BOOK REIVEW / If it's November it must be Naples: 'The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century' - Jeremy Black: Alan Sutton, 17.99

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The British are a paradoxical people. Traditionally they have enjoyed a reputation for insularity and xenophobia. Yet, in reality, few nations have had such consistent or extensive contact with the outside world. The raw appeal of war, colonies, booty, land, jobs and trade has regularly served to lure Britons away from the narrow confines of their own island and into other lands. But only in the 18th century did large numbers of them begin travelling abroad for pleasure.

One of the many virtues of Jeremy Black's new and splendidly illustrated book is that it evokes just how extensive and diverse this early experience of Continental tourism was. How many men and women took part remains unknown. But in the first half of 1763, more than 7,000 Britons were known to have journeyed to Paris alone. And by the end of the century, disapproving economists were calculating that at least pounds 4m (some pounds 400m in today's values) was being taken out of the country by tourists every year.

Most of this money disappeared on the conventional Grand Tour circuit, which consisted of a leisurely amble through France focusing on Paris, followed by journeys to Naples, Venice, Florence, and above all to Rome. But some ventured much further. Lady Craven, for example, made a brave and dangerous journey through Russia, while the large number of Hotel Bristols still dotted round Europe today bears witness to the far-flung tourism of

Frederick, fourth earl of Bristol, a nominal

bishop who preferred vacations to his vocation.

Black makes extensive use of manuscript diaries to reveal just how alarmingly different tourism in this period could be. It might take days before there was wind enough to waft travellers from Dover to Calais, and seasickness was almost unavoidable. Once arrived, poor roads meant that coaches regularly overturned. Poor maps made it easy to get lost. Pet dogs (and the occasional servant) might be eaten by wolves. And the lack of any system of regulation meant that hotels varied enormously in quality, and were usually overrun with bugs. More striking, though, was the fact that most of these early tourists were emphatically upper-class and possessed of one or more foreign languages. As such, they took it for granted that they could blend into local fashionable society anywhere. They travelled with the intention of meeting foreigners, not just to view and exploit them.

Yet if the average 18th-century British tourist was more daring and cosmopolitan than his modern equivalent, in some respects he or she was also depressingly familiar. Then, as now, foreign food was widely perceived as over-spiced, over-sauced and unhygienic. Nervous travellers brought supplies with them from home, shared information on precisely which French inns were prepared to cook bacon and eggs, and still came down all too often with holiday diarrhoea. Then, as now, Britons took it for granted that illicit sex was somehow much more acceptable where the climate was sultry. Patrician youths regularly used the Grand Tour to divest themselves of their virginity. Others took advantage of being far from home to experiment with rent boys and sodomy. And Lords Lincoln and Rockingham were some of the many who brought venereal disease back home with them as a souvenir.

Very often, then, travel in this period simply confirmed pre-existing attitudes. Sophisticated though they were, most Britons returned from their travels, as Black remarks, 'better informed xenophobes'. It was Continental differences, in terms not just of cuisine and morality but also scenery, religion, politics and culture, which seem to have impressed them most. Just what were the consequences of this more acute perception of Continental Europe as 'the Other' remain unclear. Black has assembled a marvellously well-documented catalogue of the day- to-day experiences of 18th-century tourists: and a rich and vivid tableau it is. What is needed now is for someone to stand back from this mass of detail, and reconstruct what must have been the very significant impact of this new kind of exposure to abroad on the self-image and culture of the British themselves.