An eminent Victorian

Island Life meets the new owners of the Farringford Hotel, Freshwater. Very few of us get the chance to realize a childhood ambition. Martin Beisly and business partner Rebecca FitzGerald, new owners of the Farringford Hotel in Freshwater, are lucky enough to have done so. “Growing up on the Island, I always dreamed of what it would be like to live at Farringford and when we exchanged contracts in January, I was finally able to say, this belongs to us,” said Martin.

Island Life met the couple to find out about their plans for the hotel. A sunny Sunday afternoon found them relaxed and very enthusiastic about the future. They’ve had a good Easter and business was brisk at the end of another lovely early summer weekend on the Island.

Island Life began by mentioning that there had been some rumours circulating that the hotel would close its doors to the general public. Not so, said the co-owners. “Our philosophy is that this is our house, but that we will extend a welcome to people to come and visit.” So Farringford will continue to operate as a hotel in the immediate future. New staff and an experienced manager, who has committed to the venture for 5 years, will focus on the day-to-day running of the business.

Good food

The first aim is to establish a quality kitchen. There’s a strong commitment to using local produce, and the owners intend to invite local suppliers to attend an open day, in which the best of local food can be selected and brought to the table. A complicated and expensive wine list has also been overhauled. “The food was fiddly, fussed and messed with; we want to encourage local people to come. We hope that will happen with a commitment to local produce.”

For the remainder of 2007, the couple intend to let their expert staff get on with it. They’ll listen to feedback from visitors and diners, and make sure that they run a clean and tidy business. In spite of falling into some disrepair, the building is basically sound. The garden bungalows and 18 rooms in the main house will continue to be available, and use of the hotel as a wedding venue will also continue. The swimming pool, which has been repaired and redecorated, has already been in use.

Restoring the grandeur

Once the basic business of the hotel is running smoothly, Rebecca and Martin will turn their attention to an extensive renovation project. Investment in the restructure will start in the winter of 2007, and a detailed restoration plan is being drawn up. There’s been a lack of investment over the past few years, so, inevitably, they’ll need to start with the roofs, which require in the region of £100,000 of leading. “We need to make sure that nothing leaks!”

Farringford is Grade I listed, so once essential maintenance work has been completed, the ongoing renovation work will need to be carefully introduced. Authenticity is the main aim. “I don’t want this to be new. It’s a historical house and I want it to stay that way. If the doors are a bit crooked, so be it,” said Martin. “I don’t want it to look like a pastiche of an old house.”

Eminent Victorian

“In the longer term, our plans are not set in stone – the crucial thing is to preserve the building, then we can think about growing the business.” However, the co-owner’s dream for the next 3–5 years ought to delight those who care about maintaining Isle of Wight heritage. Martin is a director of Christies and Rebecca is a Tennyson scholar. Their vision is to regenerate Farringford in an authentic way, placing it firmly in the axis of Victorian experiences on the Island, alongside Osborne House and Dimbola Lodge.

This, they believe, gives them the opportunity to tap into the market of foreign heritage visitors, particularly from the USA, and they hope to attract scholars, research students and writers from all over the world. Tennyson is the key here. “Farringford’s value is that it is linked to an eminent Victorian. The Island was a mecca in Victorian times because of Tennyson. The general public came here to see him – he was like the Mick Jagger of his day. People would wait at the gates, queuing up to meet him.”

Unique experience

2009 marks the 200th year since Tennyson’s birth and the new owners hope that this will provide a starting point for Farringford to offer a unique Tennyson experience, alongside the quality dining and comfortable surroundings that will have been firmly established by then.

This vision is very much reflected in the approach to long-term renovation work. Keeping the authenticity is important. “I’d rather have a repaired window than a new one – I like the idea that Tennyson touched that window. When its finished, you will know Tennyson lived here because you will be able to feel it.” But Farringford will not simply be a museum, but a stylish and unique hotel or guesthouse. “It has to be smart because Tennyson lived a smart life. He had lots of staff and so will we.”

Exciting times

The new owners are excited about their project, as well as being on the Island. “The Island feels buzzy right now; it’s an exciting time. You get a rush as you cross the water. I think we are very lucky to have Farringford; someone wanted us to have this place.”