Catching the Slow Train to Switzerland

June 4, 2013, 2 Comments

Mer de Glace Thomas Cook conducted tour

Source: Thomas Cook archives

One tour, two trips and 150 years – and a world of change – apart. That was the premise behind my new book, Slow Train to Switzerland, to be published in October this year in English. It’s the story of the first conducted tour of Switzerland, and how that changed both the Swiss and the way we travel. It’s a tale of trains and tourists, the British and the Swiss, a Victorian diarist and an English travel writer.

In the summer of 1863 seven people left London on a train that would take them on a trip of a lifetime. They were the Junior United Alpine Club and members of Thomas Cook’s first Conducted Tour of Switzerland. For them it was a thrilling adventure across the Alps; for me it was a historic trip that I wanted to follow. So I did.

Slow Train final coverA century and half after they left, I’m standing at the same station about to embark on that same three-week trip. I’m going to follow their itinerary, stay in same places, see the same things and so discover how much has changed. And how much hasn’t. My guide is one of the original participants, a spirited lady from Yorkshire who wrote a diary as she travelled. Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal was lost for decades but survived to become a unique record of that tour.

Two years later and Slow Train to Switzerland is almost ready. Weeks of travelling, years of research, months of writing have all come together in one book, along with 75 old pictures of Switzerland. This is more than a travelogue of both trips, it’s a look at the early days of tourism, when going abroad meant 18-hour days and wearing the same clothes for weeks. And no toilets on the trains.

The original trip went from London to Lucerne and back, travelling by boat, train and coach. They hiked over glaciers in crinolines, rode mules over mountain passes, watched the sunrise on Rigi and bought watches in Neuchatel. It was a trip of a lifetime for them. And for me – complete with a totally unexpected ending.

But this is also the story of how English tourists helped transform Switzerland. What was then a poor country, with plenty of rural poverty but no milk chocolate, became one of the wealthiest on earth. And tourism was one of the keys to Swiss success, not least because it gave the train companies a secure income to build otherwise nonviable lines up into the mountains.

Miss Jemima Morrell and her Swiss JournalNot forgetting the much larger impact of that first trip. Its success meant the end of travel for just a privileged few and the beginning of tourism for the masses. It was the birth of the travel industry as we know it, and it started with the Swiss.

Slow Train to Switzerland will be published at the end of October in hardback, but pre-ordering is now possible online through the links below, or at your local bookshop (ISBN 9781857886092). It will also be available later as an e-book.


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