Just about every visitor to the Isle of Wight will gravitate to the extraordinary beauty of Tennyson Down, which in turn is something of a gateway to other adjacent and equally special places of interest. At sea level you’ll find Freshwater Bay’s vast shingle banks and sea stacks. On rather higher ground, Tennyson Down – and the Island itself – slips away to the crumbling chalk pinnacles of the Needles. Here, amid shudderingly high cliffs and eye-popping sea stacks, you’ll encounter important military history at the Old and New Batteries.
The area is also historically of great cultural importance for it was called home by both Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the pioneering woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Their exquisite former abodes are open for nosing around. By way of contrast, but of arguably equal cultural significance, this is also where Jimi Hendrix famously, if briefly, laid his hat.
Beginning at sea level immediately to the west of Freshwater Bay, the down rises inexorably for a mile to a 482ft-high brow before descending gently and levelling off as it heads towards its dramatic crescendo in the form of the Needles, the westernmost point of the Island. Along the downs’ entirety, its southern flanks are guillotined by the sheerest cliffs imaginable, where kestrels hover close by.
Exploring the down can feel like navigating the deck of a ship that is cresting a wave, for while the land rises remorselessly up from Freshwater Bay, it also tilts this way and that. Ravens lurch upwards, sideways in kite-like manoeuvres; in great contrast, the northern flanks slip away into bucolic pockets of scrub and deciduous woodlands of oak, sycamore, beech holly and hazel, where thorny scrub has been left unchecked to mature into hedgerows and woodland. The downland is extremely varied with little coppices here and there and thick clumps of heather and gorse, which break up what could otherwise be a uniform landscape of cattle-nibbled grass. You will occasionally see horseriders galloping its broad bridleways.
The initial goal when walking Tennyson Down is to reach the Tennyson Monument, a plinth topped with a marble Celtic cross found at the summit of the down. The monument, erected in 1897, is both an unofficial beacon for sailors and a tribute to the poet. Some elegiac lines from Tennyson’s poem, Crossing the Bar, are inscribed on the base:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea.
The ‘bar’ in question is a treacherous sandbar, which, along with its adjacent shallow waters, ferry masters must navigate on their journey to the mainland. It lies in the Solent, to the north of the downs, and can be seen easily at low tide. You can almost imagine spotting Tennyson here too, his ghost pacing the sweeping downs, wrapped in his signature cape and sporting his trademark broad-brimmed hat. Never short of an apt turn of phrase, Tennyson described the air found upon the downs as being worth ‘sixpence a pint’.