In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was fashionable to take a boat tour down the Wye Valley, to view its romantic sites and picturesque landscape. ‘Tourists’ dined at specific locations, took walks to particular viewpoints and visited specific romantic ruins, making the ‘Wye Tour’ one of the first package holidays.
A rector from Ross-on-Wye, Dr John Egerton, was the first to build a boat especially to take his guests on excursions down the Wye. By the late eighteenth century there were several boats operating on a commercial basis, in response to growing demand from tourists.
Much of the demand was a direct result of a book published in 1782 (but written in 1770) by William Gilpin. It was the first tour guide to be published in Britain and boasted the snappy title, Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales, etc Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty: Made in the Summer of the Year 1770.
“If you have never navigated the Wye, you have seen nothing.”William Gilpin – Observations on the River Wye – 1770 / 1782
Part of the popularity of the Wye Tour was that tourists viewed the valley from boats on the river and Observations started the fashion for ‘picturesque tourism’ – travel which focused on an appreciation of scenery rather than just history or architecture.
Increasing interest in, and appreciation of, Britain’s landscapes helped make Gilpin’s book an instant success and brought many visitors, including artists, writers and poets to the Wye Valley. It has to be said, though, that in focussing so heavily on what constitutes the “picturesque” rather than the history of the places he visited and the people he met there, Gilpin’s book is not the most interesting of accounts today.
Many kept journals and diaires and wrote their own guide books which provide wonderful wonderful insight into their travels and rather better historical accounts and social commentaries. Samuel Ireland, William Coxe, Charles Heath, Thomas Martyn, Thomas Roscoe, Leitch Ritchie, Louisa Ann Twamley and Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall were amongst many who recorded their observations on the Wye Valley.
Wordsworth, Turner, Philipe de Loutherbourg, Michael ‘Angelo’ Rooker, Coleridge and Makepeace Thackery left inspiring records of their own trips in paintings, poetry and prose.
By 1850 over twenty guidebooks had been published, firmly establishing Ross-on-Wye and the Lower Wye Valley as the birthplace of modern British tourism.
Today the Wye Valley is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), recognised as one of the nation’s most treasured landscapes. Although still a favoured touring destination, the Wye Valley is seen mostly from a car or coach window, although short boat excursions still leave from Symonds Yat.
You can read what Gilpin wrote here.
You will find more about William Gilpin and his paintings here.