Dinosaur Isle - The Primrose Walk and Tennyson’s Fossil Collection

Scientific and poetic discoveries moved hand in hand at Farringford where both Tennyson and Darwin took steps

On my first day at Farringford, I ploughed along the primrose walk, no longer in flower, but still reminding me of Keats’s visit to the Isle of Wight when he nicknamed the Island ‘Primrose Isle’, and subsequently both Prince Albert and Giuseppe Garibaldi were described as admiring the primroses on their visits to Farringford.

Molly Mahood writes about the importance of the primrose on the Isle of Wight in her book The Poet as Botanist, describing how Queen Victoria sent a box of primroses from Osborne House to her then Prime Minister, Disraeli. In particular, she writes about Tennyson’s ‘Path of Dalliance’ located in the grounds of Farringford, which I was lucky enough to walk on my first visit: sadly the primroses were long gone so I had to use my imagination.

Darwin and Dr Hooker

Mahood describes how both the Darwin family and the famous Botanist Dr Joseph Hooker met whilst at Farringford. Subsequently, Charles Darwin and Dr Hooker were to correspond with each other as part of Darwin’s botanical research, research which confirmed and pushed forwards with Darwin’s theory of ‘The Origin of Species’. This research, though it didn’t take place on the Isle of Wight, was principally focused on primroses. This background, for me, made Tennyson’s garden path less a ‘Path of Dalliance’ and more a ‘Path of Hard Work’.

They say that a house reflects its owner, and the inspiration that Darwin and Hooker may have received on ‘The Path of Dalliance’ is echoed by Tennyson’s own interest in Natural History, and in particular fossils. A part of this original collection of Tennyson’s fossils has been loaned back to Farringford recently by Cambridge University’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science, and now sit in their original location.

Dinosaur Isle

Tennyson had a large collection of fossils, many of which he gathered on the Isle of Wight, and therefore, notable amongst his many achievements, he successfully prefigured ‘Dinosaur Isle’ by two centuries. Learning of Tennyson’s interest in fossils reminded me of his description of the creation of man in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H. as a reversal of the fossil making process, as well as a reference to contemporary scientific theories building towards evolution.

    ‘They say

The solid earth whereon we tread

In tracts of fluent heat began

And grew to seeming-random forms,

The seeming prey of cyclic storms,

Till at the last arose the man;’

Farringford therefore, for me, uniquely brought together aspects and figures of the Victorian Era I hadn’t previously considered to be united. Scientific and poetic discoveries moved hand in hand. At Farringford both Tennyson and Darwin took steps in the same direction, mentally and literally, walking the Primrose Path towards innovation. 

There is more information from the Natural History Museum on Charles Darwin and the Sedgwick Museum website in Cambridge has a wealth of information on fossils.

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