A Baedeker Tour, 100 Years Later
IT was a cold and overcast afternoon, and the Alexandra Hotel looked like a stern and gray matron. Close by the banks of Loch Linnhe on the west coast of Scotland, the traditional hotel had two steep gables, a brooding stone facade and 93 rooms, some of which looked out onto a grassy parade where bundled-up locals were negotiating the path beneath the town’s war memorial.
Of the 10 hotels in Fort William recommended by my aged and yellowed guidebook, only 4 were still in business. And the Alexandra, with its promise of an open fire and a history running back to 1876, seemed the most traditional.
But inside, the Alexandra looked nothing like the 19th-century time capsule I had envisioned. The wooden reception desk was topped with a slab of shiny new stone, the dining room was fitted with wall-to-wall floral-patterned carpet, and the rooms themselves felt like a generic motel with undistinguished furniture and tartan-patterned bed covers.
So much for relying on a travel guidebook published 100 years ago.
In 1910, the German publisher Baedeker brought out a new edition of its Handbook to Great Britain. The volume was the last Baedeker guide to Britain to be published before World War I. And although earlier versions were replaced every few years, the 1910 edition would not be updated for almost two decades. The next one came out in 1927. As such, it shaped the experience of a generation of travelers to England, Scotland and Wales.
Baedeker, which began producing travel books in 1835, helped pioneer the modern concept of a travel guide. Unlike many earlier guides, in which writers spun narratives about their own journeys and experiences, Baedekers were informational and service-oriented — listing steamboat fares and passport requirements, recommending suitable clothing and suggesting how much to tip.
The guide was not universally embraced. An unsigned review in The New York Times, dated Nov. 12, 1910, lambasted Baedeker’s “Great Britain,” saying that the use of a guidebook denies the traveler the delight of the unexpected, and remarking icily, “Why has the Lake District received extraordinary honors and not the scenery of Wales?”
Baedeker guides also gained a measure of notoriety in World War II. In 1942, after the Royal Air Force devastated the German port of Lübeck, the Nazis reputedly worked their way through the Britain guidebook, and bombed Exeter, Bath, York, Norwich and then Canterbury. The event is known as the Baedeker Raids.
I bought my well-preserved 1910 edition of Baedeker’s “Great Britain” from an antiquarian bookseller in New York City, the Complete Traveller, for $50. And so, with the book turning 100 this year, I decided to retrace one of the 78 routes that it recommends for exploring Britain.
First, a word about the guide itself. With little in the way of flowery prose or colorful exposition, much of the Baedeker reads more like a dictionary than a Lonely Planet guide.
While the volume is bound in Baedeker’s trademark claret red cloth, its 624 Bible-thin pages are largely written in an encyclopedic and staccato prose, thick with opaque abbreviations and clinical details. And, in an age when travel was mostly confined to steam train and horse-drawn coaches, great emphasis is placed on logistics, which are not always self-explanatory.
After considering several possibilities, I settled on route No. 71, a train trip from Glasgow to the town of Fort William and the village of Mallaig along the West Highland Railway. Today, the route is greatly feted — a poll in Wanderlust Magazine, based in Britain, calls it the most scenic railway journey in the world. But in 1910, this route was in its infancy; the railway route was completed only nine years earlier.
The journey began before dawn at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station. There, under the Victorian latticework of the roof, a little train drew up in blue and red livery. As we slipped out of Glasgow, I cracked open my Baedeker to Page 555, “From Glasgow to Fort William to Mallaig,” as a reader might have done in a world when Britain still ruled India and automobiles were a novelty.
Baedeker offered a running list of the physical markers that zipped past the train’s broad windows: Dumbarton Castle, “strikingly situated on a precipitous rocky hill”; Craigendoran Pier, “an important starting point for steamers”; Helensburgh, “a favourite watering-place with extensive steamboat connections”; and Shandon, “with a large hydropathic establishment.”
On and on it went, pointing out the glinting lochs on the left, the snowcapped mountains on the right. There were few passengers on the early morning train — an American couple consulting a modern guidebook, and a pair of Scottish women too preoccupied with their knitting to notice the breathtaking views outside.
Baedeker estimated the journey to Fort William at four to four and a half hours; today’s train runs only a little faster, and we arrived in town in about 3 hours 45 minutes. The town’s history and features were dispatched in two swift sentences: “Fort William ... formerly the key of the highlands and now a convenient tourist-centre. The Fort, originally erected by General Monk, was rebuilt under William III.”
Today, with a population of around 10,000, Fort William is the largest town in the western Scottish Highlands, and is dominated by its fine setting on Loch Linnhe, a long sea inlet banked with high hills. High Street, the main thoroughfare, is lined with tall old houses containing boutiques stocked with tartans and shortbread; the ruins of the eponymous fort still stand above the waters of the loch.
But elsewhere, it was clear that the last 100 years have not always been kind. Ill-conceived highway building and unsightly developments have done much damage to the town’s charm. The waterfront, despite its spectacular setting, is sterile, edged by a busy road, devoid of both historic character and the bustle of a lively port.
At the end of a cold day in January, the sun slipped down behind the mountains at about 4 p.m., leaving Fort William shuttered against the weather and the high-latitude darkness. That night, the dining room at the Alexandra Hotel was mostly quiet, save for a handful of guests.
The next day, I caught the 12:12 p.m. departure to Mallaig. The train rolled along the pebbled shores of Loch Linnhe, and entered the “wild and picturesque” landscape of russet-colored hills, described in my guide. The two cars were busier than they had been the day before, although the passengers were the same mix of tourists — striving to snap cameras through the small openings in the windows — and locals thoroughly indifferent to the views.
About 30 minutes into the trip, the train crossed the Finnan River by means of a majestic viaduct, which the guidebook points out is “said to be the first viaduct ever built out of concrete,” a quarter-mile long and 100 feet high. A young generation of filmgoers know its 21 arches better today from the Harry Potter films, as part of the Hogwarts Express route between London and the school of wizards.
“After a short ascent the railway descends to skirt the S. Shore of Loch Eilt,” the guide continues. The train then crosses a humbler-looking viaduct over the Borrodale Burn before rolling past the village of Arisaig and the River Morar, which flows from Loch Morar, one of the deepest freshwater lakes in Britain.
Over all, although this leg of the journey was shorter than the previous day’s, there was no shortage of variety in the scenery. When the train ran along the sea, the views opened up and stretched toward the peaks of the Isle of Skye.
Finally, after about 80 minutes, the train rolled into Mallaig, where the tiny station, equipped with a framed timetable and little else, marked the end of the line.
The sun was shining brightly, and the village appeared to have endured fewer depredations than Fort William. A cluster of winding streets rose above a tight cove. Down by the water, fishing boats and a bright orange lifeboat were moored to a pier, and across the bay, ranks of white houses rose above the water.
In summer Mallaig is a popular spot. Between mid-May and the end of October, a steam train makes the trip between Fort William and Mallaig, adding to the allure.
Baedeker, however, had little to say about Mallaig itself, devoting a mere sentence to the village: “Mallaig ... with a large pier, the prettily situated little terminus of the railway, is a good centre for excursion.”
Despite the ubiquity of cars, and the advent of airlines that allow travelers to crisscross the planet with relative ease, one thing about travel doesn’t seem to have changed much during the last 100 years. It’s about the journey, as much as the destination.
IF YOU GO
The West Highland Railway departs from Glasgow Queen Street Station (Hanover Street); the journey to Mallaig takes five and a quarter hours. The train is operated by Scotrail (44-845-601-5929; scotrail.co.uk). A round-trip adult ticket is £49.30, or $74 at $1.50 to £1. Tickets are sold at the station and online.
The Jacobite, a special steam train operated by West Coast Railways, runs between Fort William and Mallaig in summer (www.westcoastrailways.co.uk); round-trip fare for the two-hour trip is £31.
WHERE TO STAY
In Fort William, the 93-room Alexandra Hotel (The Parade; 44-1397-702-241; strathmorehotels.com) has been in operation since 1876, and offers simple rooms in the heart of town. Rooms start at £69.
In Mallaig, the West Highland Hotel (Davies Brae; 44-1687-462-210; westhighlandhotel.co.uk) was first built in the early 20th century with the coming of the railway, then rebuilt after a fire in 1927. It has 40 basic, clean rooms that start at £45.