Not many people know this, but the British ‘invented’ modern Switzerland. In the mid-19th century, Switzerland was a divided, impoverished country with virtually non-existent access to its remoter valleys and with little or no industry. Then along came excursionist Thomas Cook – and the rest is history.
Ok, so this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek view but there is no doubt that the appetite of the growing British middle class for more exciting holidays gave the Swiss added impetus to invest in a railway network that opened up the whole country for exploration by tourists.
Among these first intrepid visitors and tour guides was the aforementioned Thomas Cook, who was the first to take organised groups from Britain to enjoy the grandeur of the Swiss Alps. On his first conducted tour was a young lady from Selby, Jemima Morrell, who left a detailed diary of her experiences. This makes an enlightening read, but how the story developed from that point onwards has now been meticulously documented in an engrossing and witty new book by Diccon* Bewes (best-selling author of Swiss Watching), which was launched at Waterstone’s in York this week.
Slow Train to Switzerland’ is based on Diccon’s travels as he followed in Jemima Morrell’s footsteps all the way from London to the Alps, staying where she stayed as far as possible and experiencing similar views. He noted what has changed, what seems to have remained the same and asks how this has come about. He examines Cook’s first tour and the impact it has made on tourism on the country since then; and he also explains how pivotal the railways were in boosting local economies for the good of the country as a whole.
When Cook first arrived, there were no cog railways, no cable cars, no tunnels and very few trains. There was no Swiss chocolate, no ‘Heidi’ and no Swiss Army penknives.
Then British tourists decided it would be fun to ski downhill at breakneck speed – the Swiss looked bemused and asked “But why?” – and a new winter sport was born.
The tourist infrastructure grew at a rapid pace over the next few years as the effect of the ‘tourist pound’ began to show its worth, while a well organised network of railway tracks began to make its way out from ‘Point Zero’ (the town of Olten at the hub of the Swiss rail network, then as now) along Alpine valleys and up precipitous mountainsides (built by British engineers, of course), giving access to once unreachable viewpoints.
Diccon’s well-researched book makes a great read and is filled with interesting and unusual facts about the country’s history, plus acutely observed anecdotes based on the author’s passion and love for his adopted country – this is most definitely not stuffy history.
BUY YOUR COPY
If you wish to buy a copy you can do so through Diccon’s own website (click here >); through Watersone’s (click here >) or via Amazon (click here >).
[Prices vary – take your pick.]
PS – I met Diccon on the 150th Anniversary trip to Switzerland organised by Switzerland Tourism earlier this year when we were among a party of eighteen travellers recreating Jemima’s historic tour – but with the advantages of modern transport, haute cuisine and en-suite facilities.
With us came John Morrell (the great, great nephew of Jemima Morrell) and his wife Margaret, and Paul Smith, the current archivist at Thomas Cook. We were also joined by a modern-day ‘Jemima’, poet Helen Mort (above) of Sheffield, whose acclaimed latest work Division Street has just been nominated for the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry.
[*Diccon is an archaic diminutive form of the name of Richard, akin to Dickie. Be honest – you were wondering…]