this year I’m off to sunny spain

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This is the signal. Sure, there’s no more salt on the roads and that big bright thing in the sky is sticking around until almost bedtime but the unmissable announcement that summer’s finally here is the countryside’s vivid yellow patchwork and its unmistakable heady smell. Oh, and booking your two weeks away on Cliff’s summer holiday.

Travel for pleasure was once the preserve of young aristocrats taking-off for Europe on The Grand Tour, but in the early 1800s, a crucial change took place: the advent of steam power, combined with the growing wealth of ordinary people. This resulted, for the first time, in what we would now call ‘holidays’ falling within the reach of the middle classes. British tourism, from relatively humble Victorian origins through to the package holiday boom of the 70s and beyond, was underway.

It was a showman called Albert Smith who first whetted the public’s appetite for foreign travel by mounting wildly popular ‘panoramas and dioramas’ in the mid-19th century. His most successful show, The Ascent of Mont Blanc, opened in 1852 and ran for over six years – much to the chagrin of our very own philosopher and polymath, John Ruskin, who dismissed it as nothing more than the “Alps in a box”. Next came the first organized tours, overseen by the fiercely evangelical, Thomas Cook. One early excursion, from the heavily industrialised Leicester to leafy Loughborough, concluded with TC exhorting his five hundred passengers to give “one cheer more Teetotalism and one for Railwayism”. Somehow, strangely enough, I can’t quite envisage EasyJet’s Stelios raising the roof to Mick Lynch.

A similar sense of moral purpose imbued the tourism industry well into the 20th century. Believe it or not, the pre-Butlins and Pontins, pioneering holiday camps championed an almost learned ‘muscular health’ approach to holidaying that couldn’t have contrasted more starkly with our modern lounging day on the Costa Brava. You weren’t there to enjoy yourself. Mind, there are intriguing parallels with our Victorian forefathers: just as today we have Instagram filters, they too had their own plano-convex mirror known as the Claude glass, which lent a ‘pleasing and softened tinge to the scenery of your photographic images’. 

For those of a certain age, the title of today’s post will have transported them back to the 70s warbling of Swedish pop-crooner, Sylvia Vrethammar. She was a mainstay on Top-of-the-Pops for the whole of that summer and sang the ear-worm and call-to-holiday-arms for a whole generation: Y viva Espana!