How Travel Has Changed

The desire for change

Humanity has always been filled with curiosity to see new places and to travel other lands, the same curiosity that has taken us out of caves and into man-made dwellings, out of Africa and across oceans and other continents. In ancient times, the desire to see and be seen was expressed in joining military campaigns, religious wars and crusades. Many more people took part in peaceful pilgrimages and opened trade routes, as Marco Polo did in the thirteenth century.

The practical difficulties

In the 1200’s, travel for rich and poor alike was difficult and fraught with danger. Without our networks of roads, and air and rail terminals, and no police forces, travellers were at risk from gangs of wandering, armed robbers. Boarding was difficult, since commercial lodgings were non-existent. Wealthy people could stay with friends, but the poorest travellers were exposed to open-air bedding and other hazardous conditions. In response to the needs of pilgrims, religious communities opened up “hospitals” or boarding houses where ordinary people could lodge in safety and decency. One of the earliest English poems, The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer, charts this progression.

Discoveries and developments

The discovery of North America in the late 1400’s whetted the European appetite for more distant travel. The expansion of trade increased the wealth of the merchant classes and ordinary people could find boarding at a reasonable price. Slowly, the secular community took over the hospitality industry. Many of England’s oldest taverns and public houses date from the 1400’s and 1500’s. In the 1600’s, advances in technology produced more accurate clocks, a development that was to have a profound effect upon travel.

The essence of time

Eighteenth-century England saw the development of the stagecoach. Briefly, it worked like this. A passenger in Bristol could buy a place on a coach to take him to London, arriving at a preordained time. At organised stages of the journey, the coach would stop at a tavern or inn, where the passenger could rest and dine. Meanwhile, a team of stable hands replaced the horses, wearied by the earlier stage of the journey, with fresh horses. Eventually, the passenger would arrive at his destination at the correct time. This exquisite timing greatly reduced the former discomfort and uncertainty of travel. It also facilitated the expansion of the economy.

The Grand Tour

Such a mode of travel was available only to the better-off classes, however. But it did result in the development of the Grand Tour. It became the custom for wealthy English families to send their sons on an extensive – and expensive – tour of Europe. Usually lasting two years, the purpose of the trip was to finish the education of the young men, to facilitate their European cultural knowledge and awareness. At the end of the century, the Napoleonic wars all but cut Europe off from rich and poor alike.

The truly modern tourist

With Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1812, Europe was peaceful again. Although Lord Byron’s poem, Childe Harold, seemed to mock the Grand Tour, the middle-class appetite for travel remained undimmed. Images of Rhineland castles, Roman ruins and Venetian canals, made popular by artists like JM William Turner, had aroused the curiosity of the public. The Industrial Revolution had produced the railway network and the passenger ship, and the people flocked to Europe as never before. The main aim of these trips was to paint en plein air, or to be photographed and take photographs with the newly-invented camera. Naturalists collected specimens of flowers and butterflies, while the public bought souvenirs. The truly modern tourist had been born.

A social revolution

By the early 1900’s, the majority of tourists were still middle-class, mocked by EM Forster in his novel, A Room With a View (1908). Two decades later, the inter-war development of the passenger jet and legislation granting all workers annual paid holidays opened tourism to the working classes. In the 1930’s, the Thomas Cook company expanded to provide a wide range of inexpensive foreign holidays to families and individuals. This company owes it beginnings to inauspicious entrepreneur Thomas Cook who, in 1841, began offering 1-day rail excursions for a shilling.

Tourism today

In our time, tourism flourishes like never before. With the ubiquitous ownership of the private motor vehicle, and car insurance for driving abroad, passenger boats facilitate cars and travellers abroad have the option of hiring a car. Another modern development is the niche trip, catering to groups of people with particular interests. Wine-tasting and skiing, music festivals and scuba diving: no gap is left unfilled for the eager traveller. Human curiosity and the desire to be on the move will last forever, it seems.