Wales and the Grand Tour

Interior of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire by J. M. W. Turner, 1794

Interior of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire by J. M. W. Turner, 1794

Wales became an increasingly popular destination for British travellers from around 1780, the Grand Tours of Continental Europe having been halted by the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars. Malkin and Rees’ guides are just two publications illustrative of the proliferation of writing that emerged as a direct response to the expansion of tourism in Wales.

The Wye Tour, for example, was a pleasure trip along the River Wye which took in the natural vistas, scenic buildings such as Tintern Abbey, and even ‘picturesque’ factories located along the river banks.

Popularised by publications such as The Rev. William Gilpin’s 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 andThomas Dudley Fosbroke’s Wye Tour of 1818, tourists flocked in their thousands, many with sketchbook in hand, to make the trip from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow.George Cooke, in his 1820 work on the county of Monmouth stated that:

“The tour of the Wye is universally allowed to be one of the most picturesque excursions in the kingdom, every traveller of taste who visits this county, will of course embark on its smooth surface, and survey the beauties of ‘Vaga through her winding bounds’”.

From: Cooke, George, 1820. A topographical and statistical description of the county of Monmouth. London: Sherwood, Jones, and Co. (NSC 2312)

Wye Tourists, and seekers of the Picturesque as a whole, were widely lampooned by writers such as William Combe in his Adventures of Dr. Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque, and by satirical poets, who mocked their obsessive pursuit of the perfect picturesque view. Nevertheless, the popularity of the Wye Tour endured until the middle of the 19th century and it remains a popular destination to this day.

That the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives has such a rich collection of publications on the picturesque and on Monmouthshire and the Wye Valley in particular, is due, at least in part, to the Library’s most generous benefactor,Thomas Phillips (1760-1851). Phillips spent his formative years living in the area, began his working life apprenticed to an apothecary in Hay-on-Wye and married a local girl from Cusop. Phillips left the Wye Valley and travelled extensively to far-flung territories including India, Australia, Mauritius, Canada and Nepal, before finally settling in Brunswick Square in London. However, throughout his life, Phillips maintained his connection with his childhood home, visiting family members, paying for the education of relatives and donating books to village libraries. In later life, he is even said to have attributed his longevity to his hill-walking youth in mid-Wales1.  

Notes: 1. accessed 09/10/2013