing his verse. The estate is still called Farringford, the name it had when he first came, acquiring it with proceeds from one of his most successful works, Maud. It's now a fine hotel, where the owners treat the past with respect and preserve the Tennyson legacy.

You need only ask at the reception desk and you're directed to his study. It is a large room with walls of dark wood, a high ceiling and contains the desk at which he wrote. Visiting writers speak from the desk to the local Tennyson Society. In a corner, in a glass case are the poet's smoking cap, tobacco jar, the large black cloak and and white silk scarf in which he was often seen walking the fields.

We left Farringford and took a leafy path scented with mint, arriving back in the village with time to make one more call before departing. We wanted to drop in at a place we'd heard only a bit about: Dimbola Lodge. It is a beige, rambling house of two stories with a modest gothic tower in the middle and a large number of spare, rectangular windows that seem to invite you to enter, in order to look out at the views of land and sea.

This was the home of a woman named Julia Margaret Cameron who came to Freshwater Bay around the same time as Tennyson. She became a portrait photographer whom some consider the greatest pictorial photographer of the 19th century. The walls of her old house carry copies of her pictures of Tennyson, Darwin, Longfellow and others.

Luckily we encountered two authorities on both Mrs. Cameron and the Tennyson Society. Dr. Brian Hinton, a friendly man in his 40s, introduced us to fellow villager Charles Everest. We all sat at a table in Dimbola's sun-washed tea room, talking about the two notables.

Mrs. Cameron had developed an interest in the new art of photography, developing her pictures in what had been the coalshed. Copies of her early, austere photos adorn the walls of Dimbola, which now hosts seminars on photography and displays the works of Europeans.

Hinton and Everest took us to a back garden gate, almost hidden in shrubs, that Tennyson, with his deep need for privacy, used when he came to visit the Cameron home. As we said goodbye, Hinton said wistfully: "What a magnet he was. What an age he lived in.'"

It was, of course, the Victorian age. And Queen Victoria herself perhaps liked the Isle of Wight as much as Tennyson did. Here, in 1845, at the northeastern corner of the island, East Cowes, Victoria and her husband Prince Albert bought a large estate he loved because of its Italian design.

I liked it, too, as I spent a few hours studying the building and the toys of the many princes and princesses who spent parts of their childhood here. Queen Victoria died at this place, Osborne House, 55 years later. The room in which she died now bears this notation: "She died in this room on a small couch bed surrounded by relatives. After that her children had a plaque placed above her bed and the room was used as a family shrine.'"

It seemed a natural moment on which to end a journey through the beautiful Isle of Wight. Kenneth Bagnell is a freelance travel writer living in Toronto. Information from the London Observer was used in this report. If you go

British Airways flies from Tampa direct to London, and man other airlines fly there with various U.S. connections. A bargain for travel within the British Isles is the efficient Brit Rail. We used a convenient, economical Brit Rail pass that allowed four days of first-class travel during the month for $305; lower rates are available for those older than 60 or younger than 25. For information, call (800) 677-8585.

Trains connect with the Wightlink ferry, which crosses frequently from Lymington, on the southern coast, to the Isle of Wight. For information on the Isle of Wight contact the British Tourist Authority, 555 Fifth Ave. Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; call (800) 462-2748.

We stayed a few steps from the dock in Yarmouth in an old inn called the Shaded Jireh House; it cost us about $80, with breakfast. It was modest, clean and well located.

Originally published November 23, 1997

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