Dear fellow travellers
In these days of slick PR, tourist boards and tour operators are keen to enlist the help of "travel influencers" to promote particular destinations. Baedeker and Murray were of course among the most respected travel influencers of yesteryear, but so too were poets and artists. Byron certainly didn't think of himself as a travel influencer. But the PR value of Byron's trip up the Rhine in May 1816 was immense. Rarely has a journey left such a legacy on the public imagination. Lord Byron's journey of 200 years ago gave a mighty boost to tourism on the River Rhine.
Two hundred years ago this week, the English poet Lord Byron was working his way south up the Rhine towards Switzerland. He and his entourage left Dover on 25 April, sailing on a choppy sea to Ostend. Byron wrote three stanzas of Childe Harold on the ship. The publication of the first two cantos of the poem in 1812 had made Byron a literary celebrity. But celeb status comes with attendant hazards. Byron's very public marital wranglings, associated with rumours of incest and sodomy, had fired prurient public opinion, and Byron's departure from England was an attempt to slip quietly out of the limelight.
Byron had enlisted the services of a physician to accompany him on his European tour, one John Polidori, whose life was even shorter and more troubled than Byron's - though Polidori in 1819 himself secured a considerable literary coup in penning one of the very first pieces of prose fiction on vampires.
Purely on the basis of the Byron connection, the publisher John Murray paid Dr Polidori an advance of 500 pounds for his diary of the journey through Europe. This was a vast sum in those days, but it just goes to show the value of a celeb connection - all the more so when there is a hint of scandal around the celebrity.
From Ostend, Byron's party travelled slowly through Belgium, stopping off at Waterloo to collect a number of helmets and sabres from the battlefield of the previous year. Tourists have always been scavengers. For Byron, whose sympathies were entirely with Napoleon, the Waterloo visit inspired many stanzas in the third canto of Childe Harold.
By mid-May, Byron and team were exploring the Rhine, where his plug for the Drachenfels has proved more enduring than any blurb produced by tourist boards. Byron's lines on the “castled crag of Drachenfels” at Königswinter gave a kick-start to Rhine tourism. As Byron moved south towards the Alps, he penned ever more verse, each stanza inspiring others to follow. Never in the history of travel promotion has anyone done as much for the Lake Geneva area as Byron did for the Château de Chillon. Byron visited in June 1816, and his narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon was published later the same year.
Travel influencers today rely on both words and images, and that was equally true 200 years ago. JMW Turner followed much the same route as Byron in 1817, producing paintings of all the places which had so impressed Byron: Waterloo; the Drachenfels and the Rhine Gorge; Lake Geneva and the castle at Chillon.
When Byron and Turner led, thousands followed. For the English, keen to travel and explore the nearer parts of the continent, Byron's verse and Turner's paintings were immensely influential. All eyes looked east to the Low Countries, the Rhine and Switzerland. Of course, the travelling English took a Baedeker or a Murray guide, but the decision to travel at all, and where to go, was profoundly influenced by Byron and Turner. Once the spark of the Romantic imagination had been kindled, there was no stopping the crowds heading for the particular spots visited by Byron in 1816. With improvements in the packet steamers on the Channel and the coming of the railways, travel became faster and cheaper. Within 30 years of Byron's visit to the Rhine, the region was experiencing the full effects of mass tourism.
If Byron and Turner had teamed up and created a PR company, they could have made a mint. They were among the most successful travel influencers in Europe in the years after the Napoleonic Wars.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)