The Advent of Tourism

How the threat of nature was turned to an appreciation of its beauty and therapeutic properties

Tourism had started towards the end of the 18th century, particularly as a result of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars which prevented the members of the aristocracy and the newly emerging middle classes from travelling to Europe on the ‘Grand Tour’. Tourism could also be linked to the Romantic movement, and to the interest of poets and painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the beauty of the natural world, and in the spiritual uplift of mediaeval gothic buildings – especially ruined ones! From a cultural standpoint Romanticism represented a shift from seeing nature as something wild and dangerous, to be avoided if at all possible, to appreciating its beauty and its therapeutic properties. 

Wide view of Abbey LR

William Gilpin’s writings on the ‘picturesque’, especially his Observations on the River Wye which appeared in 1782, helped to make landscape painting a popular amateur pastime, as well as a professional occupation, in the 19th century, and captured the imagination of tourists in that period. He influenced the remarkable popularity of English landscape painting during the last decade of the 18th Century, and inspired the Romantic poets.  

In this period the Wye Valley from Ross southwards to Chepstow witnessed the birth of British tourism, and by 1850 more than twenty accounts of the Wye Tour had been published. Probably the first guided tour took place in 1745 when Rev. John Egerton started taking friends on boat trips down the Valley from the rectory at Ross-on-Wye. The many guidebooks, engravings and paintings led to a steady stream of visitors. Some of these accounts are today held in the Museums of Monmouth and Chepstow

Tintern Abbey, which represents one of the most sublime ruins from the mediaeval monastic tradition, similar in grandeur to Fountains and Rievaulx in Yorkshire, was one of the major attractions of the Wye tour, and was visited several times by Wordsworth and Turner. It had indeed suffered neglect over the centuries, but with the arrival of tourists, and under the influence of Romanticism and the gothic revival, much restoration work was carried out, and nowadays the abbey has an international reputation as a heritage site.