Travel: Anyone for Tennyson?

Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight was a cultural shrine for the Victorians, who flocked here to see their poet-hero. Today, Mick Webb finds inspiration in its grey stones and winter skies
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Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, oh sea", and break it certainly did, crashing on the pebbles of Freshwater Bay, just as Alfred Lord Tennyson had commanded in his famous lines. The western end of the Isle of Wight is Tennyson country, and his legacy is but one reason for paying a winter visit here. Almost severed from the rest of the island, it is self-contained, very beautiful and, at this time of year, as quiet as... West Wight out of season. As we played dodge-the-spray on a chilly grey morning, looking forward to soup and a pint in the handily placed Albion Hotel, it was hard to imagine that this was once a literary and cultural shrine. One guidebook goes so far as to compare mid-19th-century Freshwater Bay to ancient Athens under Pericles, as eminent Victorians beat a path to Tennyson's door to share his wisdom and join his circle.

Nowadays, though, you don't need literary credentials to stay at the poet's home; it has become the Farringford Hotel, which, as well as the usual hotel rooms, has a number of self-catering suites and buildings for rent. We, a family of four, stayed in one of the "garden" cottages, which are arranged around a lawn that was once a tennis court enjoyed by the poet's sons. My own children played Frisbee and football there - we can only guess what the great man would have thought of that. He certainly wasn't keen on the influx of ordinary visitors that railway travel brought to the island.

What hasn't changed much since Tennyson's time is the broad and beautiful swath of downland that crowns the cliffs between Freshwater Bay and the Needles. "The air up here is worth sixpence a pint," the poet laureate was fond of quoting. I expect that is about pounds 100 at today's rates, and worth every penny. And that is without counting the views, at their best from the Tennyson Monument, over the Solent to the mainland or out across the English Channel. We walked the three exhilarating miles from Freshwater Bay to the Needles, though these were a bit of a disappointment, smaller than expected, and rather more like shark's teeth than needles. The other tourist attraction of the area, Alum Bay, where my mum once filled a little glass lighthouse with different coloured sands, is no longer a mecca for sand-collectors. Erosion has made the practice too dangerous, although there are compensations - a bit further round the coast, at Headon Warren, the crumbling cliff has created an undercliff with a kind of mini-jungle that makes for an interesting and sheltered walk with great possibilities for hide-and-seek. Or, when you have had enough ups and downs, a much flatter ramble can be had along the old railway track beside the river Yar into the pretty little port of Yarmouth. En route, there is the chance to see and almost certainly misidentify a whole variety of water birds, which include oystercatchers and little egrets.

I am reliably informed that in summer, the sea around here is very warm and welcoming. In winter, though, the best thing to do with the sea is to watch it, ideally from behind a nice piece of glass, and West Wight is not short of this kind of facility. Apart from the Albion at Freshwater Bay, there is a pub called The Waterfront on the seafront at Totland whose long and spacious conservatory has windows facing seawards, while the Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay combines a tearoom-with-a-view, a little bookshop, and a gallery given over mainly to the photographic work of Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron. She was a pioneering photographer noted for her portraits of Carlyle, Darwin, Browning and many other famous visitors to Freshwater, and she was very much part of the Tennyson set.

At this time of year, most of the leisure parks and complexes are closed, and very sad and abandoned they look. But then fun and games and late nights are not what West Wight is really about. Apart from rambling and birdwatching, you can see glass and porcelain being made, and find out all about pearls.

After dark, the main source of entertainment is the pubs, where children are welcomed, menus are varied and portions are large. My favourite meal was at The Fat Cat on the Bay, where the proud boast is that "home-made means home-made", and the patron stocks a lethal collection of spirits - calvados, marc, sambuca, grappa... Just writing the names makes my head spin. Still, a quick walk down to Freshwater Bay soon sorts you out.

Two companies operate ferries to the Isle of Wight: Wightlink (01705 827744), from Portsmouth to Ryde and Fishbourne, and Lymington to Yarmouth; and Red Funnel (01703 227599) from Southampton to Cowes. Mick Webb travelled by Wightlink Ferries from Portsmouth to Fishbourne. The trip cost pounds 40 for a five-day return for car with two adults and two children.

At Farringford Hotel (01983 752500), self-catering cottages cost from pounds 30 a day (pounds 180 a week); hotel rooms from pounds 26 per person.

For more details, call Yarmouth Tourist Office 01983 813818