On January 14th 1851, several months after he had been awarded the prestigious role of Poet Laureate, the 41 year old Alfred Lord Tennyson stayed at the Talbot Hotel in Cuckfield while he arranged the leasehold purchase of a property at Warninglid.
Six months previously he had married his childhood friend, Emily Sellwood and had now settled on the idea of enjoying rural family contentment in the quiet West Sussex Village.
But the dream quickly turned to a nightmare for the Tennysons and he left the house and area as quickly as he could.....
All began well.....
13 January 1851
My dear Moxon
…. We are moving tomorrow to the Talbot Hotel, Cuckfield, having taken a house near that town and I suppose we shall be at the Inn for a week or 10 days. Our new house is called Buckingham Hall in the parish of Slaugham. I will write again but be so good as to acknowledge this per return of post by a note directed to the Talbot Hotel as before stated.
...but during the following week his enthusiasm dramatically turned to desperation as he made frantic attempts to move miles away immediately.....
The Hall Warninglid, Crawley 21 January 1851
My dear Forster
You might have written a week ago or a month for all that I knew. I have left Parkhouse and have been living at a Hotel in Cuckfield, a Hotel at Horsham, and in this place, Warninglid, from which again I am going to move as soon as I possibly can: indeed I am going today in two hours perhaps to Twickenham to look for a house. I am in such a peck of troubles that you might get figs from thistles as soon as sense for me from me. ….. I cannot write (to other friends) My… own affairs are too urgent and harassing.
Not less yours in great haste
Having retreated from his Warninglid home Tennyson was concerned to rid himself of all legal and financial ties to the place, as his letter to the lease owner reveals....
To Edward Stanford
March 7 1851
I am anxious to have done with the house at Warninglid and with the business connected with it, and I presume you will have no objection to resume possession on payment of whatever sums may be due from me. I understand that one half years rates and taxes will not under present circumstances be payable and I understand from you that the whole amount will be £20.
I should be glad however to know what your claims upon me may be on the understanding that I now wish to give up the premises and that I shall in any case terminate the tenancy at the earliest possible period.
It appears to me that your interest is the same as my own and I hope you will also concur in my wish to settle the matter finally.
However, ridding themselves of legal obligation tied up with the property proved complicated. The Tennysons were anxiously trying to dispose of the remainder of the lease for months afterwards.
One of his biographers (Alfred Tennyson - a literary life by Leonee Ormond, 1984) sheds some light on causes of Tennyson's dramatic change of mind during the third week of January 1851
Before Tennyson was a householder he was, like the rest of us , a househunter, and the story of his houses, after his marriage, conforms to the structure of an incomplete romantic lyric: beginning with an illusion, it modulates to the impossibility of sustaining it and recognises then that the only possible consolation is another illusion. For him as for ourselves great expectations lead to ‘illusions perdue’. A bachelor, he (with his family) moved to Somersby to High Beech to Tunbridge Wells to Cheltenham (with London as the saving oasis). Married, he moved from Warninglid, to Chapel House (Twickenham), then to Farringford, and then seasonally to Aldworth, the house he built.
On their first morning at Warninglid, Tennyson (according to his wife's journal) ‘heard the birds sing as he had never heard them sing since he left Somersby, and he ate a good breakfast’, but as it turned out, the house was draughty, the chimney smoked, and the roof leaked – and – in addition to all else, it was too remote. For these and other reasons he remained there less than a fortnight.
The 'other reasons' were quite compelling as the Mid Sussex Times revealed nearly sixty years later...
Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 10 August 1909
A writer in a London contemporary last week stated that Cuckfield was a district of ghostly memories. He then passed on to mention that at a hamlet near Cuckfield the Tennysons came to live in 1850, after their marriage. Their first experience in housekeeping was not a success.
“One night soon after their arrival a tremendous storm blew down part the wall in their bedroom, and through the gap the wind raved and the water rushed.
Then they learnt that their dining-room and bedroom had been a Roman Catholic chapel, that a baby was buried somewhere on the premises, and, later, that one of a notorious gang of thieves and murderers, known as ‘The Cuckfield Gang,’ had lived in their very lodge … Altogether, everything was so uncanny and uncomfortable that they took a speedy departure”
...and from the Slaugham archives we read...
“Warninglid is a very popular village to live in these days, but it wasn’t always the case. During 1850 Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, brought his new wife to live in the south-west corner of the village. The house seemed ideal and the prospect of the South Downs was magnificent, but the first big storm that came blew down part of the wall in their bedroom. Their discomfiture was increased by the discovery that their bedroom and dining room had been a Roman Catholic chapel, a baby was buried somewhere in the house, and that it had once been the haunt of the notorious Cuckfield gang of thieves and cut-throats. It was too much for the Poet Laureate. His son, in his book “Life”, said that they fled the ill-omened spot “my father drawing my mother in a bath chair over a very rough road to Cuckfield”. It is believed that the house was on the place or in the vicinity of Wealden House.”
Bibliography: Introduction to The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson 1821-1850 by Lord Alfred Tennyson, Baron, Alfred Tennyson, Harvard University Press, 1981
Photograph of The Chestnuts and extract above courtesy of Barry Ray from the Slaugham archives