How Victorian holidaymakers destroyed medieval ruins to make them prettier


Few nations love to pack their bags and explore the world quite like the British. Since the gilded days of the Grand Tour – that ultimate finishing school for the upper class – we’ve flocked to every corner of Europe, and beyond, in search of enriching experiences.

Gradually, thanks to the emergence of tour operators like Thomas Cook, the hoi polloi also discovered the benefits of escaping our islands, and now – with the arrival of low-cost flights and package holidays – few of us don’t spend at least a week each summer on the beaches of the Med.

What has changed beyond all recognition, however, are our holiday habits. Where today’s tourists are chiefly concerned with suntans and Instagrammable photo opportunities, the travellers of yesteryear did things rather differently… most of the time.

Here, Lucy Lethbridge, the author of a new book, Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves, reveals some of the most fascinating episodes from more than 200 years of globetrotting.

Improving the view with a ‘mallet judiciously used’

In the 18th century, under the influence of the Rev William Gilpin, who first coined the term ‘picturesque’, tourists were encouraged to make ruins and monuments look more attractively crumbly. Gilpin recommended, for example, that ruined Tintern Abbey would be improved by a ‘mallet judiciously used’ to roughen up its straight lines. 

Gilpin is really the progenitor of the selfie and the Instagram post – for him it was all about the backdrop. He advocated using a portable convex mirror through which you could capture the scene behind you as if it were framed. The best kind of view, he pronounced, ‘was that kind of beauty which would look well in a picture.’

The terrible postcard craze

In 1867, while holidaying in Naples, an English tourist noticed that the Italian guides sold photographs of Pompeii and Vesuvius for tourists – to supplement their earnings because they were forbidden to take tips. In 1869, the Austrian postal service created the first card which could be sent without an envelope. By the 1880s the cards were the most popular form of souvenir in Europe, and in 1900 there were 10,000 different views of Paris available in postcard form. 

old postcards travel relics

Postcard of Mont-Saint-Michel in the early 20th century

Credit: Getty

Creating postcards gave work to countless local photographers and printers – nowhere was too insignificant to merit a picture. In 1902, the first modern postcard form appeared, with a line to divide address and message. Many despaired that the postcard would be the end of proper letter-writing and civilised communication. As an editorial in the Evening Standard observed: ‘The illustrated postcard craze, like the influenza, has spread to these islands from the Continent, where it has been raging with considerable severity.’

The first hotel rating system – and Thomas Cook’s questionable reviews

Early guidebooks and travel agents relied on recommendations to spread the word. Mariana Starke, author of the 1818 guide Travels on the Continent, sorted tourist sites and hotels by awarding them exclamation marks, one to three. She gave Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, for example, a mere !!. She relied on travellers to send back reports and news that an inn’s standards had slipped and it would be downgraded to ! – or simply expunged from the guide. 

Thomas Cook, who began his package tours to Europe in the 1860s, encouraged his customers to write reviews in his magazine Cook’s Excursionist. Most of those published, needless to say, were positive: ‘Everything is organised, everything is catered for, one does not have to bother oneself with anything at all, neither timings, nor luggage nor hotels. And. Do you know, I have met the man who arranges it all. I have even said ‘Good morning’ to him. He is named Mister Cook and they say he is a saint!’

Visiting Switzerland? Take your own cow

Astonishingly, wheeled suitcases first appeared as late as 1970 – in Macy’s, New York. Before then, cases had to be lugged, dragged or carried (quite often by a porter). Victorian tourists took enormous amounts of clothing and equipment with them when they travelled abroad and this inspired ingenious designs for trunks that opened into wardrobes, desks or medicine chests. Most European hotels didn’t provide sheets so travellers were advised to go everywhere with their own bed linen and cutlery. 

A guidebook to Switzerland in the 1830s suggested that if you were intending to spend more than a couple of months, you’d be advised to bring your own cow. And as late as 1968, the Letts Guide to the French Riviera suggests that while drip-dry shirts and ‘tennis shoes’ were sensible, men should still pack a dinner jacket in case it was required.

history travel changed

A pair of tourists at the Archaeological Area of ​​Eraclea Minoa, as seen in Lucy Lethbridge’s book

Credit: Bridgeman Images

The shocking sight of a lady’s calf

Swimming in the sea was considered a health cure in the 18th century and by the mid-19th, a dip in the waves was de rigueur while holidaying. In most resorts, males and females entered the water separately but once in, could mingle excitingly freely. Many French resorts employed ‘guides baigneurs’ in striped jerseys who would take the hand of nervous bathers and help them in. 

Bathing costumes were usually hired at the beach. Women wore ankle length black woollen bloomers under a knee-length, belted tunic, wide-brimmed hats and voluminous capes. Costumes remained all-enveloping until after the First World War, when new stretch materials and rubberised fabric revolutionised beach wear. In 1918, a close-fitting, knee-length one piece appeared for the first time and was considered so shocking that it had to be worn with an overdress which could be quickly removed at the water’s edge.

The wine-and-meat diet – and a lovely drink of bath scum

Health cures have been big business for 200 years. The spa towns of Europe, with their grand hotels and casinos, were particularly popular but the treatments they offered were often bizarre and sometimes disgusting. They included immersion in hot mineral water, wrapping in cold wet sheets and weight-loss diets of nothing but wine and meat. 

history travel ages changed

A massage treatment in Aix-les-Bains from the 20th century, as seen in Lucy Lethbridge’s book

Credit: Bridgeman Images

In some of the watering holes, the healing springs had become greasy with scum from bathing bodies – at the popular resort of Wiesbaden, it was called ‘cream’ and patients were even persuaded it was particularly healthy to drink. At Carlsbad, the sulphurous waters tasted horrible and drinkers were advised to rub their teeth with stale bread or sage leaves to avoid mineral encrustation.

The mad dash for Iceland

The Victorians were fascinated by Iceland and the Norse sagas. Adventurous tourists started going there in the 1850s when Reykjavik was a small hamlet of turf huts. The journey took 10 days, via Copenhagen and the Shetlands. There were no hotels, no shops and no roads in Iceland. 

When the Rev Sabine Baring Gould visited in 1859, there was little to eat but whimbrel (a wading bird) stew and the only accommodation for visitors was in churches lit by ptarmigan oil lamps. Yet he met British tourists wherever he went, including the grandson of Lord Byron whom he encountered walking alone across a glacier nursing a broken heart after an Icelandic woman had refused his proposal of marriage.

A flatulent ride on the ‘diligence’

Before the opening of the Calais to Paris railway in 1867, the commonest means of travel to the French capital was the famous ‘diligence’, a huge, un-sprung, horse-drawn vehicle that held 16 passengers. It travelled at a top speed of three miles per hour and was notoriously, bone-shakingly uncomfortable. There were three classes of seats and the expensive ones were inside. Many preferred the cheap seats on the roof because at least they were in the open air.

Matthew Todd, travelling in a diligence in 1816, wrote that the jolting had given all the passengers terrible bowel problems and the ‘offensive breath’ and ‘voluntary posterior declamations’ were so awful that he ‘could hardly keep my head in for five minutes altogether.’

travel history

The ‘diligence’ was a huge, un-sprung, horse-drawn vehicle that held 16 passengers

Credit: Getty

The surprising origins of the snow globe

Still among the most popular souvenirs of a foreign holiday, snow globes made their first appearance in the Paris Exhibition of 1878 where they were categorised as paperweights. These balls contained a little model of a man with an umbrella which when shaken was covered with falling white powder ‘in imitation of a snowstorm’. 

They had been invented by Edwin Perzy, a Viennese surgical instrument maker who was working on improved illumination for operating theatres when he put ground glass into a glass globe to increase reflectivity. It didn’t work so he tried semolina. In a moment of inspiration, he made a model of the basilica at Mariazell, put it in a globe and shook semolina snow all over it. The snow globe was born.

The rise of the sun-worshipper

In the late 19th century, pale skin became less desirable: it was associated with tuberculosis and weakness. ‘Sun baths’, however, were considered, like vegetarianism, somewhat cranky. But in the 1920s, tanned skin was suddenly the height of fashion, denoting status, luxury and leisure. Fake tanning products were popular as well as ultra-violet lamp treatments.

‘None are brighter in spirits than those who are sun-worshippers’, wrote a doctor in 1930. Many keen sunbathers suggested rubbing the skin with lemon-juice and olive oil to stimulate the tanning process. In 1935, Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal cosmetics, devised a ‘browning oil’ which he called Ambre Solaire, the first that stressed the importance of protecting the skin as well as enhancing a tan.

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