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Slow Train to Switzerland, by Diccon Bewes - review

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

In 1863, the pioneering travel agent Thomas Cook took a group of British tourists on the first package holiday to Switzerland. One of them, a jolly young woman called Jemima Morrell, kept a diary — and 150 years later, English émigré Diccon Bewes has followed in her footsteps.

His Slow Train to Switzerland (Nicholas Brealey, £18.99) is a fascinating survey of how that country (and ours) has changed. The main thing that strikes you about this charming book is how gung-ho those early tourists were. The trains were rickety, the hotels were spartan, and the toilet facilities virtually non-existent. Yet rather than moaning about these hardships on TripAdvisor, Jemima rose before dawn every day to hike up endless Alps and glaciers.


Bewes’s breezy prose makes him a pleasant travelling companion. Having lived in Berne for the last eight years, he clearly knows Switzerland inside out, but he wears his learning lightly. However, his chatty travelogue ends on a melancholy note. When Jemima set off for Switzerland, Britain was by far the richer country. Today, the Swiss are better off than us, and the most prosperous tourists are Chinese. Bourgeois Brits like Jemima Morrell helped create modern tourism (and modern Switzerland) but many of her middle-class descendants would struggle to afford this sort of jaunt today.

Slow Train to Switzerland commemorates a golden age when Britons were the world’s wealthiest tourists. The Swiss travelogues of the next century will be written in Cantonese.


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