Author Diccon Bewes on Thomas Cook's first paying customer. And how she changed travel – and Switzerland – forever
Author Diccon Bewes has become something of an expert on the Swiss. His first book, Swiss Watching, lifted the lid on a country everybody knows of but knows little about. In his latest book, Slow Train to Switzerland, he follows in the footsteps of Miss Jemima Morrell, a customer on Thomas Cook's first guided tour in 1863, and discovers how this plucky Victorian woman helped shape the face of modern tourism and Switzerland itself.
How did you come across the story of Miss Jemima Morrell?
I first met her four years ago when I was researching my first book, Swiss Watching. Back then my German wasn't great so I was keen to read anything in English about Swiss history and came across a footnote in the Rough Guide to Switzerland that mentioned Miss Jemima and her journal. So I Googled her and found a second-hand copy of the book in Amsterdam, and a few euros and days later I was reading her tale of crossing the Alps in 1863.
Miss Jemima and the Alpine Club took the first Thomas Cook guided tour to Switzerland. How did this trip change travel?
The most crucial change was that it made going abroad for a holiday feasible and affordable. Up until then you needed both time and money to reach the Alps – just the journey there by coach took two weeks – but Cook changed that by using the railways and negotiating group discounts for the tickets. For the first time the middle classes could reach Switzerland and take a holiday there for two weeks and a few pounds.
That was a seismic shift in the way people viewed foreign travel. It was no longer the preserve of the elite but something for everyone. Then on the back of his Swiss success, Cook added Italy, Egypt, India and so on until he was a world brand. And he introduced hotel vouchers, train passes and travellers' cheques to take the hassle out of going abroad. It was the birth of the modern travel industry.
What impact did the early tours have on Switzerland?
In the 1860s Switzerland was not the rich, efficient country we know today. There were pockets of wealth in the main cities, but the rural areas were desperately poor with people simply living off the land. Life expectancy was 40 years, whole villages were afflicted by goitres and beggars were common. Tourism helped change that by bringing money directly into exactly those rural areas because the unspoilt landscape was precisely the reason the British came in their thousands. That provided a crucial income for the Swiss in places like Kandersteg, where the locals could soon get work as waiters, porters, tour guides or souvenir sellers.
Not only that but the steady influx of tourists provided the financial motive for building train lines up into the mountains. Until then, the Swiss train network was limited to the main towns; there was simply no economic reason to build lines to places where there were more cows than people and no natural resources. Tourism changed that completely, making lines to places like Zermatt and Grindelwald viable and successful so that for the first time even remote areas of Switzerland could be linked to the rail network.
Guided tours have a reputation of being easy, but those early tours weren't. Just how challenging and demanding were they?
It certainly wasn't a holiday in the modern sense. They endured pre-dawn starts after only a few hours' sleep, 18-hour days while walking over mountain passes in crinoline and corsets, long dusty rides in bone-shaking carriages and moving on every day. Not forgetting that after a week Thomas Cook left them to go back to England so it became a self-guided tour, with nothing planned or booked in advance. It was a bit like an extreme InterRail trip but with a lot more walking. For them it was the trip of a lifetime, an Alpine adventure that they would never forget. Of course, Miss Jemima was typically British in her understatement, mentioning that she was a little fatigued after a particularly long day that ended with a four-hour evening hike up Mt Rigi.
What were you hoping to discover by following in Miss Jemima's footsteps?
Mainly I wanted to see how travelling had changed since those early days, not simply in terms of speed but also in terms of what the first tourists expected and wanted. And what they had to put up with. More specifically, it was a chance for me to get a glimpse of Switzerland before it was rich and famous, to see another side to the country I've lived in for the past eight years.
What was the biggest difference between between your journey and Miss Jemima's?
Speed and comfort. Whereas her trains went at 20 km/h, mine could go at ten times that speed, giving me more time to enjoy each stop along the way (and avoid all the 4am starts that she had). More importantly I had toilets on the trains, bathrooms in the hotels, and access to my baggage more than once a week. She had none of the above but wore the same clothes all week, despite hiking in the heat through the Alps. And, of course, I didn't wear crinoline at any point on my trip, whereas she didn't have the benefit of a bar of Swiss chocolate for elevenses. Milk chocolate was only invented 12 years after her visit.
What has remained the same in the decades since?
The scenery. It is as splendid now as it was then so that her descriptions of walking over the Gemmi Pass or up to Wengernalp are still just as valid today. But even there, nature has not remained static; sadly the glaciers that Miss Jemima so intrepidly hiked across (in her big skirts!) are much smaller these days, and they are still retreating. Whereas Grindelwald once had two huge glaciers that came right down into the valley, now they can barely be seen from the village. The backdrop is still just as beautiful though, even without the "frozen hurricanes" as Byron called them.
What can modern travellers take from Miss Jemima's trip?
That tourists and travellers aren't so different. They might characterise each other in stereotypical fashion but essentially they both want to enjoy being somewhere else. To our sensibilities Miss Jemima seems like a very independent traveller, setting off without much of a plan (let alone a guide) to explore the Alps with just a knapsack on her back. It wasn't rafting down the Amazon but it was fairly adventurous for that time; Miss Jemima was a tourist by name but a traveller by nature. And yet Cook's Tourists were criticised from the outset for ruining the places they went to, for rushing round simply to see the sights and for generally being rather vulgar. Or as Evelyn Waugh said: "The tourist is the other fellow". The legacy of that trip is not something just for a privileged few; it is something we can all enjoy no matter where we go or how long we stay. Once we leave home, we are all tourists in the eyes of the locals.
Is it still possible to have an adventure like hers in Switzerland?
Yes, though of course some of the wilder parts that she saw have since been tamed but there are plenty of other places in Switzerland to get away from it all. Switzerland was the first mass tourist destination, but despite that (or maybe because of that) it hasn't suffered from over-development in the way that the some of the Spanish Costas have, while even the bits that are developed, such as Interlaken, have a genteel low-key air to them. It's the perfect combination of good facilities and infrastructure as a springboard for heading off into the Alps on your own.
You're a Brit living in Switzerland. What drew you there? What keeps you there?
Love was the motivation: I just couldn't stay away from the chocolate (although my partner had something to do with it too). And after ten years as a travel writer in the UK, I was looking for something different, so moving abroad and learning a new language seemed like a good idea – until I actually started having to grapple with German grammar. While I might not have fully mastered the intricacies of the dative case, there is more than enough to keep me happy and busy in Switzerland.
After the success of Swiss Watching I gave up the day-job and now concentrate full-time on writing and speaking. The Swiss seem unusually fascinated by this strange Englishman who can talk about their country (and them) in English or German, and make them laugh at the same time. That's not a job description that would get me very far anywhere else.
What is the most surprising thing you've discovered since living in Switzerland?
That Swiss trains don't always run on time. Admittedly their idea of not being punctual is if you're only three minutes late but even that usually earns an apology and connecting services being held. I love Swiss trains, even if they are not quite perfect, so it was an ever greater surprise to discover that the British were integral in planning and building many of Switzerland's railway lines. That's why Swiss trains still drive on the left, as in Britain.
What is something every visitor must do in Switzerland, but most don't?Watching the sunrise from the top of Rigi. I had never thought to do that, despite years of living only two hours away. But because it was the highlight of Miss Jemima's tour, as it was for almost every Victorian visitor, I stayed overnight at the top, got up before the cows and witnessed the daily spectacle of the Alps blushing in the reflection of the new dawn. Truly a memorable moment, if rather chilly even in the height of summer.
The funny thing is that it was once the must-do of any Swiss trip but is now largely forgotten and ignored. Whereas in Miss Jemima's day, over 200 people enjoyed that summertime ritual every day, prompting the building of grand hotels on the summit, we were just two. It was about the only time on the whole trip where I could experience something with fewer people than she did. What had been a crowded bun-fight has become a peaceful slice of Swiss bliss.
Wanderlust's Sarah Baxter followed in Miss Jemima's footsteps too – literally. Here you'll find her account of hiking the same trails as our heroine from 1863.
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