Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves by Lucy Lethbridge - review by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

From Mont Blanc to Magaluf

Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves


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‘Tourism’ is a slippery word. For at least 250 years it has been applied without stigma to travelling away from home territory for pleasure, interest and cultural exploration rather than work or duty. The grand tour, centred on Italy, that the wealthy British began to undertake in the 17th century provided a pattern that is still in essence followed by many today – think specialised cruises. Yet surprisingly early, another image began to intrude on this high-minded scene. In the summer of 1815, when Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was making continental Europe once again accessible to the British, Lady Caroline Lamb reported that ‘the great amusement … is to make large parties & go to the field of battle – & pick up a skull or an old shoe or a letter, & bring it home’. These crowds were soon swelled by local hawkers offering fake battlefield mementos, and thus began the alternative view of tourism as something indulged in by noisy, greedy, ignorant people, quite unlike oneself.

Needless to say, the arrival of steam boats and then the spread of railways, the first means of mass travel, gave an impetus to the tourist trade that has never, except in times of war, paled. The first edition of John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers on the Continent appeared even before the rail line from London made it to Hastings. By the middle of the 19th century, one Albert Smith, who had achieved great success with the panoramas of foreign scenes that he had displayed before an eager public in London venues, was conducting a group on a real and rather perilous journey up Mont Blanc, complete with porters carrying quantities of food, alcohol and home remedies, including laudanum.

A characteristic feature of the founding fathers of organised tours for England’s burgeoning commercial middle classes was moral purpose. Thomas Cook, who began conducting his customers round the Great Exhibition of 1851 before branching out into real-life mass travel, came of Nonconformist, teetotal stock. Later tour operators were similarly temperance-minded, including the Methodist founder of Co-operative Educational Tours, Henry Simpson Lunn, and the early 20th-century organisers of biking and camping tours. Camp life ‘on the open road’, which became an enthusiasm after the trauma of the First World War, was actually quite suburban in its ethos, with a fixed ‘communal hour’ around campfires. The first holiday camps, too, had a not dissimilar ethos of muscular health as a marker of social respectability, and were alcohol-free. How different from our modern Costa Brava – not to mention the innumerable other coasts around the world now changed forever by the influx of what Ruskin, a century and a half ago, called ‘a consuming white leprosy of hotels’.

Another aspect of morally progressive tourism that has now largely disappeared was the belief that international relationships, fuelled by friendly encounters over sleeping bags and Primus stoves, might bring about Peace in Our Time. We all know today how misguided were the enthusiasms expressed by 1930s visitors to Stalin’s Russia, but largely ignored has been the innocent, hippy-ish Wandervogel cult in Germany and its gradual descent into Nazism. Lucy Lethbridge does not say a great deal about this, but she does make a significant and quite different point about the way Auschwitz, thanks to the sheer volume of visitors it now attracts, has acquired many of the characteristics of a tourist destination, complete with cafeteria and reception area.

Let us retreat again quickly into the more distant past. So much varied research has contributed to this excellent book that it is a treasure-trove of many more significant facts than one can cite. There are long excursions into the growth of the spa and into the wildly varying and often scientifically groundless advice on water, air (good and bad), exercise (ditto), diets, purges, rest (too much or too little) and underwear, elevated by Gustav Jaeger into something of a belief system. There is the rebranding of mountains from places full of only semi-enjoyable danger and dread into over-visited international playgrounds. Similarly, the sea moved through the centuries from being an object of respect and fear (Joseph Addison wrote in 1812 of the ‘pleasing Astonishment’ of seeing the ‘Heavings of this prodigious Bulk of Waters’) to one of enthusiasm, a focus of the cult of bathing. And there is the more recent shift in concepts of beauty, from the Rossetti pallor of the True Woman to the class-free obsession with sunburn, which came with the tourism boom of the 1950s and 1960s instigated by cheap airfares.

There are the Edwardian E M Forster characters who needed, in Italy, not just to experience new scenes but also to have an Experience of a life-changing kind. And there is the early 19th-century diary of the implacably unimpressed Mary Browne, who was, it seems, morally committed to hating foreign countries: ‘About Calais was the ugliest country without exception I ever beheld.’ Lethbridge sums up her attitude: ‘The paintings in the Louvre were disappointing, the aniseed soap smelt disgusting, the vines in the vineyards were regrettably small … The cows were too thin, the pigs too long-legged, the babies over-swaddled, the ladies wore clashing colours.’ And much, much more on the same lines.

There is, however, a problem with having amassed such a large spread of material, and it is one I recognise. Does the writer opt for a chronological hike through the decades, which gradually become centuries? This method may seem the simplest, but it is apt to constrict the very insights and comparisons that make a study such as this a joy. So is it better (Lethbridge’s choice) to dot back and forth in time, pursuing specific themes, with only a partial shift into chronological narration in the last chapter? I can see why she has done the latter, but there are drawbacks. We get quickly into organised touring, its appearance in 19th-century novels, and even reach a late 19th-century funicular up Vesuvius. Then suddenly we are back with early diaries, the romance of the Gothic, Byron and Walter Scott. Then we are brought back even further, to cabinets of curiosities and Gulliver’s Travels. Only at this point, on page 125, is there a brief mention of the person some of us would regard as the true originator of tourism, grand or otherwise: the 18th-century cleric William Gilpin. With his perception that the age-old antipathy to rough country might become awe rather than simply fear, he created, along with Claude Lorrain (with a boost from Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime), the picturesque and all that has followed since.

But the author does finally and perceptively get to the heart of things. I cherished her remark that ‘most sightseeing feels in some way valedictory, a glimpse from behind the visitor’s rope barrier at a world long gone or vanishing fast’. She is surely right in her assessment that the hopeful tourist is forever in search of the lost pastoral world of our pre-industrial ancestors, the ‘real’ foreign country, where authentic people make real things. Alas, as she concludes, ‘the prevailing paradox of tourism is that it so often destroys what it seeks.’ We are many centuries from the time when, as spring came, Chaucer’s ‘folk did long to go on pilgrimage’, but our urges, our inventiveness and our capacity for destruction have not changed.

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