How the Rich Shrank the World; the Golden Age of Travel 1880-1939. by Alexis Gregory (Cassell, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn

The Birmingham Post (England), January 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

How the Rich Shrank the World; the Golden Age of Travel 1880-1939. by Alexis Gregory (Cassell, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn


In 1785, a traveller described Monte Carlo as "two or three streets upon precipitous rocks" with a tumbledown castle and a battalion of French troops.

But as art books publisher Alexis Gregory relates in his impressively-presented analysis of the Golden Age of Travel, less than a century later Monte Carlo had become the most fashionable winter resort of the Belle Epoque. A glamorous place where money lost its normal value in the casinos, the Mediterranean resort had its cafes, hotels and the sun and sea providing a romantic escape from inhospitable winters elsewhere.

We are talking of an era when travel was a luxury enjoyed by the rich. Villagers in rural England would regard visiting the nearest town as an adventure and never see the sea unless they went abroad with the British army.

On the fabled Orient Express, the price of a round-trip ticket from London to Istanbul equalled the annual rent for an elegant London town house.

The baggage that went with the rich on their travels takes some believing. The Maharaja of Jaipur took abroad giant silver urns of Ganges water, enough for a year of ablutions, while his son went abroad with a string of polo ponies.

Even the country house circuit in England was something of a fashion show. "For a country weekend, everyone took along a mountain of luggage," writes Gregory.

"Lady Cynthia Asquith remembered coming to breakfast in her 'best dress,' usually of velvet, changing into tweeds after church, and then putting on a seductive tea gown before retiring upstairs to change into a full evening dress."

The elitism of travel abroad was to disappear to a degree with the tours of Thomas Cook offering the middle classes the chance to travel.

"This messianic, church-loving and prohibitionist Englishman was as important to the history of travel as Henry Ford was to the development of the automobile.

"To bring boatloads of people to the land of the Bible (his excursions nearly always included Palestine and Syria) was the validation of a lifetime of hard work. …

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