MGM 2004 Travel Writing Prize - Worth Sixpence A Pint

By June Elford | 25 May 2004
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Shows a photograph of a view across a harbour. To the left there are a number of sailing vessels, while in the background there is a large ferry. To the right two people are dangling their legs off a wooden jetty.

Photo: © Isle of Wight Tourism.

June Elford is one of four writers shortlisted for the Museums and Galleries Month/24 Hour Museum travel writing prize, sponsored by Eurostar. The winner will be announced on Thursday May 27 on this website.

The ship's lounge was packed with holidaymakers eager for cups of tea, sandwiches and crisps.

I sidestepped the queue and escaped to the upper deck of the Isle of Wight ferry for a view of the river and the old town of Lymington as the ferry followed the winding channel through the marshes to the sea and the open Solent.

Across the water I glimpsed the Island and the ridge of downs called 'Back of Wight'.

When Emily, Alfred Lord Tennyson's wife, made the crossing from Lymington to Yarmouth in 1846 she wrote in her journal:

"the railway did not go further than Brockenhurst then and the steamer, when there was one, from Lymington felt itself in no way bound to wait for the omnibus which brought as many of the passengers as it could from the train. We crossed in a rowing boat. It was a still November evening. One dark heron flew over the Solent backed by a Daffodil sky."

Shows a black and white photograph of the poet Tennyson. He is pictured in profile and holding a book.

Photo: Julia Margaret Cameron's famous portrait of the poet. © National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford / Science and Society Picture Library.

Connections, buses and boats, 'plus c'est la même chose', I thought. But we had arrived at Yarmouth and as the ferry sidled up to the pier, I joined the other passengers on the stairs to the car deck.

I knew the Tennysons travelled from Yarmouth in a coach drawn by two horses to Freshwater and Farringford, an "ivied house among the pine trees", which had views of Afton Down and the English Channel. It was, they decided, an ideal place in which to live and when Guiseppe Garibaldi came to visit, he planted a Liberty Tree on the lawn.

So I was curious about the Tennyson exhibition at Carisbrooke Castle Museum illustrating some of the poet's interests. On an island 23 miles long and 13 miles wide distance getting around is no problem and the narrow roads are a pleasant reprieve from the mainland's motorways.

Thirty minutes later I drove up the hill to Carisbrooke Castle and though I admired the Norman builders for choosing a superb site with views over the surrounding countryside and my knowledge of crenellations, loop-holes and sieges was sketchy, I was there to find out more about the man Tennyson.

Shows a photograph of the gatehouse at Carisbrooke Castle.

Photo: the imposing Carisbrooke Castle © Isle of Wight Tourism.

Inside the museum I discovered it was founded in 1898 by Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria and the last resident governor of the castle, in memory of her husband.

At first the collections were housed in the gatehouse but after Beatrice's death in 1944, the museum moved to the great hall, which had previously been used as the governor's house.

Carisbrooke Castle Museum is administered separately from English Heritage under an independent trust and the Tennyson collection is off the upper gallery in a small room overlooking the keep.

The information reads that his celestial globe and telescope are reminders of his remarkable knowledge of astronomy and because of his devotion to the stars he had a wooden platform built for star-gazing on the roof of Farringford House.

Shows a photograph of Farringford House, Tennyson's former home. A large house can just bee seen through a number of trees.

Photo: a home fit for a poet - Farringford House. Courtesy Carisbrooke Castle Museum.

I could appreciate that the desk and the quill-pen illustrate the large number of poems he wrote which earned him a place in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. In the Tennyson's lifetime, C.F. Watts, Charles Kingsley and Carlyle stayed at Farringford (he was known by his friends as King Alfred) and the museum has his pipe-stand and tobacco jar.

Carlyle once said of Tennyson that he "Smokes infinite tobacco ... I do not meet in these last decades such company over a pipe."

I study the photograph of him taken in 1865 by famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, on which Tennyson wrote, "I prefer The Dirty Monk to the others of me".

There's always been speculation about her relationship with the poet and the back-garden gate at Farringford he used to visit her in nearby Dimbola Lodge still exists. Julia had a passion for portrait photography and many of Tennyson's contemporaries were among her subjects.

Shows a photograph of Dimbola Lodge, Julia Margaret Cameron's former home. It is a large detached Victorian style building, painted white.

Photo: Julia Margaret Cameron moved to Dimbola Lodge in 1860 and among its visitors were Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll and Ellen Terry.

In front of the display was Tennyson's broad-brimmed black hat and Spanish cloak and I imagined him striding across the downs, the cloak billowing in the wind, while he recited out loud lines from The Charge of the Light Brigade.

It was the final clue to the poet. Was there time to walk the downs before the ferry left that evening?

I drove to Freshwater Bay, left the car and trudged uphill on springy sheep-cropped turf with seabirds wheeling and grizzling over the chalk cliffs ablaze with gorse. And as I inhaled the air which the poet said was "worth sixpence a pint", I knew the view from the top of Tennyson Down was the curtain raiser to my search.

It's the last stretch of the Tennyson Trail, which in May sees the annual Walk the Wight, an eight-hour sponsored hike across the Island from east to west; a conga of thousands of people yomping to raise money for the Island's hospice.

Shows a photograph of a view across downland to the sea on the Isle of Wight. There are cliffs and the famous jagged chalk outcrops known as the Needles in the background.

Photo: a view to inspire... © Isle of Wight Tourism.

But on that day I was the sole person on the headland overlooking the Isle of Wight's best-known landmark, the three jagged Needle stacks. And when I turned round I saw Farringford House nestling among the trees at Freshwater.

Tennyson once wrote, "I cannot rest from travel: I will drink life to the lees". I'm glad we shared the same view.