It's all right on the Wight

18th July 1997 at 01:00
There is a certain prejudice about the Isle of Wight. I probably used to have it myself, but now it just puzzles me. "I'm off to the island again," I announce. And people give me a funny, pitying look, as if I've said: "Radio 2 is so stimulating."

I am a recent convert - hence the passion, perhaps. In 1993, I started research for a comic novel about the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and her neighbour at Freshwater, Alfred Tennyson - so I knew I needed to visit the West Wight. I had visited once before, in the early 1980s. Keen on Mrs Cameron's work, I'd persuaded my boyfriend to help me look for her house, Dimbola. Madly, I pictured us uncovering her "glass-house" studio still intact, with dusty curtains and cobwebs.

It wasn't like that at all, of course. One freezing and stormy Sunday, we drove to Freshwater Bay and found instead a drab boarding-house with a sun-porch bolted to the front. The owner sold us a postcard against our will. We then looked for Farringford, home of Tennyson, and couldn't find it. It was a less than inspiring trip. But what I always remembered was the tiny, deep bay - its waters boiling. I was thrilled by it.

Mrs Cameron moved to Freshwater in 1860 to be near the Tennysons, and from her photographs it appears her household abounded in bearded sages and glorious girls, all posing to aesthetic advantage in awkward tableaux. When I returned to Freshwater in 1994 to start work on the book, Tennyson's Gift, I found her house was being restored. Here was a stroke of luck. It meant I could roam the house for Pounds 1, and ask airy questions such as: "Was there a briar hedge in 1864?" Beyond Dimbola and Farringford are the high chalk cliffs (the Tennyson Down) that lead to the west, and the Needles. Being by no means an energetic person, I tended to trace Tennyson's taxing cliff walks less often than I took the broad gravel path to my favourite bay-side tea-room. But I like to believe perpetually gazing at the cliffs made up for a lot. Over a period of 15 months, I wrote every word of Tennyson's Gift at Freshwater Bay, renting a small holiday flat for four-week periods. My flat overlooked the entire, beautiful (and unaltered) geography of my book - the bay, Dimbola, Farringford, Albion Hotel, and cliffs.

I still go to Freshwater. Last summer I took friends for the book launch. We read Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" on the Lymington ferry. I wept, as always. The West Wight has become the love of my life. From the deck of that ferry, the sight of the island ahead opening up like a book is the fairest and happiest I know.

Tennyson's Gift is published in paperback by Penguin, Pounds 6.99

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