Tag Archives: Baedekers

Mapping the past, today: TV’s trend for treading the historical beaten track

I’ve been catching up on some TV this week, with two historical travel programmes that caught my eye. Firstly, there’s been a new series of BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys, the show in which Michael Portillo set off on the train with a copy of Bradshaw’s Victorian railway guide under his arm, using the text as a lens through which to explore the railway route then and now and stopping at various sites of Victorian interest along the way. This series has been of particular interest to me as the starting point for this route was High Wycombe, a stop on from my hometown of Beaconsfield (where the station wasn’t built until 1906), and the first episode saw Portillo travel to Leamington Spa and then on to Stratford-upon-Avon, stopping along the way to visit the Leamington Pump Rooms, Tennis Court Club, and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon (alas, no mention of one eminent Victorian’s visit to the area in 1838!).

There’s also a brand new series on BBC 2 called Map Man – in which as the website blurb says,

Modern explorer Nicholas Crane travels across eight maps that changed the face of Britain in a series of geographical challenges through some of today’s wildest landscapes, telling the story of British mapmaking from the time of Chaucer through to the current generation of cyber-mappers.

In episode 2, Nicholas Crane set off with John Ogilby’s 1675 road map, the first of its kind to trace a route as a linear journey (as it happens, I blogged about this map after seeing it at a V&A exhibition back in 2008).

Ogilby's 1675 road map
Ogilby’s 1675 road map

Crane’s journey of the trans-Pennine pass from York to Lancaster was fascinating in revealing many changes to the landscape that have occured in the intervening years: some of the route is now the course of the major A-road, but substantially diverged for much of the way; we saw how a river had been re-routed as a result of the coming of the railway in later years; and Crane searched for telling traces of the old roads that still remain alongside muddy paths and wooded undergrowth. I’m very much looking forward to subsquent episodes, and can’t wait to see which maps have been chosen.

Watching these programmes back-to-back led me to reflect on the use of maps or guides as a basis for a tv series, which seems to have become a bit of a trend in recent years: Julia Bradbury’s Canal Walks, Wainwright’s Walks, and Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys are a few other examples that come to mind, but I’m sure there have been others in a similar vein. Each of these takes a historical map or guide book and sets out to explore the route in its present form, using the map as a focal point through which to read and interpret the current landscape and open up discussion around points of similarity and change between then and now.

But why the fascination with the guide book? What is it about the old mapped route that is of such interest to us now?

Baedeker's Southern Italy, 1912 ed.
Baedeker’s Southern Italy,1912 ed.

On the surface, the appeal is easy to see: these routes give the perfect structure for a tv series, carving out linear yet episodic paths that develop nicely over a long series and work equally well as stand-alone episodes, bringing in multiple points of interest while maintaining a focused narrative. But there’s also something important here in having the map or guide as a locatable route which can be plotted onto the present landscape, and, vice versa, of using the guide as a means through which to read that landscape for its historical traces; there’s something in being able to directly plot past onto present, and experience space as a site of continuity with the past. And perhaps more importantly, there’s something in the process of following a mapped historical route as a mobile experience, of putting oneself into the shoes of a historical traveller in a way that seemingly validates or authenticates the journey and that seemingly brings one into closer contact with the historical site, following in the footsteps of those that have tread the same path – a point which interestingly resonates with the original use of guidebooks in the nineteenth century as a form of touristic authentification that gave security and satisfaction from the knowledge that you were following the same beaten track that every other tourist before you had trodden, seeing every important site through the interpretative lens of the guidebook.

It’s an act that resonates strongly with literary tourism, yet the guidebook/map offers a slightly different manifestation of this process, with a different set of interpretative possibilities and spatial/historical relations. There seems to be more to be said about how these journeys might allow us to re-read not just the sites described in the guidebooks for their historical resonances, but also of how the guidebooks might be re-read as texts through reference to the sites they depict. It’s a process about which I have more questions than answers at the moment, but fortuitously will have the opportunity to explore further – when I travel to Sardinia in April I’ll almost certainly be taking my 1912 Baedeker’s Southern Italy along to think more about how the guidebook-as-text might be repositioned within this set of spatial-historical-geographical relations that arise from the contemporary re-treading of its tourist tracks.

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Baedeker’s Southern Italy

One of my favourite things to do of a weekend is browse the shelves of secondhand bookshops and I’ve been on a bit of a roll with old travel books in Leamington’s Oxfam Books & Music in recent weeks, which I’ll be blogging in the next few posts.

The first of my finds is a 1912 edition of a Baedeker’s handbook to Southern Italy and Sicily

Full title: Southern Italy and Sicily, with Excursions to Sardinia, Malta, and Corfu; Handbook for Travellers, with 34 Maps and 34 Plans, Sixteenth Revised Edition.

Baedeker’s handbooks, along with Murray’s Guides, were the key tourist handbooks of the 19th century, accompanying many a tourist on their travels across the continent and beyond. Although the “guidebook” had long been used to advice travellers about their journeys, the Handbook was a slightly different genre, designed as a compact edition to be carried by the traveller on their journey. The Handbook included practical information to prepare the traveller, but also set out a planned series of routes to be followed.

This is the first edition that I’ve seen up close, and it’s fascinating to see just how detailed the guide is as well as to read the surrounding material; between the two, there’s a clear tension between being a “true” independent traveller as opposed to a mere “tourist” (I am of course drawing here on James Buzard’s discussion in The Beaten Track1). The Preface informs the traveller that the aim of the Handbook is to “supply the traveller wtih some information regarding the culture, art and character of the people he is about to visit” in order to “render him as independent as possible of the services of guides and valets-de-place”.

But whilst the emphasis here is on a certain mode of “independence”, the heavily prescriped form of the Handbook is also hinted at: it is “in every way to aid him in deriving enjoyment and instruction from his tour”. The Handbook’s purpose is not just to set out the correct path to follow, but to aid the traveller in deriving the correct enjoyment from each sight – to give the traveller the lens through which to view all that he sees. As Buzard writes, handbooks “preceded the tourist, making the crooked straight and the rough places plain for the tourist’s hesitant footsteps; they accompanied the tourist on the path they had beaten, directing gazes and prompting responses” (75); Dickens’s depiction of tourists in Italy in Little Dorrit satirises the tourist’s reliance on the handbook, describing masses of tourists “walking about St. Peter’s and the Vatican on somebody else’s cork legs, and straining every visible object through somebody else’s sieve” (428).

Baedeker map

Thus what follows are routes detailing exactly where to walk, what to look at, and even the timings of each stage: “from the piazza in front of the cathedral we proceed to the S. straight through a gateway, then ascend through the porch of the church of Sant’Antonio, pass the portal of the church of Santa Chiara to the left, and reach (8 min.) a door giving on the road.” This level of detail constitutes most of the book’s 500 pages, such that there almost seems little point to actually visiting the place itself!

The same can be said of the cultural attitudes of the English towards foreigners displayed throughout. The particular strength of feeling against Italians is demonstrated right from the start: the first paragraph of the Preface ends by stating “the Handbook will also, it is hoped, save the traveller many a trial of temper; for probably nowhere in Europe is the patience more severely taxed than in some parts of Italy.” In the section giving practical advice, stereotypes of Italians abound: it is noted that begging “has in Italy been regarded from time immemorial as a legitimate mode of earning one’s daily bread”, reference is made to the “insolence and rapacity” of cab-drivers, and we are warned that “the popular idea of cleanliness in Southern Italy is behind the age, dirt being perhaps neutralized in the opinion of the natives by the brilliancy of their climate”. The travellers’ health is of great importance, with strict instructions on what to eat and drink (avoid “free indulgence” in most foods) and what to wear when: “always be provided with a greatcoat or shawl …. Woollen underclothing is indispensable.” No detail is left out, even the traveller’s body incorporated into the institutionalisation of travel.

This edition has certainly seen a few travels in the last 100 years, although it’s in good condition and the colour maps and plans (as above) are still vibrant (and notably, all details in Italian). The next book I’ll be blogging about is slightly different in focus and purpose, recounting a visit to Morocco in the 1920s.

1James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.