Thursday, 7 April 2016

Review: The Rise and Fall of the English Switzerland

Second review of the week, and I've been out and about visiting a new exhibition on the English Switzerland, something I did not know about before.  Not only that, there's a splendid catalogue that goes with it...

I first met Marion Dell at the Julia Margaret Cameron conference last summer and I reviewed her book on Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Ritchie, Julia Jackson and Virginia Woolf here.  I was fascinated to here about her project on the English Switzerland, not least because it touched on the Surrey home of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Aldworth, which is not far from Haslemere.  Having walked the countryside in that area I could see how people would think it brought health and happiness, but the Victorians are never ones to miss the opportunity at tourism...

The district, including places such as Hindhead and the Devil's Punch Bowl, marketed themselves on the clearness of the air in comparison with dirty London. To start with it was an idyll, rolling countryside and and a landscape captured by Turner.  It had a little local colour, a murder of a sailor so notorious that Charles Dickens popped it in a novel.  In 1851, a local aristo erected a stone Celtic cross on the site of the local gibbet where the murderers hung, but arguably this just brought the site to greater attention.  On display in the exhibition are little tourist souvenirs of the gibbet cross.  You have to love the Victorians.  Anyway, in 1859, everything changed with the arrival of the train to Haslemere...

Image from this very interesting website
For those of you who aren't locals, Haslemere is south of London, not that far, and so when The Illustrated London News showed images of the countryside and the wide open spaces you can imagine the attraction.  One of the first to travel south was the writer Anne Gilchrist, who moved to Guildford in Surrey in 1851, then to Brookbank Cottage between Hindhead and Haslemere in 1862.  She was visited by her London friends, the Rossetti brothers, George Eliot and the Tennyson family.  By 1868, Tennyson was beginning to consider his Isle of Wight house too exposed and the privacy of the countryside in Surrey proved a relief.

John Tyndall
John Tyndall, an expert alpine climber, was the first to call the area 'the English Switzerland' on account of the clear air.  He and his young, pretty wife moved to the area in 1883, and because of his recommendation hotels and attractions were able to market themselves on the health benefits, effective against that everso Victorian illness, consumption.  Easy to get to by train and without the cost implication of a trip to Switzerland, hotels such as the Hindhead Beacon (above) proved popular and fashionable.  Further celebrities flocked to the area, such as Grant Allen and Arthur Conan Doyle.  I have to include this picture...

Arthur Conan Doyle as a Viking for a party at Hindhead, 1898
Well, quite.  Into the twentieth century and expanded leisure time brought motor cars, cyclists and all sorts of tourists to the district, who in turn sent home picturesque postcards, but its popularity proved its downfall.  The building boom to accommodate the influx of people turned the exclusive retreat into a tourist trap.  When the celebrities like Tennyson died, no new ones moved there and it slipped out of fashion.  Mercifully, these days swathes of land are owned by the National Trust and so those who wish to have a taste of the Swiss life can still have views like this...

The Devil's Punch Bowl, Surrey
I can't recommend the catalogue and exhibition enough.  The exhibition is a room in the educational museum in Haslemere and holds a few artifacts, books and souvenirs, with beautiful wall panels telling the story.  You can then look out at the landscape that rolls away from the museum garden in rich greens under a jewel blue sky (well, it was the day I went).  No better illustration of the subject can be given than the landscape itself and so it is a fitting companion to the exhibition to be able to see what the attraction was.  While in Haslemere, you can also visit St Batholomew's church and see a gorgeous wall hanging and a window dedicated to Tennyson.

The tapestry, very Morris and Co,
from an antique postcard I bought at Haslemere Museum
The catalogue is gorgeously illustrated in full colour, including postcards, photographs and all the information you could possibly want.  Marion's text is enjoyable to read and packed with stories about the people who shaped the English Switzerland.  I loved finding out about this side of Victorian culture, about a beautiful part of the world and the lives of those who made it their home.  If you are interested in Victorian England, you'll love this, and if you can't make it to Haslemere, the book is a gem on its own.  However, if you are coming this way, maybe for the Marie Stillman at nearby Compton, stop by Haslemere and take in the exhibition too. Plus a visit brings added health benefits - how many exhibitions can offer that?

For further details of Haslemere Museum see their website here and contact them for a copy of the catalogue. You can also buy the catalogue from the Haslemere Bookshop.

1 comment:

  1. How fascinating! I had wondered why Tennyson chose to decamp to this particular area. Nowadays I think that part of Surrey is very much commuterland / stockbroker/golf club belt, though I have always loved the countryside in south Surrey and Sussex. It's funny to think of it as England's answer to Switzerland. I'm surprised that even the Victorians could get away with that!


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