When did “package” become a dirty word? Once just shorthand for a tour bundling transport and lodging, these days it carries dingier connotations: high-rise hotels, beaches crammed with blistering bodies, lurid cocktails slurped from exposed belly buttons.
By contrast, the belly button of Miss Jemima Morrell remained modestly covered beneath a stiff crinoline throughout her own package holiday. She was also no layabout; she was always on the move, be it via train, paddle-steamer, carriage or her own two feet. In June 1863, this 31-year-old adventuress from Yorkshire embarked on what was one of Thomas Cook's earliest tours to Switzerland and, thanks to Miss Jemima's diligent diarising, was the first to be recorded.
So, 150 years on, I decided to retrace the lady's footsteps, with a tatty copy of her Swiss Journal in my bag – a secondhand survivor I’d tracked down, from a batch that were printed in 1963. And, as I did, I felt nothing but awe. I was astonished by the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, as majestic now as then. But I was also struck by the hardiness of this pre-suffragette, pre-Gore-Tex woman who didn't blanch at 4am alarm calls, 20-mile hikes and still dressing for dinner.
“The days spent on foot, or by the sides of mules, afford the greatest satisfaction,” she wrote. “It was then that, away from the life of the city, we were taken into the midst of the great wonders of nature and seemed to leave the fashion of this world at a distance … It was an entire change; the usual routine of life was gone. All memory of times and seasons faded away and we lived only in the enjoyment of the present.”
To celebrate her spirit of adventure one tour operator (not Thomas Cook, but Inntravel) has launched a new self-guided Jemima-themed itinerary, comprising glorious hikes connected via Switzerland's excellent transport system, and following her 1863 route.
I picked up her trail in Leukerbad. Perched high in the Valais, the town has long attracted outsiders. Its medicinal spring waters have been drunk since Roman times (there are still baths here today), while traders used a nick in the mountains looming behind to convey goods from south to north. This notch – the formidable Gemmi Pass – was my first challenge.
As I gazed at this seemingly impenetrable 935m-high wall of rock, my sentiments echoed those of Miss Jemima, who noted: “We were hard put to discover a path, or to understand how we should reach its summit.” Actually, today’s travellers aren't so hard put – a cable car now whisks them up in minutes. However, determined to be a purist, I followed the signs (“Kandersteg: 6hrs”) and made the zigzagging ascent on foot.
Crows cawed about the gullies, flaunting their power of flight as I laboured sweatily in the morning sun. The up was unrelenting, and the trail precipitous, its edges dropping into a granite abyss. However, the climb was nowhere near as creepy as the 2,350m top of the Gemmi – a dramatic high-altitude plateau with a sinister edge. Hiking across it, I passed bleak, scruffy slopes and a lake of cheerless grey. Further on, the isolated Schwarenbach Inn appeared. Built in 1742, it was once a hangout for ne’er-do-wells, and featured in one of Conan Doyle's murderous tales; it’s less threatening these days, so I stopped for tea, as Miss Jemima had 150 years before.
Afterwards, like Miss Jemima, I walked down from the Gemmi Pass into the Kander Valley; she had no cable car option, so I simply ignored it. And I'm glad I did – I saw no one else as I wove through pine and larch trees, the secretive Gastern Valley to my right, the clank of cowbells all around and Kandersteg's Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria waiting just ahead.
Having followed the river from the bottom of the Gemmi, I reached the hotel's elegant foyer by late afternoon, red-cheeked and moist. “Are these yours?” the receptionist dead-panned, looking down to the leather luggage and silver candelabra coincidentally by my feet. Appropriate for a Victorian grand tourist perhaps, but I shook my head, pointing to the battered rucksack instead.
When Miss Jemima stayed hereabouts, she was up at 4.30am to catch the carriage to Spiez, in order to meet the steamer crossing Lake Thun. With slicker transportation at my disposal, I had time to linger for a day in Kandersteg, and I spent it walking around the high-altitude, arrestingly blue Oeschinensee.
The next morning I took a train to Spiez, from where I set sail through the mist to Interlaken. The overcast weather, though initially disappointing, would prove to be a boon. As another train delivered me from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, it was like gliding into Middle-earth, the valley's sheer rock sides and gushing glut of waterfalls virtually screaming the fact that Tolkien was inspired by this landscape.
My final ride of the day was the rasping haul up to Wengen, via a rack-and-pinion railway that's been operating since 1891; Miss Jemima had to walk. Balanced 1,275m up on the valley’s eastern side, car-free and charm-heavy Wengen grabbed me immediately. My hotel – the Alpenrose – was a cosy den of wood panelling and geraniumed window boxes. Better, the next morning the gloom had vanished and, from my balcony, a barricade of snow peaks seemed almost close enough to touch.
I was to get closer still. Armed with fresh bread and cheese, bought from a farmer's honesty box, I strode out into the frost-crisp air. For the first time I craved a crinoline: my legs were chilly in shorts, and though the sky was cloudless, the rising sun would take time to warm my path. However, when it finally did, it was spectacular, illuminating the leaves’ ice-encrusted edges and sprinkling crystals into the cows' warm breath. As the path wound on, I almost walked into the Eiger – at least, that's how it felt, so near were Switzerland's iconic Alps. I pulled out Jemima’s Journal, flipping to her encounter with “the pointed Eiger, cowled Mönch and glistening Jungfrau”: she quoted Longfellow, who’d called them “the Apostles of nature whose sermons are avalanches”. On cue, a threatening puff of snow billowed down the mountains.
I felt close to Jemima here, sharing the same unchanged mountain view. Much else has changed, of course. In the 1860s there were only a smattering of foreign package tours: Thomas Cook took his first overseas group to Paris (via Belgium and Germany) in 1855; after the 1863 Switzerland tour, trips to Italy followed, then North America (1866) and Egypt (1869). These trips were the preserve of the affluent middle classes: Miss Jemima paid £19 17s 6d (roughly £860 today) for her 21-day all-inclusive – more than a servant would have earned in a year.
However, although it would be another 100 years before the working masses started holidaying abroad, these packages were a step towards the democratisation of travel – prior to this, only the really wealthy could swan off on grand tours. With industrialisation reducing costs, the educated middle were keen to learn more about the world through first-hand experience. Many were attracted to Thomas Cook's tours because, as a supporter of the temperance movement, Cook's original trips were alcohol free.
A shame: I'm sure Miss Jemima would have needed a drink by the time she reached Grindelwald. She'd had a long day (even for her), hiking from Lauterbrunnen, past the Jungfrau et al and down to the village in one go – a journey I'd part-done by train, and broken with an overnight in Wengen. She had remained sprightly throughout, recalling how they "scampered down over the stones after the manner of the goats... clearing the ground at a famous speed" to get down the valley. I was in no such rush. After reaching Kleine Scheidegg, the pass from which the Jungfraubahn grinds up to Europe’s highest train station (3,454m), I ambled down to Grindelwald, stopping to eat my picnic beneath the north face of the Eiger; it radiated brute force and a raw chill.
Miss Jemima’s next stop was quite whimsical by comparison. After the Eiger and the glaciers of Grindelwald – colossal icy tongues that licked the village in the 1860s, but have retreated back into the mountains today – she returned to Interlaken to board the steamer across Lake Brienz to Giessbach Falls. Here she stayed the night, to watch the light show illuminate the 500m-high tiered cascade. This sounded a little twee for me. So, instead, I caught the boat from Interlaken to Iseltwald, and spent a glorious hour or so walking along the lake shore to the falls; after a coffee in the grand hotel opposite, a ride on Europe’s oldest funicular deposited me down at Giessbach dock in time to catch the onward boat to Brienz.
It took Miss Jemima a whole day to travel on to Lucerne by carriage, a journey now reduced to less than two hours by train. In part, it is thanks to those early travellers that Switzerland has such an impressive rail network at all. A growing number of tourists began visiting the Alps in the late 19th century, inspired by the sudden glut of British mountaineers. This encouraged Swiss entrepreneurs to construct not only hotels and huts but ever more ambitious rail lines; indeed, it seemed no gradient could not be conquered by rack-and-pinion or narrow gauge. In 1871, the country’s Vitznau-Rigi route opened, Europe’s first mountain railway – and my final destination.
In the Victorian era, 1,768m Mount Rigi, which rears up above Lake Lucerne, was the tick to have on your grand tour list: one simply had to ascend the mountain, sleep at the summit inn and arise before dawn to watch the much-lauded sunrise. Even by 1863, Rigi had been a pilgrimage spot for centuries: in the 1500s, a well on its slopes became renowned for its medicinal properties. In 1868, Queen Victoria was carried up in a sedan chair; in 1871 a railway was built to the top. Pre-dating both, Miss Jemima walked – and so did I.
Although it’s a stiff and, these days, unnecessary climb of around 4½ hours, it felt important to hike. It also meant I avoided all of the crowds. Having caught an early ferry from Lucerne, I disembarked at Weggis and followed the Mark Twain Trail – the American writer made his own Rigi pilgrimage in 1897 (also shunning the train), and reckoned this was “the charmingest place we have ever lived”.
Initially, my own hike lacked charm. It was a dismal day and the Sunday bells, clanging amid the fug, contributed to a sombre mood. But it was freeing to be alone in the forest, lush and glossy with recent rain.
Around halfway up, I paused for a break at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a 17th-century shrine clinging to the side of the mountain. The ascent was sweaty work, and I started to curse the bloodymindedness that had caused me to ignore a perfectly good cable car.
Then, with no forewarning, the murk simply fell away. Where before the world was concealed by a colourless soup, now there was clear blue sky. It seemed the clouds had been hit by a sudden bout of turbulence and had plunged groundwards. Now I lorded above this billowy sea, along with myriad mountaintops – like VIPs in a secret realm. The scene was magical, timeless. And, being the only fool doing Rigi on foot, the magic belonged only to me – well, me and my ghostly guide, from 150 years ago.