In hushed silence we gazed on that serrated belt as daylight awoke on its 300 miles of mountains, valleys, lakes and villages.” Almost 150 years after that was written, by a Miss Jemima Morrell from Yorkshire, I’m standing in the same spot watching the same sunrise, and it’s lost none of its appeal. The new day creeps across the dark misty valleys, turning the jagged horizon every shade of pink until the whole 360-degree panorama is revealed in all its Alpine glory. A shiver skitters down my spine, as much from the thrill as the chill: at 5am it’s fresh up at 1,797m, even in June
Seeing the sunrise from on top of Mt Rigi, beside Lake Lucerne, was once the highlight of almost every trip to Switzerland; the Victorian equivalent of photographing the Matterhorn. This spectacle drew crowds of more than 200 every day in summer, including Miss Jemima.
I’ve spent the past two weeks travelling from London to Lucerne, using her diary as my guide, staying in the same places but, luckily, not wearing the same style of clothes. She wasn’t famous or noble but she was one of the first tourists to visit Switzerland.
Tourists were a novelty back then. For decades, going to the continent had largely been the preserve of the rich and the idle, mainly because even the smallest of grand tours needed time and money. Forget about two weeks away – it took two weeks just to reach Switzerland. Foreign travel was about education not relaxation, and it was a luxury that few could afford. That changed in 1863.
If that year is remembered for anything, it’s usually for the birth of the Red Cross and the slaughter at the Battle of Gettysburg. But between those moments of war and peace was an event that seemed insignificant at the time but that has shaped our world ever since. On a bright June day the first conducted tour of Switzerland set off from London. It was the start of a new way of travelling abroad. Mass tourism had begun, thanks to a Baptist minister from Derbyshire.
Thomas Cook had made a name for himself organising cheap train trips in Britain, from his first temperance tours in the Midlands to his popular tours of Scotland. His excursions were designed to bring travel to the masses, offering comfort and convenience at an affordable price. But it was a bumpy ride – and not just because trains in those days had little in the way of suspension or shock absorbers. Cook’s first forays into Europe in the 1850s were financial disasters, so he needed a new success to survive and a new idea to entice the British off their island. He set his sights on Switzerland.
On 26 June 1863 Cook led a party of 130 adventurous souls across the Channel to Paris. For half of them, that would be daring enough and they’d go back to Blighty after picking at the garlicky food. The rest went on by train to Switzerland, where “even delicate persons may, with tolerable ease, reach the famed scenes of Geneva”, as Cook then put it. But it was clearly too much for some: most returned home after admiring the lake and Mont Blanc. By the time the party hiked into Valais in southern Switzerland, they numbered just eight – and then, when Cook returned to London, there were seven: four women (including Miss Jemima) and three men, who carried on the now non-conducted tour on their own.
These intrepid few rose before the sun almost every day and hiked along steep narrow paths, went to English churches on Sundays and didn’t change their clothes for a week. They ventured into the Swiss Alps with no goal other than to watch the sunrise from Rigi. Two weeks later they were home, exhausted but ecstatic; their trip was no holiday. While it wasn’t rafting down the Amazon, it was most definitely an adventure, not least because no one today would attempt riding a mule over the Alps and hiking in a crinoline over glaciers (and neither did I).
Travelling by coach and boat, by train and on foot, they marvelled at the “grandeur of the matchless landscape” but recoiled from the beggars (“parasites” and “goitred ogres”). The Swiss scenery is still as splendid but Miss Jemima paints a very different picture of Switzerland from the one we know today. Hers was a country of few trains, minimal infrastructure and rural poverty for half of its 2.5m inhabitants. It was also a Switzerland without milk chocolate, without Heidi and without Swiss army knives. A very different place indeed.
The longer I followed her tiring itinerary, the more my admiration for Miss Jemima grew. Almost every night in a different place, every day 18 hours long; it was slow travel carried out at a relentless pace. The fact that she did it all in long dresses was no small achievement. That this style of travel became so popular reveals the Victorian thirst for (safe) adventure. And for that, Switzerland was the perfect choice. Without ever having been there, Cook gambled on the Alps and they proved to be the right destination at the right time.
No longer the wild obstacle at the heart of Europe, the Alps were the natural wonder of the 19th century. The poems and paintings of Romantics such as Byron and Turner, alongside the escapades of mountaineers such as Leslie Stephen and Edward Whymper, had transformed the public perception of the Alps. They had become the adventure playground of Europe. The British simply needed the means to reach them. Enter Thomas Cook.
He wouldn’t be the only one to offer tours to Switzerland, but he made them easy and comfortable. His competitors were the Ryanair of their day, offering tours on the cheap with countless extras. Cook realised that people wanted simplicity, honesty and a little luxury, all at an affordable price and manageable timeframe. The new railways cut the journey to Switzerland from two weeks to two days, and Cook’s tickets cut the costs. It was a perfect combination for the new middle classes, the lawyers, doctors and bankers who were his customers. They could afford two weeks and £10 to go on a trip of a lifetime, and be back at work a fortnight later. It was the start of the annual holiday abroad as we know it.
In the decade before Switzerland, Cook had tried and failed to break out of Britain; in the decade afterwards he conquered the world. That tour was an instant success, and Italy, Egypt, India and America soon followed, making Thomas Cook travel agent to the British empire. He became a global brand, one that would change the world of travel: his “credit note”, a means of taking money abroad safely, was the forerunner of the travellers’ cheque; his flexible train tickets were in effect early versions of InterRail passes; and his “Popular Holiday Tours” simply half-board packages – travel plus dinner, B&B with “no booking fee or extra charge of any kind whatever”. Modern tour operators take note.
Cook transformed foreign travel from a privilege for a small elite into a possibility for everyone. That first Swiss trip was the moment when travellers became tourists, when anyone could have the chance to go abroad.
But some weren’t happy about that – particularly if it meant sharing the world with the masses. “Of all noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist.” The Rev Francis Kilvert’s comment from 1870 probably sums up the attitude of many modern “travellers”, who would rather eat smoked yak in a yurt than a pizza beside the Colosseum. Travel snobbery is as prevalent now as it was then, even if those first tourists would be regarded as travellers now, given how adventurous and independent they were – possibly more so than many backpackers today.
Switzerland helped create modern tourism. Without that tour we might now have no easyJet or Eurostar, cruises down the Danube and all-inclusives in Barbados. Teetotal Thomas Cook would hate to think that drunken stag parties in Prague began with him in Switzerland 150 years ago – but they did.
And tourism helped create modern Switzerland. Without it, the famous mountain railways wouldn’t have been financially viable and the Swiss economic miracle might never have happened. True, the countryside might have remained unspoilt but it would be empty and lifeless, its inhabitants having emigrated to escape endless poverty.
The summit of Rigi can be regarded as the birthplace of both creations. For decades, its celebrated sunrise attracted the crowds, prompting the building of Europe’s first rack railway in 1871. It was the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship between Switzerland, tourists and trains. That love affair has yet to run out of steam, even if Rigi’s sunrise has faded from the must-see lists. I enjoyed its majesty almost alone, with two spectators instead of 200. The scenery hasn’t changed but people’s priorities and timetables have, reducing Rigi to a fleeting day trip. Travel has become ever faster, prompting us to squeeze in more places rather than spend more time in each place. Perhaps that’s something today’s tourists – and travellers – can learn from Miss Jemima and those long-dead pioneers.
‘Slow Train to Switzerland’ by Diccon Bewes will be published in October by Nicholas Brealey. More information at www.dicconbewes.com