SLOW TRAIN TO SWITZERLAND
A new book traces the fascinating history of tourism in Switzerland, and follows Thomas Cooks' first customers as they set off to an unexplored land of snow, lakes and mountains.
In this extract, Slow Train To Switzerland author Diccon Bewes reflects on the diaries of a Victorian lady that inspired him to take the Slow Train to Switzerland, recreating Thomas Cook’s first-ever Conducted Tour in 1863…
“They were found in a battered tin box in the post-war rubble of London’s East End: two large books with scuffed red leather covers that had contrived to survive the Blitz intact, thanks to their sturdy container. Even then, they were almost lost, tossed aside with all the other debris from the nightly bombings.
Fortunately, someone discovered them before they disappeared for ever.
Together, the two volumes make up a complete journal, an account of a trip across Europe that took place many decades before.
They are written in longhand, in a lovely sloping script that is perfectly legible but delightfully old-fashioned, and occasionally illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings of foliage curling round the text.
More frequent are faded black-and-white pictures and colourized postcards that have been stuck in, making it as much a scrapbook as a diary.
But there is very little personal information about the author, not even her full name, or how the books could have ended up in a bombed building 80 years later. As for where she went, that sounded like a challenging destination for any Victorian lady:
“We landed at Weggis, and if each man, boy and mule-keeper who attacked us had been a wasp and each word a sting, Weggis had possessed our remains. We were literally infested by, dogged and danced around by these importunates!”
After those “wasps” she encountered “parasites” and “goitred ogres”, none of which exactly springs to mind when thinking of Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland, now one of the wealthiest, healthiest countries in the world.
Her trip was a three-week tour of the Alps; to be more exact, the journal was an account of Thomas Cook’s First Conducted Tour of Switzerland. Not that it was the country we now know.
In today’s Switzerland trains, chocolate and money are so typically Swiss that they have become shorthand for the whole country. These clichés are, however, based on fact. The Swiss are world champions in all three – per head they travel more by train, eat more chocolate and store more gold than any other country.
"A century and a half ago, Switzerland was a very different place..."
But 150 years ago none of them would have conjured up an image of Heidi’s homeland, as none of them existed in the same way (least of all Heidi, who made her first appearance in 1880).
The Swiss arrived late to the idea of railways, so that back then there were only 650km of tracks in operation compared to over 5,000km now; milk chocolate, Switzerland’s gift to the sweet-toothed everywhere, didn’t appear until 1875; and as for money, that was in short supply in a nation where many still lived off the land or from which they emigrated in search of a better life.
A century and a half ago, Switzerland was a very different place, where large parts of the country festered in rural poverty, and where the daily wage of an average factory worker was the same as the price of breakfast in a tourist hotel.
One English guidebook from that time offered this advice to its readers:
'A sou or any small coin is sufficient for the legions of beggars besetting one’s way. Make a rule of never going out without a supply of small coins, however, but never use them lavishly.'
For British visitors, who were used to slums in their cities and Oliver Twists on the streets, this didn’t quite match the popular romantic image of Switzerland. It was a far-away country, although not exactly unknown territory.
For decades the Alps had been bewitching writers, painters and climbers, all of whom helped transform the mountains from a daunting barrier at the heart of Europe into the natural wonder of the nineteenth century, albeit a slightly wild and dangerous one.
But neither was Switzerland overrun with hordes of tourists: European travel was still largely the preserve of the rich and reckless, those with both time and money. So while Byron, Turner, Dickens and Wordsworth had all made lengthy inspirational visits to Switzerland, such a trip was beyond the aspirations of most British people, being simply too far and too expensive.
The Alpine Republic was the geographical equivalent of European royalty: dazzling, beautiful and intriguing, but out of reach for normal folk, only to be appreciated from a distance. That all changed in 1863, thanks to the British middle classes and their appetite for adventure.
It would be these visitors, these bankers and lawyers, who would help revolutionize Switzerland. Their peaceful invasion provided the financial and social means for turning rags into riches. Tourism made Switzerland the Cinderella of Europe.
And every Cinderella needs a fairy godmother, or in this case, godfather. That was Thomas Cook, a man who would change the world in the most leisurely way possible – through holidays.”
SLOW TRAIN TO SWITZERLAND: ONE TOUR, TWO TRIPS, 150 YEARS AND A WORLD OF CHANGE APART
by Diccon Bewes is out now price £18.99 hardback.