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Slow Train to Switzerland

Book Review

Slow Train to Switzerland book jacket

ABOVE: The cover art may look retro, but Slow Train to Switzerland is a new book by a contemporary (and entertaining) writer. INSET PHOTO BELOW: The book's English author, Diccon Bewes.

"It is a great mistake to suppose that travelling in Switzerland is so very difficult that it may not be undertaken by ladies, or by persons not of the strongest mental and physical calibre ... even delicate persons may, with tolerable ease, reach the famed scenes of Geneva."

- Thomas Cook, The Excursionist, August 1963
  (from Slow Train to Switzerland)

Slow Train to Switzerland
By Diccon Bewes
Hardcover, 300 pages
Nicholas Brealey Publishing
ISBN 978-1-85788-609-2
UK (2013) £19.99
USD (2014) $29.95

The jacket copy is as good an introduction as any to Slow Train to Switzerland, a new and delightful book by Diccon Bewes:

"It was the tour that changed the way we travel. In the summer of 1863 seven people left London on a train that would take them on a thrilling adventure across the Alps. They were the Junior United Alpine Club and members of Thomas Cook's first Conducted Tour of Switzerland. For them it was an exciting novelty; for us it was the birth of mass tourism, and it started with the Swiss.

"A century and a half later, travel writer Diccon Bewes set off on the same three-week trip. His quest: follow their itinerary, stay in the same places, and discover how much has changed--and how much hasn't. His guide was Miss Jemima, a member of that Club who wrote a diary as she travelled. That diary was lost for decades but survived as a unique record of a historic tour.

"Slow Train to Switzerland is the fascinating account of both trips from London to Lucerne. It's a revealing 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. It's also the story of how a nostalgic tour surprised an expat author, revealilng a Switzerland very different from the present--and an unexpected personal connection with the diarist in a startling twist."


Diccon Bewes photoDiccon Bewes learned about Miss Jemima's 126-page diary, titled Miss Jemima's Swiss Journal, while researching his first book, Swiss Watching, in 2009. (Bewes is an expat British travel writer and former Stauffaucher English Bookshop manager who lives in Bern, Switzerland.) The journal had been reissued in a facsimile edition in 1963, a century after Thomas Cook's first Swiss tour and nearly two decades after the original diary had been found amid the rubble of a London warehouse during the Blitz in World War II.

In the foreword to Slow Train to Switzerland, Bewes writes:

"In a moment of inspiration or madness (or both), I decided to follow the trail that author had left behind. Guided by a woman who had been dead for well over a century, I would set off across Europe to try to see it through her eyes."

The journey

Nearly 150 years after Miss Jemima's trip, Diccon Bewes and his mother boarded an English Channel ferry in Newhaven, England--just as Miss Jemima and her companions had done, albeit with more fellow travelers:

"The Newhaven harbour records for 26 June 1863 show that the paddle steamer in operation that day was the Dieppe, and that the weather was fine with a fresh breeze, much as it is for our crossing 15 decades later. Apart from that, the two journeys could not be more different. First and second classes, tea and biscuits, sitting on coils of rope, sleeping under umbrellas--that was the essence of Miss Jemima's crossing. It sounds uncomfortable but peaceful. Today, with 51 cabins, 5 lounges, a bar, a restaurant, a shop, a kids' play area and up to 650 passengers and crew, ours is not a small ship....It could be any one of the giant car ferries that ply the Channel, taking bargain hunters to the French hypermarkets and holidaymakers to the sun."

After continuing by train to Paris, the Beweses stopped over briefly in the French capital (as Miss Jemima's group had done) before continuing to Geneva and on to Chamonix for an obligatory viewing of Mont Blanc.

In Miss Jemima's day, the trip from Geneva to Chamonix was by horsedrawn diligence or stagecoach. Bewes quotes from Miss Jemima's diary: "Soon we come to steep ascents, where we alight to walk and have additional mules yoked to the carriages." For Bewes and his mum, the trip wasn't especially quick (2½ hours by train), but it was considerably faster and more comfortable than an 11-hour stagecoach ride.

Chamonix provided less visual drama for the Beweses than for the Junior United Alpine Club, thanks to climate change. Bewes writes:

"Instead of going up to see the glaciers, we look at the information panels about them; or, more specifically, about how much they are shrinking. The before and after photos are like a record of some extreme diet regime, with the glaciers wasting away every year."

On the brighter side, traveling light is easier today than it was in 1863, or at least it's less offensive to one's companions:

"They effectively wore the same clothes day after day, all the while walking for hours in the heat and without a daily bath. By day three or so the smell must have been overpowering. But we should remember that our nostrils are used to a modern regime of daily showering, deodorising and changing clothes: if everyone smells, you probably no longer notice it after a while."

Perhaps the travelers were too busy with adventure to worry about aromas:

"In the mid-nineteenth century....most tourists came not to admire the glacier from above or below, but to walk across it. They had no training and no equipment, but no problem. Never mind that there were countless crevasses waiting to swallow anyone who missed their step, or that the sartorial rigours of the nineteenth century weren't exactly suited to scrambling across ladders and over boulders of ice (at least as far as the ladies were concerned). They put on their hats, picked up their sticks and went for a jolly hike across to the other side,  Miss Jemima included."

From Chamonix, Diccon and Mère Bewes took the train into Canton Valais, ending up at the mineral-spring resort of Leukerbad.  In Miss Jemima's day, the baths had a medicinal purpose; today, the emphasis is on pleasure and stress relief. Following a soak, the Beweses (like Miss Jemima's alpine club) went on to Kandersteg and the Bernese Oberland, though without having to cross the Gemmi Pass on foot, on horseback, or by mule. A lake steamer brought them to a landing near the "Paris of the Alps," a.k.a. Interlaken:

"In his book Die Erste Eisenbahn des Berner Oberlandes (The First Railway of the Bernese Oberland), F.A. Volmar describes how arriving tourists were pounded on by the carriage drivers, desperate to get some of the action; those who resisted were 'showered in curses'....In 1870 there were 244 horse-drawn carriages (35 of them omnibuses) running the short route to Interlaken , where  the only alternative was walking along the same road. That meant enduring the dust storm created by the carriages and 'wading ankle-deep through the horse-shit,' as one commentator described it."

Bewes spends several chapters describing Interlaken, Grindelwald, and other destinations in the Bernese Oberland, and with good reason: Even in Miss Jemima's day, the region was a mecca for tourists--mostly visitors of a leisurely pursuasion, but with a smattering of alpinists. English guests predominated, and the Guide to Cook's Tours described Interlaken as the "Leamington or Cheltenham of Switzerland." Bewes observes:

"The English upper-middle classes sometimes stayed for weeks during 'the season' and no doubt had the same urge to see and be seen as back home. The local paper even carried details of who had arrived in town so that people knew to call on them--friends for pleasure, local tradesmen for business.....For Miss Jemima's group, this is where they once again had access to their trunks, sent on from Chamonix a week earlier. Dressing for dinner was now a real option, and most likely expected of guests, so that 'the ladies, having got possession of the long-absent trunks, dazzled out eyes with almost forgotten splendour.'"

After leaving the Oberland, Miss Jemima (and the Beweses) headed for the William Tell country around Lucerne, which even then was one of Swizerland's top tourist destinations:

"In Miss Jemima's day the tourists didn't flock here for a slice of Swiss history (and they probably don't today); they came by the thousand for the perfectly picturesque scenery of Switzerland's second largest lake."

They also came for the Rigi, a mountain that had been a magnet for visitors since the early 1800s:

"The group was taking a much-beaten track, a path that had been widened in 1819 with the help of inmates from Lucerne's prisons, to accommodate sedan chairs and donkeys, and upgraded again 20 years later to accommodate horses. This was all to make it more comfortable for the tourists--around 50,000 a year at that time--flocking to pay homage to Queen Rigi. This deluge of visitors sustained jobs such as porters, guides, luggage carriers, horsemen and delivery boys (bread was taken up on foot, starting at 2am so that hotel guests at the top could enjoy it fresh for breakfast), all better paid than farming.

 "...The arrival of a boat in Weggis often led to undignified scuffles and such chaotic scenes at the dock that the authorities had to introduce minimum standards and fixed rates. All of that--the jobs, the fights, the money--disappeared when the train line opened in 1871."

In her diary, Miss Jemima reported that "about a hundred and fifty early risers" joined her in viewing sunrise on the Rigi (at that time, the mountain had 330 beds in two hotels). When Diccon Bewes and his mother stayed at the Rigi Kulm's one remaining hotel, they were the only two guests up at dawn--a sign of changing tastes and touristic sleeping habits.

The aftermath

Following their ascent of the Rigi, Miss Jemima's group (and, 150 years later, the Bewses) went on to visit Neuchâtel and the watchmakers' city of La Chaux-de-Fonds. At long last, the travelers returned home, and Miss Jemima wrote:

"The memory of our three weeks' holiday has many bright spots, but none in their way more precious than the happiness we experienced in setting foot on an English shore, and hearing again our mother tongue."

But the book isn't over just yet: Bewes provides a lengthy afterword about Switzerland then and now, including statistics that show how much the country's tourist industry grew in the decades after Miss Jemima's visit.

"Switzerland had a total of 9300 hotel beds and 2.9 million overnight stays in 1863; ten years later those figures had more than doubled, and by 1913 there were 211,00 beds and 23.8 million overnights. Such a peak would not be reached again until the 1950s."

He also learns what happened to Miss Jemima after her trip, and--to his surprise--he discovers a connection between Miss Jemima's family and his own.

Reviewer's verdict:

Slow Train to Switzerland is informative, fun, and immensely readable. If you're interested in Switzerland, tourism, or adventures by plucky tourists from Victorian England (or even if you simply enjoy a good read), you're bound to like the book.

For more information about Diccon Bewes and his three books about Switzerland, visit the author's Web site: