Tourists of Eden

When I told the customs officer at Heathrow that we were heading to the Lake District, it was an inauspicious start to our journey.

“The Lake District?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“You do realize it’s January, right?” he asked.

Had we brought waterproof boots and thick coats? Did we have umbrellas at the very least? Didn’t we know that the Lake District was a place where people went in the summer, really?

Having concluded his investigation, and having delivered a pronouncement that we were “absolutely mad,” the customs officer dismissed us with a begrudging “Enjoy the cold rain.” My partner and I hurried off to gather our suitcases and doubt the sufficiency of their contents. We reassured ourselves that, at the very least, we wouldn’t be contending with crowds of other tourists as we attempted to enjoy our four days in Grasmere––once the year-round home of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.

As a scholar of tourism history, I secretly relished the particular achievement embedded in the customs official’s criticism. One of the most predictable traits of leisure travel is the way in which tourists are always trying to go where the other tourists aren’t. We might have been heading toward one of the most “beaten tracks” in all of English tourism, but we at least we were well off-season.

One need only spend a few minutes looking through travel magazines, guidebooks, and advertisements to see how much rhetoric about tourism perpetuates this idea that avoiding other tourists makes you a better tourist yourself. Click on over to the subscription page of Travel & Leisure Magazine, for instance. There, the publisher promises to send you a “FREE Secret European Village Guide” when you subscribe to the magazine. Consider, too, that the cover photo of the March 2019 Travel & Leisure issue depicts the Eiffel Tower framed by a hotel room window at the “newly reborn Hotel Lucretia;” the accompanying article vouches that “This is a locals’ hotel.”

One wonders how “secret” a European village could possibly be when its details are being offered up to over 800,000 readers per year; surely the actual “locals” don’t live in the Hotel Lucretia. But tourism rhetoric always makes this promise: secret, hidden, authentic spaces are for those with the leisure to travel and the money to fool themselves.

The ubiquitous rhetoric of “hidden” and “off-track” travel can be found in the most un-hidden and on-route book destination possible: Amazon. The Time-Warner Center shopping mall at Columbus Circle in Manhattan has an actual, physical, brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore on its third floor. The Amazon bookstore manages to still feel like the website because all of its books are arranged so that their covers are facing out. The place actually looks like one of those pages where Amazon lists all the books that it recommends to you based on your shopping habits.

I looked for Amazon’s travel-guide section to see what they had in stock. The line up on just one shelf attests to our utterly predictable performance of searching for “secret” places, in unison, as travelers:

  • The 500 Hidden Secrets of Paris by Marie Farman (Uitgeverij Luster, 2015) – Not only are there secrets, the secrets are so secret that they are “hidden.” And there are hundreds of them!
  • Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia by Tom Feiling (Penguin, 2013) – How quaint! Walks are very pre-industrial. Bogotá sounds very off-the-beaten-track these days, particularly since its author has dubbed it a “new” country somehow.
  • Super Cheap Japan: Budget Travel in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, and Surrounding Areas by Matt Baxter (Super Cheap Japan, 2017) – The cartoon-style illustrated cover shows a couple wearing hip clothes and backpacks, surrounded by shops bedecked with red-lanterns, pointing to Mt. Fuji in the distance. Backpacks –– how rugged! And let’s also note that there is nothing cheap about flying from New York City to Japan.
  • Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton (Workman, 2016).
Books in the travel section of the Amazon bricks and mortar store. Photo courtesy of the author.

The last title on this shelf—Foer, Thuras, and Morton’s Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders—was developed by a travel company of the same name that specializes in “discovering” so-called “hidden” places around the world. If you go to the online magazine’s website, even the fact that it’s a tourism company is somewhat hidden: a testament to how off-brand it might feel for hipster travelers to pay for guided tours. On first glance, appears to be a news site with articles documenting obscure locales: “The Medieval Sanctuary Door Right Out of a Fantasy World” at “the otherwise humble St. Edward’s Church” in Stow-on-the-Wold, England or “The Restaurant Reconstructing Recipes That Died with the Ottoman Empire,” for instance. You’ll only discover the tour-packages after clicking through a few articles; the site downplays its “Trips” (not “tours”) by listing them as the sixth and final menu item. The site’s go-to rhetorical mode, the language it uses to sell its tours and promote its articles, listicles, and quaint hideaways—is that of “discovery.” You aren’t a corny “tourist” if what you’re seeing is new, after all! You’re a “discoverer.”

As with most tour companies, Atlas Obscura remains unselfconscious about propagating the rhetoric of discovery, apparently unaware of the historical violence embedded in that term.

Screen grab from Atlas Obscura’s site. Image courtesy of the author.

As Atlas Obscura’s “Why travel with us” page explains, their tours—“Hip-hop, Hippies, and Robots: Invention and Reinvention in San Francisco” or “Rome Behind Locked Doors: Music, Magic, and Secret Crypts”—cost thousands of dollars. The expense, they promise, is worth it though, because they’ll show you places “that others overlook, like a pinball paradise hidden in a Brooklyn laundromat.” Will a 10-person tour group from Atlas Obscura somehow “discover” any actual “artists and eccentrics” who can still afford to live in San Francisco? And is there a Rome left for this 15-person group that “tourists rarely experience”? Do people in an “overlooked” Brooklyn laundromat really need to be gawked at by tourists as they fold their clothes?

Even in the off-season, I didn’t get the sense that anyone was surprised by seeing tourists in the Lake District. After all, when you travel somewhere so historically connected to tourism, there is a well-trafficked infrastructure in place to accommodate you. All the same, I brought a great deal of ignorance with me to Grasmere last winter, despite having studied Romanticism for so long. Looking back on it, the North of England and all its attendant literary history formed its own atlas obscura in my own imagination. I am not even sure how much of what I imagined to be the Lake District—the largest national park in England—really belonged to that region in the first place. Since my teenage years, I had been reading descriptions of this landscape and basically conflating it with all of the north of England. I’m sure I thought the moors across which Brontë heroes trudged fell somewhere within its boundaries. Moreover, for longer than I’d like to admit, I imagined British geography as somehow also incorporating Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogwarts, Mr. Darcy’s house, and Westeros.

During college, I was drawn ever closer to the Lake District when a boy I had a crush on had to memorize a poem for his intro to English literature class––a course I now teach. He asked if he could practice reciting Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” to me during the balmiest first days of college. Listening to a boy reading Wordsworth on a collegiate lawn in early September seemed to be the height of erudition and romance. I made myself into a good listener, smiling as he tripped over “twinkle on the milky way,” tossing my own head as the flowers tossed theirs in “sprightly dance.” Wasn’t I the “jocund company”? Did he notice that I, too, “gazed—and gazed”?

But those magical late-summer Wordsworth sessions outside my dorm amounted to no more than unrequited love. I turned to literature for further consolation, and my undergraduate coursework took a turn toward British Romanticism. I read all of Jane Austen’s novels for one class and haphazardly stumbled on the topic of tourism history; my senior thesis analyzed Elizabeth Bennet’s tour of the Peak District with her aunt and uncle in Pride and Prejudice. While on a guided tour of Pemberley, Bennet looks out the window and famously proclaims that “of this place” she “might have been mistress.”

Fictional Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate, is not even supposed to be as far north as the Lake District, but in my imagination at least, where else would it be? Like so many viewers of the 1995 BBC adaptation of the book, I had watched Colin Firth dive into that lake with that wet, wet shirt.

That could only have been one of the lakes in the Lake District, right? Darcy’s curls were filled with Lake District water. Twenty years later, while looking at an actual map to try and figure out which exit to take off the M6 to get to Grasmere, I realized how much of my imaginary maps would have to be redrawn.

The motivation for the trip in the first place was to visit the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University to read some of Ruskin’s unpublished travel diaries. Ruskin’s childhood education included the Bible and Romantic poetry in equal parts, so it’s no surprise that in his old age, he bought a house overlooking Coniston Water—only eleven miles from where the Wordsworths had lived in Grasmere. My partner and I had rented a hotel room across the street from the Wordsworths’ Dove Cottage, and we arrived on Town End Road as ill-equipped for the damp and cold as the customs officer had predicted. For all my expertise in the history of tourism, I am still not a very good tourist. I hadn’t even done enough planning beforehand to know that Dove Cottage isn’t open mid-winter.

The author plays John Ruskin’s piano; Coniston Water is visible through the window. Photo courtesy of the author.

I would learn, however, that Wordsworth had actually predicted everything I was doing wrong on this trip.

The sign outside Dove Cottage in Grasmere in January. Photo courtesy of the author.

One real, historical discovery I made on this winter trip was how deeply the rhetoric about going to hidden places with all of the other tourists was rooted in the Lake District. In fact, one of the first times the word “tourist” appeared in print is in the very first line of Wordsworth’s “The Brothers: A Pastoral Poem” (1800). And the word is most certainly not being used to say anything complimentary about visitors to the Lakes:

These tourists, Heaven preserve us! needs must live

A profitable life: some glance along,

Rapid and gay, as if the earth were air,

And they were butterflies to wheel about

Long as their summer lasted. . .

Here, using the scornful tone familiar to people who live in areas congested by tourist traffic (I’m imagining the tourists showing up in my laundromat in Brooklyn), Wordsworth complains about the levity with which the visitors treat their stay, and the brevity of their trips. In his view, appreciating the Lakes requires gravitas and endurance. Following an invocation of protection from heaven (“preserve us!”), the opening metaphor of this poem compares the visitors to butterflies: they “glance” and “wheel” about. This metaphor and these verbs hardly suit the ways in which proper Lake-walkers should interact with the gills, becks, dales, thwaites, and tarns of the landscape–Cumbrian terminology specific to the Lakeland landscape.

“The Brothers” presages a critique Wordsworth would articulate for the next forty years about the inappropriate ephemerality of Lake District tourism. He considered the tourists’ short visits—only as “long as their summer lasted”—to demonstrate an egregious lack of commitment. After all, he and his family spent most of their lives there. Ruskin would have concurred. He bought his Brantwood house in 1874, and he spent the last two decades of his life looking at his view of the lake. Anything less seemed like not enough. I imagine that both Wordsworth and Ruskin might share our customs official’s contempt, horrified that we only had four days—in winter, no less—to revere the terrain.

Four days in the Lake District were enough to convince me that I needed more time there, and surely a well-lived life could include a properly long, ponderous sojourn to the Lake District, as the examples set by Wordsworth and Ruskin teach us. But we also certainly profit from lending the same scrutiny to Wordsworth’s anti-tourist rhetoric that we gave to Travel and Leisure’s mass-produced promises of singular access to “secret villages” and Atlas Obscura’s boutique journeys to unlock the secrets of Rome. After all, despite his aversion to tourists, Wordsworth published his own Guide to the Lakes in 1810, which went through five editions and became one of the region’s most compelling and popular guidebooks. (I may have packed inadequately for the weather, but I did carry my copy of the 1904 edition in my suitcase.) Wordsworth’s introduction is not particularly inviting. On the first page, he complains of the “humble and tedious task” of giving good directions. He also warns readers that the guide was intended to benefit “the Minds of Persons of taste, and feeling for the Landscape” who will pay it the “degree of attention to which its beauty may fairly lay claim” (1).

Wordsworth professes to have no interest in catering to the interests and whims of the tourists from whom he had asked “Heaven” to “preserve” him in “The Brothers,” but then again, why would he want to write a guidebook if he hated tourists so much? Just like the Travel and Leisure article promises to lead its thousands of readers to “secret villages” and claims the Hotel Lucretia is a “locals’” favorite, Wordsworth too communicates something paradoxical here about living in a place that profits from tourist traffic: we want to live in—and write about—the sort of place that would appeal to tourists; but we don’t actually want them to come.

Designating one’s ideal reader and traveler as someone who is “of taste, and feeling” is now just a normal move in guidebook writing, part of the game of pretending to select ideal tourists—aka the ones who won’t ruin the “secret.” In 1836, Byron’s friend and publisher John Murray III began his first Handbook for Travellers on the Continent—the progenitor of a series that endured for 75 more years—by noting that his volume was “calculated to interest an intelligent reader.” John Chetwode Eustace, a generation earlier, similarly insisted that the pages of his Classical Tour Through Italy (1813)—one of the first texts to inaugurate the modern guidebook tradition—were “addressed solely to persons of a liberal education.” Eustace’s imagined reader also populates his (yes “his”) carriage with his “inseparable companions”: “Virgil and Horace, Cicero and Livy.” That’s right; no traveler should be without their Classical tomes, heavy books to be “called forth in every interval of leisure.”Sounds fun. In 1818, in John Cam Hobhouse’s Historical Illustrations of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold (basically notes for people to consult when reading his best friend Byron’s epic poem), Hobhouse imagined the “bad” tourist as “[h]e who goes from home merely to change the scene and to seek for novelty; who makes amusement his sole object, and has no other view but to fill up a few months that must otherwise remain unemployed.”

What was at stake for men like Murray, Eustace, Hobhouse, and Wordsworth when they expressed fear about the wrong sort of tourist taking up a short-term residence somewhere? For Wordsworth, at least, the long, dedicated residency prescribed by his Guide to the Lakes meant accessing more than just the “secrets” of the Lake District. As Wordsworth explains in a section entitled “Primitive Aspect,” the nooks and hollows of the Lake District were “too secluded” for even the Roman conquerors in the first century. And these inner sanctums thus “furnished a protection to some unsubdued Britons, long after the more accessible and more fertile districts had been seized by the Saxon or Danish invaders” (52). Just like Travel and Leisure’s photographer had identified the “local’s hotel,” Wordsworth here is identifying the most local Britain of all, so isolated from the beaten track that it predates over a thousand years of invasion and colonization. In other words, for the savvy tourist—one with what Wordsworth deems a proper “feeling for the landscape”—the pay-off of attentive tourism is discovering and connecting with the purest Britain of all.

Wordsworth’s popularity still brings tourists to the Lake District today, but he was neither the first poet to write about the region, nor the first one to use the word “tourist” in describing its ever-growing numbers of visitors. That distinction goes to William Cockin, whose 14-page Ode to the Genius of the Lakes in the North of England was published in 1780 and to whom the Oxford English Dictionary gives credit for the first use of the word “tourist.” Right from its inception in print, then, the word “tourist” has belonged to the Lake District! Cockin’s poem begins by pre-selecting his ideal readers in its Advertisement, which concedes that the ode “might yield an innocent amusement to the votaries of a fashionable and innocent object.” “Moved simply by this hope,” Cockin “throws the piece only into the way of actual tourists” (emphasis in original).

While I do not think most readers today would particularly enjoy a romp through Cockin’s laborious Ode, it does tell us how popular the Lake District had already become by 1780, when Wordsworth was only ten years old. The Ode’s very first line—which addresses Cockin’s Muse, the so-called “Genius of the Lakes”—marvels at the region’s growing popularity: “Hail, O thou! whose rising fame/ Unusual progress makes.” A footnote on that first page of verse also provides us with a comprehensive bibliography of guidebooks to the Lake District that had already been published. Cockin’s poem turns out to be a sort of guidebook itself, and you could hardly do better than to use its eleventh stanza—which names prominent landscapes and towns—as your itinerary. Cockin devotes the fifteenth and sixteenth stanzas to listing some of the noteworthy religious figures, artists, and writers from the region. In case you weren’t exhausted by the time you reached the poem’s final, eighteenth stanza, the author provides you with eight pages of notes expanding on the biographies of these historical figures from the Lake District, and he makes suggestions about how to make the region more tourist-friendly via “the erection of neat inscribed pillars, tablets &c.” to commemorate these people—the “friend, person of genius, &c.” associated with that location. He explains that doing so will “recall to the minds of posterity, that they too had visited Arcadia” (emphasis most definitely in the original).

To Cockin, the Lakes were no less than “Arcadia” itself—the land immortalized in Virgil’s Ecloguesas representing the rural ideal. Arcadia was the ancient Greek countryside, filled with shepherds and too isolated to be ruined by Roman conquerors. Does this sound familiar?

Cockin was aware of the effects of writing beautifully about a beautiful landscape. Arcadia cannot remain isolated if you tempt your readers to see it for themselves. But Cockin’s writing is not infected by the anti-tourist tensions that would later plague Wordsworth. In fact, the Ode insults the local shepherds who, because they were not sufficiently educated enough to appreciate and celebrate their own landscape, had failed the muse. In the second stanza, Cockin laments that earlier time, when the beauty of the Lakes was known only those who were too “unconscious” of the “matchless charms” of the “magic scenes” and “unskill’d in scenic art” to lure the visitors properly with poetry and guidebook palaver. When apostrophizing his “Genius of the Lakes,” Cockin reminds her that writers such as him—unlike the shepherds of yore—“give thy magic scenes encomium due,” and he his time as “these happier days of genuine taste.”

Cockin had hoped that his own verses would encourage more tourism, and he made suggestions about how to improve the landscape to accommodate more visitors. Wordsworth, by contrast, saw that tourists—and later, trains—could ruin the landscape, and his Guide to the Lakes betrays his fear that maybe he shouldn’t write about it anymore for that very reason. But writing about a “fashionable” landscape can also help you to sell more books.

Is it better, then, to keep your “encomiums” about beautiful landscapes to yourself? Or is it better to celebrate them, even if the tourists come and ultimately destroy the sights that inspired the celebration in the first place? This is truly the paradox of tourism. Cockin’s pro-tourist poem—one of the few such texts that I have ever read—marks a moment in the history of the Lake District before its popularity with tourists began to compete with the practical agricultural forces that had molded that landscape in the first place. Since then, several Lake District authors, and hundreds of its own inhabitants, have worked tirelessly to preserve it. As James Rebanks’ masterful 2015 book The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape teaches us, these Cumbrian lands look the way they do as a result of hundreds of years of manual labor and toil. Far from “unskilled in scenic art,” as Cockin described them, the shepherds of the Lake District literally created that scenery in the first place. They were the ones who carved the gwylls, dug the drains, and built the paths alongside their sheep and dogs for generations upon generations. Not only that, hundreds of them continue to fight today to preserve their traditions against all odds. Rebanks himself was part of the effort that succeeded in getting UNESCO to designate the Lake District as a World Heritage Site in 2017. And even Beatrix Potter, known as “Mrs. Heelis” to the locals, had purchased thousands of acres of the land to prevent commercial developers from invading the region. She later gave her lands over to the National Trust in order that they may be preserved for the use of the flocks and shepherds.

I do not believe that it is a coincidence that in the time between Cockin’s positive take on tourism in 1780 and Wordsworth’s pejorative use of the term in 1801, England began its turn toward industrialization. It makes sense that as more workers fled to urban centers and as a middle class began to grow, people with access to leisure turned toward the pastoral—an idealized Arcadia—for relief. Even as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I felt that peculiar pull. For years, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer “shepherd.” Imagining myself on large, rocky, open hills with a dog and some fluffy sheep, while I rode a school bus back and forth through the post-industrial wasteland of Cleveland gave me some sort of relief. Reading Beatrix Potter and then C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Brontës offered me that same sort of escape as I grew up.

In graduate school, Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (1973) felt very personal to me, as it explained some of my own literary—and increasingly professional—predilections. In it, Williams describes how in literature, we can trace our shared, nostalgic search back in time for an era before all the things went “bad.” He wrote this in response to F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson’s Culture and the Environment (1932), a book about education and history in which they lament that the “‘organic community’ of ‘Old England’ had disappeared.” Williams points out that this “Old England” never really existed in the first place. Through literature, we peer back through English history, seeking out a place where “‘Old England’ and its timeless agricultural rhythms” still exist, but we can never really find it, no matter how far back we go. Williams concludes that what we really seek predates even Arcadia: it is Eden itself we long for, and that this endless quest for the “Old England”—“settlement, rural values”—is quite simply “the question of the pastoral.” We can trace this pastoral longing throughout the literary tradition, but the fact that it became the deep script of tourism at the same moment that industrialization began to destroy the British countryside tells us why we cannot escape the tourist’s paradox of destroying the beauty we seek. And there I was a few months later in the Amazon bookstore, looking for a guidebook in a shop that feels like a website, floors above a statue of a man who raped his way through the Caribbean in 1492, across the street from the brassy Trump International Hotel and Tower.

The idea of the pastoral still grips me, disabused as I am of the ideas that such an Arcadia exists, hoping that it could so utterly absorb me that I would forget the pain of growing old under the shadow of a manmade climate apocalypse. Only one line in Cockin’s Ode refers to winter, and only to remind us of how happy the muse of the Lake District is to see “stern Winter’s frown decline.” Even Cockin thought better than to recommend the Lake District to winter tourists. But to see Grasmere in person, to walk by the little property whose birds and flowers Dorothy Wordsworth documented with such care, and to climb ancient paths up hills alongside the Herdwick sheep that Rebanks himself breeds gave us a glimpse of what might be left of Eden. And even though it was winter, Eden still had tourists in it.

Author’s partner Joe pictured with a Herdwick sheep. The Wordsworths’ graves and Dove Cottage are both in the background. Photo courtesy of the author.

Alexandra L. Milsom is an assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College (CUNY). She is writing a book about how Catholic Emancipation in Britain and Ireland influenced mass tourism and the nascent guidebook genre in the nineteenth century. She lives in Brooklyn with her dog, her partner, and her struggling tomato garden.

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