As a keen long distance cyclist and a collector of antiquarian travel books, I endeavoured to follow the 136 Routes around Switzerland described in perhaps the most influential travel book of all time.
“Murray’s Handbook For Travellers In Switzerland”, printed in 1838, was one of the first of a distinguished series famous in Victorian England. In the 1830s, Englishmen of the middle classes were travelling abroad in increasing numbers and they needed this new kind of book.
The Handbook was a valuable companion to those intrepid British travellers, not least for the fact it was one of the earliest major modern Continental guidebooks as a source of information, not readily found elsewhere in English at the time; from practical information about the route, the tolls to be paid, the history of the towns featured, and the quality of the accommodation and food offered by the inns along the way.
Whilst it is true that guidebooks had been written for the English Lake District as far back as 1778 (and famously by Wordsworth in 1810), followed by early guides to spa towns like Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Scarborough, the first real English-language European travel guides didn’t appear until John Murray published Mrs Mariana Starke’s “Travels On The Continent: Written For The Use And Particular Information of Travellers” in 1820. Like many of the French equivalents which had started to appear at the same time, the book was difficult to use and covered too large an area.
A new kind of travel book was needed. One that was easy to follow yet filled with both the practical information provided by the likes of Mrs Starke and Karl Baedeker in Germany, together with a brief history and account of the places in which it covered. This is where John Murray came in.
His Scottish grandfather, John MacMurray, had set up the famous publishing house on Fleet Street, London, in 1768, passing the business on to his son, John Murray, in 1809. Publishing the likes of Lord Byron, Coleridge and, perhaps most famously, Jane Austen’s “Emma”, the company had become one of the most influential in the world with the family wealth helping fund the travels of John Murray’s twenty one year old son, who was also confusingly named John Murray… they liked to keep it in the family, obviously.
He first travelled to Europe in 1829 with the intention of learning German, only to arrive in Rotterdam and be frustrated by the lack of practical information available for the foreign traveller. He decided to take notes, jotting down facts of everywhere he visited. On his return to London, he arranged his travels into Routes, added his notes, together with a general history of the towns along the way, and presented them to his father who was so impressed that he suggested a title for it, possibly inspired by Heinrich Heidegger’s 1790 “Handbuch für Reisende in der Schweiz” (“Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland”), creating a new English word in the process – “Handbook”, “Hand Book”, or “Hand-book”, as they would later inconsistently print.
With his father’s money, young John Murray made further trips to Europe over the next six years, making notes along the way for his friends to try and follow and proofread. The first “A Handbook For Travellers On The Continent” was published in 1836, covering Holland, Belgium, The Rhine and North Germany, with a second volume released in 1837 comprising Southern Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Danube.
Whilst compiling notes for his travels in France, Scandinavia, Russia and Italy, young John Murray realised that the task in hand was so huge, he was unable to do so alone, especially given that he was in line to take over running the publishing company from his aging father – he would later go on to publish Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and David Livingstone’s “Missionary Travels”. Therefore, he came up with an alternative for his Switzerland Handbook which would change travel writing forever; he would split the work between himself and a collaborator, choosing mountaineer William Brockedon to write the second half of the book devoted to the Alps, of which he was an expert.
Switzerland in 1837 was at an interesting juncture of its history, the profound changes set in motion by the 1798 revolution from Napoleon’s rule still working themselves out, with the country’s neutral freedom only being recognised in 1815.
When John Murray was travelling Switzerland, the cantons were still very much distrustful of each other – indeed, the bloody Battle of the Hülftenschanz had only just split the canton of Basel five years prior to the book’s publication in 1838 and the Sonderbundskrieg Civil War was to take place less than a decade later, shaping the country as we better know it today. Different towns even had their own currencies, making it incredibly hard for the young writer to guide English travellers:
There is hardly a country in Europe which has so complicated a Currency as Switzerland; almost every canton has a Coinage of its own, and those coins that are current in one canton will not pass in the next. Let the traveller, therefore, be cautious how he overloads himself with more small change than he is sure of requiring.
Fortunately, most towns, with the exception of St Gallen, Appenzell and Grisons, also accepted French Francs as payment (you could get by in those three Eastern cantons with Bavarian Florins). In fact, it was only in 1825 that Aarau, Bern, Basel, Fribourg, Solothurn, Vaud and Valais had come together to accept a uniform currency of Swiss Francs, worth 10 Batzen or 100 Rappen. The Swiss Franc was introduced finally across the whole country in 1850, some 12 years after Murray published his book.
It wasn’t just currency issues that the Victorian English traveller had to cope with, Switzerland in 1837 had their own measurements for distances.
There is not less perplexity and variation in the measurement of distances, than in the calculation of money, in Switzerland. Distances are reckoned throughout Switzerland, not by miles, but by stunden (hours, i.e. hours’ walking) or leagues.
And if that did not confuse the reader, then his detailed explanation probably did:
The length of the stunde has been calculated at 5278 metres, or 2708 toises = 1800 Bernese feet; 21,137 of such stunden go to a degree of the equator. To make this measurement agree with the actual pace of walking, it is necessary to advance 271 Paris feet in a minute. It is a reproach to the Swiss Government that no authorised measurement of the roads throughout the country should have been undertaken by them at the public expense. Since the correction of the weights and measures in 1833-34, 3-10ths of a metre (=3 decimetres), or 132,988 Paris lines has been constituted the legal Swiss foot, and 16,000 Swiss feet = 1 stunde.
Far easier to follow was Murray’s structure for the book. He had split the country into 136 different routes, even offering condensed “Skeleton Tours” tailored for the traveller’s needs, containing “only the more interesting scenes”:
- Carriage Tour of About Two Months, beginning at Basel and ending at Schaffhausen
- Tour Of A Fortnight (on carriage roads and footpaths from Schaffhausen to Basel)
- Tour Of Three Weeks On Foot (from Basel to Bern)
- Tour Of A Month Or Five Weeks (Schaffhausen to Basel)
- Tour Of Thirty-Two Days, chiefly on foot (Geneva to Basel)
- Tour Of About Ten Weeks (Schaffhausen to Geneva)
- A Summer’s Tour Of Three Months, to include all the spots best worth notice in Switzerland, passing as little as possible twice over the same ground (Basel to Geneva)
It was the 136 individual routes that I had decided to follow. Using modern technology like GPS and Google Maps to calculate the modern equivalent of his specified Swiss stunden, together with helpful guidance from websites and modern travel guides, I planned to follow Murray’s directions as closely as possible, using my cyclocross bicycle and only dining and staying in establishments that existed back in 1837 (there’s not so many).
With such modern aids, it is hard to imagine what travelling around Switzerland must have been like for a 29 year old John Murray back in 1837. It dawned on me, that both my chosen modes of transport, the bicycle and train, would not have even been invented and the ways of travelling would have been restricted to hiking, horseback, mule or the various public transport options:
- Diligence ~ a stagecoach pulled by four or more horses, “attached to the post office” with room for around twelve passengers, carrying luggage on the roof. “The places are numbered and all baggage exceeding a certain fixed weight is charged extra, and often greatly increases the expense of this mode of conveyance, which is one reason among many why travellers should reduce their baggage to the smallest possible compass.” Murray wasn’t impressed with Swiss transport, which “are by no means so well organised as in Germany. On some routes, particularly in going from one canton into another, passengers are sometimes transferred into another coach, and run the chance of waiting several hours for it, being set down in a remote spot to pass the interval as they may, and this not unfrequently in the middle of the night.”
- Post-horse ~ a smaller, faster horse drawn carriage that delivered mail and had room for four passengers. Murray informed the reader that “posting is unknown in most of the cantons of Switzerland” but that the Government had plans “to authorise the establishment of post-horses throughout Switzerland” the following year, 1838.
- Voiturier ~ a privately hired horse drawn carriage for two or more people
- Char-a-banc ~ a horse drawn carriage for two people with a bench placed sideways on four wheels with curtains like a four poster bed, or seats arranged behind each other, which were so low down that passengers could jump on and off without the horses having to stop
- Steamboat ~ introduced to the Swiss Lakes in 1818.
The most hilarious way of travelling though had to be by Tragsessel.
Even the aged or invalid female is by no means debarred the pleasure of taking a part in difficult mountain expeditions. Those who are either too infirm to either walk or ride, may be carried over the mountains in a “chaise-a-porteurs” (German: Tragsessel), which is nothing more than a chair, carried in the manner of a sedan upon poles, by two bearers
Still in operation some 43 years later, Mark Twain described this comical form of transportation in my favourite book, “A Tramp Abroad”, as such:
The Alpine litter is sometimes like a cushioned box made fast between the middles of two long poles, and sometimes it is a chair with a back to it and a support for the feet. It is carried by relays of strong porters. The motion is easier than that of any other conveyance. We met a few men and a great many ladies in litters; it seemed to me that most of the ladies looked pale and nauseated; their general aspect gave me the idea that they were patiently enduring a horrible suffering. As a rule, they looked at their laps, and left the scenery to take care of itself. ~ Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880
The following timeline should put into context the age in which Murray travelled Switzerland:
- 1798 ~ Napoléon Bonaparte invades Switzerland and renames it “République Helvétique”
- 1803 ~ Napoleon partially restores Switzerland’s sovereignty
- 1814 ~ Frederick William III of Prussia takes back control of the canton of Neuchatel
- 1815 ~ Following the final defeat of Napoleon in Europe, the Congress of Vienna declares the rest of Switzerland fully independent again, taking neutral status. The canton of Neuchatel enters as a principality belonging to, but not ruled by, the King of Prussia
- 1830 ~ The first proper passenger steam train runs from Liverpool to Manchester
- 1833 ~ The Battle of the Hülftenschanz sees the canton of Basel split into two as the rebellious countryside folk (Basel-Landschaft) outnumber and defeat a professional army of 1200 troops armed with 14 cannons from the city (Basel-Stadt)
- 1837 ~ John Murray travels through Switzerland taking notes for his book
- 1838 ~ “Murray’s Handbook For Travellers In Switzerland” is published
- 1844 ~ “Baedecker’s Die Schweiz” is published, recognised as being Karl Baedecker’s finest book and the turning point in his career as a publisher of travel guides
- 1847 ~ A Civil War between Catholic and Protestant cantons, sees 130 people killed as the national army easily defeat the “Sonderbund” Catholic alliance (Luzern, Fribourg, Valais, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and Zug)
- 1847 ~ [10 years after Murray] The first railway line in Switzerland opens from Zurich to Baden
- 1848 ~ A peaceful revolution sees the Swiss take Neuchatel back from Prussia
- 1849 ~ King Frederick William IV of Prussia presses for his rights to Neuchatel
- 1849 ~ The first road is built with asphalt in Val de Travers
- 1852 ~ [15 years after Murray] The first telegraph system in Switzerland links St.Gallen and Zurich
- 1852 ~ The United Kingdom, Austria, France, Russia, Denmark and Sweden acknowledge Prussia’s right to Neuchatel but instruct King Frederick William IV not to take back power without their approval
- 1855 ~ The Zurich – Winterthur railway line opens
- 1856 ~ Loyalists to King Frederick William IV of Prussia revolt and try to take back Neuchatel. The revolt fails and 530 aristocrats are arrested with the Swiss refusing to release them
- 1857 ~ With Prussia and Switzerland preparing for war, new French emperor Napoleon III and Britain take the side of Neuchatel. King Frederick William IV backs down and a diplomatic agreement is made to release the prisoners whilst he retains the title Prince of Neuchatel but renouncing his sovereignty over it. The canton becomes a full member of Switzerland
- 1858 ~ The first railway tunnel is built at Hauenstein on the Basel – Olten line
- 1858 ~ Irishman Charles Barrington makes the first ascent of the Eiger
- 1863 ~ [26 years after Murray] Modern football is invented in England
- 1863 ~ Englishman Thomas Cook introduces organised tours of Switzerland, starting mass tourism
- 1864 ~ The Zurich – Luzern railway line opens
- 1865 ~ [28 years after Murray] Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest open the first pedal driven velocipede factory, in France, producing 400 “boneshakers” a year. Made from cast iron, the pedals were attached to the front wheel and it even had brakes
- 1865 ~ Englishman Edward Whymper makes the first ascent of the Matterhorn
- 1869 ~ By now the Michaux velocipede factory is producing over 70,000 “boneshakers” a year
- 1871 ~ The Mount Rigi cogwheel railway is opened
- 1873 ~ The British introduce bobsleighing to Switzerland, at Davos
- 1874 ~ Modern tennis is invented in England
- 1874 ~ “Cook’s Tourist’s Handbook to Switzerland” is released, aimed at a wider, less sophisticated middle class audience than the “Murray’s Handbook for Travellers”
- 1875 ~ Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé invent milk chocolate in Vevey
- 1877 ~ [40 years after Murray] The first telephone line in Switzerland links Bern and Thun
- 1878 ~ The first electric light in Switzerland is installed, at the Kulm Hotel, St Moritz
- 1880 ~ Mark Twain releases “A Tramp Abroad” which hilariously details his exploits in Germany, Switzerland and The Alps during 1878
- 1880 ~ Johanna Spyri writes “Heidi”
- 1880 ~ The British introduce curling to Switzerland, at St Moritz
- 1882 ~ The Gotthard Tunnel is opened, becoming the first alpine railway line (Basel – Luzern – Bellinzona – Milan)
- 1885 ~ [48 years after Murray] The bicycle, as we know it today, is invented in England
- 1896 ~ [59 years after Murray] The first motorcars hit the road in Switzerland
- 1898 ~ The Gornergrat railway opens in Zermatt
- 1902 ~ [65 years after Murray] Englishman Henry Lunn introduces skiing to Switzerland, in Grindelwald
- 1938 ~ A German-Austrian party become the first to climb The Eiger’s North Face
- 1979 ~ Jura becomes a canton, splitting from Bern, with its capital in Delémont
- 2015 ~ 178 years after John Murray first started his travels in Switzerland, I start my cycle, retracing his steps from 1837