Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes


In 1863, a young single woman from the North of England went on Thomas Cook’s first Conducted Tour of Switzerland.  Group tours meant it was OK for her to go without a chaperone – hooray!   And, during one of her group’s excursions, they got caught in a storm and took refuge in a mountain hut.  I love how Chalet School-esque that is, over sixty years before the Chalet School opened!    I also love the fact that the author of this book, who retraced her journey -with his mum – is called Diccon, rather than rather than Rick or Rich or Ricky.  It sounds very Frances Hodgson Burnett.  And I’m extremely impressed by just how much Victorian tourists – we’re talking middle-class tourists going for a few weeks, not the wealthy upper-classes who could afford to wander round Europe for months on end and see everywhere at a leisurely pace – got through during their trips.  I like to keep on the go when I’m on holiday, but getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and not getting to the next hotel until midnight, especially whilst dressed in crinolines and corsets, really would be going a bit far.

The idea of this book was that Diccon Bewes (a British travel writer living in Switzerland) and his mum were going to retrace the journey described in the journal of Jemima Morrell.  She’s always referred to as “Miss Jemima”, because the members of the group (which started off with 130 people but was down to seven by the end, some of its members having only gone as far as Paris or one of the resorts on Lake Geneva) had agreed to call each other “Miss Jemima”, “Mr William” (her brother) etc, rather than Miss/Mr/Mrs Surname.  They were obviously well into holiday mode – even if they did have to don formal dress for their evening meals.

Back in 1863, tourism in Switzerland was just starting to take off – and it was mainly a British thing.  The book tells us a lot about the character of the people who went on these tours, and also about Switzerland and how it was changed by tourism.  We think of Switzerland as a wealthy country, but, in 1863, it really wasn’t.  It wasn’t until I saw this BBC documentary in 2014 about children in Switzerland being used as indentured farm labourers even well after the Second World War, that I realised just how recently it is that Switzerland’s become so wealthy. And it was in no small part the growth of the tourist industry that kick-started that.

Diccon Bewes is a very entertaining writer, and the book’s very readable.  I’m not going to recount all his travels, or Miss Jemima’s, but I thought I’d list a few of the points that particularly struck me, in the hope that someone might read them and that they might find them interesting too!  Some of them are pretty obvious, but the fact that something’s obvious doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting .

  1. Miss Jemima being able to travel abroad with no travelling companion/chaperone.  And the development of group tours in general, making travel available to people who just wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise.  Then as now, people can be snotty about group tours, but I’d have missed out on a lot of the best experiences of my life without them.  So would she.
  2. The tourist industry being the impetus for railway building in Switzerland. Quite an interesting concept when you come from Lancashire and have grown up with the idea that railway building was all to do with the Industrial Revolution!
  3. The difference in types of travel hassle between then and now!  OK, Victorian travellers did not have to pass through body scanners or have their luggage rummaged through by security staff.  But they did have to have their luggage paid at every single railway station where they broke their journey, and pay for it.  And Miss Jemima’s cousin, Miss Sarah, another member of the party, was charged 50 cents at the Douane in Dieppe for carrying Yorkshire curd tarts.
  1. And they didn’t have to go through passport control. No passports required.  Individual British passports weren’t introduced until 1915.  I knew that, but I didn’t know that, prior to that, it was advisable to get a group passport for your party, which listed all the men by name but only gave the total number of women!  Huh!!5. As I said, just how much they did!  Usually a different place every day.  Well, sometimes several different places every day.  A different hotel every night would be a better way of putting it – and this was at a time when travel meant going by trains that took far longer than today’s trains do, diligence (stagecoach), steamer, and, in some areas, mules.  And a lot of walking.  Especially for blokes.  If there weren’t enough mules to go round, women got first dibs.  Eighteen hour days, sometimes.  I’ve done some fairly tiring tours, but I don’t think any of them were as tiring as the ones these Victorian travellers did.  How were they not exhausted?  Oh, and Diccon wondered (and so did I) what they did about toilet stops, but, sadly, Miss Jemima’s journal doesn’t mention anything so indelicate!

    6. Environmental issues.  I often wish I could have visited places in the days when they were less crowded – which is totally hypocritical, seeing as I’m part of the crowds.  And before everything was so globalised.  I’ve got nothing against McDonald’s or Starbucks, but I don’t really need to see them everywhere when I’m looking for an Austrian coffee house or a French patisserie.  But, although I get upset every time I hear that Venice has been flooded again, I’ve never really stopped to wish that I could have seen a glacier in the days when it was far bigger, or to be sad that they’re in retreat.  I will do from now on.

    7. The traumas of the mountain weather never change, though!  You’ve been promised one of the best views in the world.  On the day you’re meant to see it, the clouds are so low and so thick that you can hardly see a thing.  As you’re on an escorted tour on a tight schedule, rather than a Grand Tour lasting twelve months, you can’t come back another day.

    8. The British links to the development of Swiss winter sports.  At this point, the British were keener on winter sports than the Swiss were. Thomas Cook even introduced a skating tour of Switzerland in 1905.   The Cresta Run, built in 1884, was a British idea.  We should really be winning medals galore at the Winter Olympics!  Hmm.

    9. The importance of appreciating the simple things.  I do actually do this!   Getting excited over an Alpine flower meadow, rather than wanting to be going bungee jumping off a bridge or the side of a dam.  Obviously Victorian British tourists did not have the option of doing bungee jumping, but some of them were weirdly obsessed with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn.  I’m with Miss Jemima and the Alpine flowers on this one.

    10.And, of course, taking shelter in a mountain hut during a storm.  Annoyingly, this bit was actually in France – whilst visiting the Mer de Glace near Chamonix – rather than in Switzerland, but never mind.  All these years, I’ve been reading Chalet School books and wondering how likely it was that people stranded in a storm would actually have been able to find a mountain hut that was conveniently open.  Evidently, it really did happen!

So there.  This is a light-hearted book, but there’s plenty of stuff in it that’ll really make you think.  Very enjoyable.