In the footsteps of Miss Jemima
Walking the Swiss Alps armed with a pioneering lady’s diary
ONCE just shorthand for a tour bundling transport and lodging, these days the word package carries dingy connotations of high-rise hotels, beaches crammed with blistering bodies, and lurid cocktails slurped from exposed belly buttons.
By contrast, the belly button of Miss Jemima Morrell remained modestly covered beneath a stiff crinoline on her package holiday. She was also always on the move, be it via train, paddle-steamer, carriage or on foot.
In June 1863, this 31-year-old adventuress from Yorkshire in northern England 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, packing a tatty copy of her Swiss Journal, which I’d tracked down from a batch printed in 1963. I was to be astonished by the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, as majestic now as then, and struck by the hardiness of this pre-suffragette, pre-Gore-Tex woman who didn’t blanch at 4am alarm calls, 32km hikes and 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 as 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, Inntravel has launched a 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, its medicinal spring waters have been drunk since Roman times, while traders used a nick in the mountains looming behind to convey goods from south to north. This notch, the formidable Gemmi Pass, was to be 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.’’ Today’s travellers aren’t so hard put as a cable car whisks them up in minutes. However, determined to be a purist, I followed the signs (Kandersteg: six hours) and made the zigzagging ascent on foot.
Crows cawed about the gullies, flaunting their power of flight as I laboured sweatily. 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 2350m 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.
Farther on, the isolated Schwarenbach Inn appeared. Built in 1742, it was once a hangout for ne’er-do-wells and featured in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s murderous tales; it’s less threatening now, so I stopped for tea, like Miss Jemima.
Afterwards, again 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. When Miss Jemima stayed hereabouts, she was up at 4.30am to catch the carriage to Spiez 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 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, PICTURES: GETTY IMAGES (MAIN); CHRISTOF SCHUERF (ABOVE); CHRISTOF SONDEREGGER (OPPOSITE) the valley’s sheer rock sides and gushing glut of waterfalls virtually screaming the fact JRR 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 in operation since 1891; Miss Jemima had to walk. Balanced 1275m up on the valley’s eastern side, charming car-free Wengen grabbed me immediately.
My hotel, the Alpenrose, was a cosy den of wood panelling and geranium-filled window boxes. Next morning the gloom had vanished and, from my balcony, a wall 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. 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. When it finally did, it was spectacular, illuminating ice-encrusted edges of leaves and sprinkling crystals into the warm breath of cows. As the path wound on, I almost walked into the Eiger or at least, that’s how it felt, so near were Switzerland’s Alps. I felt close to Jemima here, sharing the same unchanged mountain view.
In the 1860s there was 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 and Egypt. These were the preserve of the affluent middle classes; Miss Jemima paid £19 17s 6d (roughly $1460 today) for her 21-day all-inclusive, which was more than a servant’s annual wage.
Although it would be another 100 years before the working masses started holidaying abroad, these packages were a step towards the democratisation of travel and many were attracted to Thomas Cook’s tours because, as a supporter of the temperance movement, Cook’s original trips were alcohol free. I’m sure Miss Jemima would have needed a drink by the time she
Oeschinensee Lake, above and top; sheep graze under a waterfall at Lauterbrunnen