SLOW TRAIN TO SWITZERLAND by Diccon Bewes

Book review by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

It may have been that remark by Orson Welles in The Third Man about Switzerland’s having had five hundred years of democracy and peace and only producing the cuckoo clock, which had set the tone for me. For although I have enjoyed visiting Switzerland on several occasions somehow I had always dismissed it as a rather boring country. Similarly although I love travelling by train I am not particularly interested in the nitty-gritty of trains as such. Thus my initial thoughts on picking up this book were not blazingly positive.

I do however, really enjoy armchair travelling ‘in the footsteps’ of people from the past and I have even done so in reality, following Fanny Calderon de la Barca, the Scottish girl who married Spain’s first ambassador the Mexico as she travelled through that country in the 1840s. Thus I was intrigued to find that Diccon Bewes had based his Swiss journey on the travel diaries of Jemina Morrell, a participant in one of Thomas Cook’s First Conducted Tours of Switzerland in 1863.

In fact they are both excellent travelling companions. The little comments quoted from Jemima’s diary convey the very essence of wry Victorian style.

One mule discarded its rider, though to give the animal its due, there was some display of oriental grace in the camel-like kneel with which he preceded his nonchalant roll across the path.

Diccon similarly leavens the masses of facts which he incorporates into this book by using a delightfully accessible, throw-away style which is both amusing and endearing.

As for the content, while Jemima may not have witnessed the revolutions and earthquakes seen by Fanny in Mexico, nevertheless she and her companions (the little group of four girls and three men dubbed The Junior United Alpine Club) displayed enormous grit and endurance on this trip. They rose at dawn to hike over the most gruelling terrain with scarcely a moment’s rest and minimal comforts or conveniences (one hotel boasted 4 lavatories for 64 rooms).

I was frankly amazed at the degree of stamina required by Thomas Cook’s early tourists. In fact a group of 130 set off across the channel on this jaunt, such was the scale of his enterprise. Some sheared off in Paris and some in Geneva, leaving just this core of valiant souls to complete their boot-camp ‘holiday’ which, it must be said they all thoroughly enjoyed.

Diccon on the other hand was accompanied only by his mother and while they tried their best to stick to the same route as the JUAC he would be the first to admit that by contrast their trip was a doddle.

One of the most interesting things about any ‘in the footsteps’ experience is comparing ‘then’ and ‘now’ and evaluating the changes. In this Diccon excels. Not only is he a Swiss resident but whether writing about the history of the firm of Thomas Cook, railways, funiculars, cable cars and tunnels ( he seems to know the date each was launched) or the customs and history of the cantons of Switzerland itself, his knowledge is phenomenal. Through his eyes we see how prior to tourism Switzerland was a very poor country with little land available for arable farming and few industries. The coming of the railways changed all that (echoes of Michael Portillo with his Bradshaw’s guide…) and before long they were transporting such luxury goods as cheese, chocolate and watches – but most of all they were carrying tourists and to look after the tourists something developed which was not only very profitable but at which the Swiss found they excelled – the hospitality industry.

It is soon apparent that the members of the JUAC far from finding Switzerland boring were totally thrilled by it. Dressed in voluminous clothes they put up with train journeys of up to 18 hours with non-existent toilet facilities (I wish Diccon had not ducked the question of how they managed), being hounded by carriage drivers and beggars with goitres, crossing dangerous glaciers, eating dubious meals, getting before dawn and falling into bed exhausted – and loved every minute of what would constitute for us something we’d need a holiday to recover from.

Seeing Switzerland through the eyes of Miss Jemima I felt myself warming to the place. I was however glad of Diccon’s commentary on the changes; now many areas enjoyed by the Victorians are overcrowded and spoiled but some like seeing the sunrise over the Rigi which used to be very popular is now almost unknown by tourists. I was sorry to learn that many of the waterfalls admired by Jemima are now mere dribbles and that some of the vast glaciers have shrunk almost to nothing. I was also surprised to learn that it is the Chinese along with the Russians and Brazilians who now form the greatest part of the tourist hordes. Even so Switzerland did now begin to appeal strongly to me and I found myself reaching for a pen and paper and jotting down some of the places appreciated by Diccon and his mother; the paddle steamers on Lake Thun, the Lion of Lucerne, that Rigi sunrise and the Grand Hotel Geissbach amongst them. I even began to feel that I should really like to set out in their footsteps.

Yes, this book proved very enjoyable. I had also absorbed a great deal of valuable information about the history of Switzerland (and maybe just a wee bit more than I needed about trains, funiculars, cable cars, tunnels et al, although I can see that for transport aficionados that might exactly its appeal). I was especially delighted by the fact that when he returned Diccon found that he was distantly related to Miss Jemima but most ironically in view of my original prejudice, I discovered that Orson Welles was quite wrong. Rather than peace and brotherly love, in the past Switzerland had fought many bloody battles – and the cuckoo clock really came from Germany.

Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes

Published in paperback by Nicholas Brealey @ £10.99

For more information about visiting Switzerland go to www.myswitzerland.com

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