LOCAL HISTORY: Travellers No Idle Tourists in an Age of Discovery; Nothing Opened Up the Class Divide So Much as the Holiday, and That Goes for Any Period

The Birmingham Post (England), July 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

LOCAL HISTORY: Travellers No Idle Tourists in an Age of Discovery; Nothing Opened Up the Class Divide So Much as the Holiday, and That Goes for Any Period


Byline: By CHRIS UPTON

You're stuck in the departure lounge, the flight has been delayed' your suitcases are on their way somewhere else and the queue at the information desk is a mile long.

You may well wonder at this moment: why on earth do we go on holiday?

The answer - more philosophical than direct, I confess - is because we can. For most working people, as late as the Second World War there was no holiday pay and therefore no holiday.

Taking an unwaged week or fortnight off work, let alone the cost of travel and accommodation involved, ruled the notion out entirely.

The best that the Victorian worker could hope for was a day trip to Sutton Park or the Lickeys, and back by nightfall.

Nothing opened up the class divide so much as the holiday, and that goes for any period.

Even for the Romans, for whom leisure was always more important than work, public holidays were a time to enjoy the vicarious attractions of Rome itself - the gladiators, the horse-racing, the theatre - not to go off in search of pleasures elsewhere. Such pleasures - bathing at Baiae, a villa in the country - were reserved for the rich.

The same divide opened up in the Middle Ages. To be honest the holy day had distinctly limited possibilities anyway, given that church feast days were meant to be best appreciated in church.

But for those who could afford to put down their tools the medieval period presented the earliest opportunity to travel for the sheer hell (or more accurately, heaven) of it. They called it pilgrimage.

In theory, pilgrimage was a theological exercise, designed to improve one's chances in purgatory. But you only have to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to see that the pilgrim was not precluded from enjoying the trip, as long as most of the journey was not spent on his knees.

It was a chance to see the world and save one's soul at the same time. Jerusalem, Rome, Cologne and Santiago da Compostella carried the most points, but for those L with less time to spare there were more convenient destinations. Worcester Cathedral possessed a holy image of the Virgin, Lichfield the remains of St Chad, and Hereford the tomb of Saint Thomas of Cantelupe, all of which carried rewards for attendance.

And upon these holy relics a whole tourist industry was founded, with hotels and hostels, souvenir stalls and recommended routes.

While in Hereford you could also check out the Mappa Mundi to plan a future trip, but that great medieval map indicated a world that was not yet open to idle travelling, a place of monsters and menaces and not of bed and breakfasts.

The Reformation put an end to pilgrimage, as far as the English were concerned, and a rising Protestant work ethic suggested that if one was not at work, then one should be preparing for it. The Tudor sovereigns travelled, of course (and none more so than Elizabeth), but that was more to escape the plagues of London, and to spread the cost of her household, than to sit on a beach.

For her subjects (with the exception of inquisitive travel-writers such as John Leland and William Camden) journeying was either for work or for war. The soldiers that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, accommodated at his veterans' hospital in Warwick had seen more of the world than most, but even that was only Holland.

It was only in the 18th century, the age which historians are increasingly recognising as the century that made us what we are, that travel for the sake of travel can truly be said to have begun.

We call it the age of the Grand Tour - seeing the cities and antiquities of Europe - but in truth there were always other reasons and reduced versions of it.

The sons of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, the great Birmingham industrialists, had the cash and the encouragement to travel, but sightseeing was never at the top of their priorities. …

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