Exactly 150 years ago today, a party of some 130 tourists left London Bridge station for Newhaven and Paris under the guidance of an enterprising fellow called Thomas Cook. Only seven of them continued to Geneva and completed a tour of Switzerland. Among the "Junior Alpine Club" was 31-year-old Yorkshire-born Jemima Morrell, who left a diary of her travels that was rediscovered and published 50 years ago.
The tour marked the beginning of the middle-class love affair with the mountains and lakes of Switzerland. Previously it had been the wealthy scions of landed families who had followed in the wake of the romantic poets and artists on Grand Tours, sometimes taking years. Following the success of Cook's first tour, tailored to the shorter holidays of professionals, he sent a further 500 tourists to Switzerland within the following three months. Their average cost, including all travelling and hotels, was £15 12s 7d (£15.63), despite using only "first-class establishments" which were prepared to put themselves out a bit to accommodate the culinary preferences of John Bull.
But the inaugural tour was not for the faint-hearted: there were 5am starts, some days of travelling for 18 hours and arduous climbs over glaciers and high passes. After a detour from Geneva into France to admire the Mer de Glace near Chamonix, they re-entered Switzerland on foot by the Trient Valley and the Col de la Forclaz, where they were fortified with milk and wild strawberries. The descent to Martigny in the Valais on mules provided their first panorama of the Swiss Alps, "one of the views of the Alps…" Jemima thought, wishing that the reader's "retina could be enamelled with the grandeur of that matchless landscape".
A 15-minute walk from Col de la Forclaz along the footpath signed Bovine and Champex-Lac brought me to the view that so impressed Jemima: a clearing in the trees opens up a perfect view due east along the Rhône Valley, overlooking the great bend in the valley where road, river and railway turn through 90 degrees. Immense mountains flank the valley to the horizon, those to the south rising to the St Bernard Pass used by the Emperor Augustus and Napoleon.
To see the "unmelted plateau of snow of the Col de Balme", there is a walk from the Col de la Forclaz beside the Bisse de Trient – a 4km-long irrigation channel – to a semicircle of peaks known as La Chaine des Ecandies. Water whispers from the grassy channel beside the path and birdsong fills the woods, set against the distant sound of meltwater streaming from the ribbons of snow and ice in the defiles of the mountain slopes. A reminder of less benign days is provided by a cataclysm of trees and rocks above and below the path, the avalanche cleared by teams who maintain the 64,000km of paths through the country.
The Cook party soon discarded the mules provided for their descent along a path bordered by pear, apple and plum trees to Martigny when they realised "the fatigue of a descent on a mule exceeds the same taken on foot". When they assembled for sustenance at the long-gone Hotel Clerc, some of the men had walked 40km, the ladies an average of 27km. Their day was not done. They then took a short walk to the railway station – "one of those few walks taken in a lifetime that no after impressions or obliterations of time can efface" because of the enthralling views of the Rhône Valley – and took the train to Sion. The journey by horse-drawn omnibus from station to hotel caused amusement to two German students by the "compressibility of the English ladies". Even after dinner they took a walk to admire Sion's two castles, still glaring at one another from neighbouring hills.
A "commodious carriage" ascended from Sion through hillsides of Muscat vines into the secluded valley leading to Leukerbad, the stage in a great amphitheatre of mountains. Jemima commented on the "merry little grasshoppers which lined the road by thousands … and making a noise not less incessant than the buzzing looms in Lancashire". They can still be heard, but not from the PostBus that winds up the valley from Leuk station; I took the bus from Leukerbad to the jewel of a densely nucleated Alpine village of Alpinen – where alleyways are too narrow for a cow to pass between the near-black chalets and tiny staddle-stoned barns – and it was here that the volume of grasshoppers rivalled a tropical night.
Jemima's party was scathing about the fare at Leukerbad's Hotel des Frères Brunner; ironically today's hotel on the site, the Hotel Grichting & Badnerhof, has gourmet cuisine. Leukerbad still has one of the largest spa complexes in Switzerland and the Victorian party satisfied their curiosity about the un-British custom of soaking in thermal waters by peeking into the spa before tackling what remains one of the most challenging walks in the Swiss Alps, the ascent of the Gemmi. Etched into a 2,000-foot-high wall of rock, "the zig-zag perilous gallery" was created in the 18th century by Tyroleans. Though it was June, a hail of snowballs greeted the slower walkers as they neared the summit, Jemima taking a dim view of the use of umbrellas as shields.
Descending past the austere Daubensee to Kandersteg, they took a carriage to reach the steamer at Spiez on Lake Thun; today panoramic trains drop down the Kander River valley from the Lötschberg Tunnel, which opened 50 years after Jemima's visit. From Interlaken they visited the most famous part of the Bernese Oberland by carriage, admiring the "dust stream" of the Staubbach Falls and witnessed an avalanche on the Jungfrau from Wengernalp, the lonely station that gives an almost overpowering sense of the scale of the Mönch, Eiger and Jungfrau.
Moving on to Lake Brienz, the party tried to stay at the hotel beside the Giessbach Falls, predecessor to today's majestic period piece built in 1873–4, but all 150 rooms were full so they made do with a nearby chalet. The glorious panorama from the hotel terrace over the lake and mountains above Brienz can be little changed. They visited the Reichenbach Falls above Meiringen 30 years before publication of The Final Problem, Conan Doyle's short story in which Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty fought above the crashing waters and fell to their deaths.
Their final summit was Queen Victoria's favourite mountain, the Rigi, up which she was taken in a sedan chair. Jemima was assailed by cherry-sellers during her shank's pony ascent, 10 years before Europe's first mountain railway reached the summit. The final day was spent in Neuchâtel, where the great white hilltop castle towers over the city as it did in the mid-18th century when its governor was an exiled Jacobite. The party returned by what remains the most scenic railway route between Paris and Switzerland, via the beautiful Val-de-Travers, Pontarlier, Dole and Dijon.
How travel changes. Thomas Cook may have pioneered the guided expedition to the Alps in 1863, but in 2013 the company that bears his name has nothing organised: a trip called "Jemima Morrell's Victorian Adventure" is being run by Inntravel, an independent tour operator.
Thomas Cook as a firm has been having a torrid time, with a near-collapse in its share price, mass closures of its high street agencies and a clear-out of senior management. But at least its timetables arm can provide the 21st-century traveller with timely information through the European Rail Timetable.
Neither Jemima and her companions nor even Thomas Cook can have anticipated how this Swiss expedition would become the model for so much subsequent tourism. And the cost of the 21 days? A few pence short of £20.
Until 2 October, Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) is offering a trip entitled "Jemima Morrell's Victorian Adventure" from £1,740pp based on two sharing, including 12 nights' B&B, nine dinners and a four-day Swiss travel pass. Return rail fares from London to Bern start at £114 from Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk).
Hotel Vatel, Martigny (00 41 27 720 13 13; hotelvatel.ch). Doubles from Sfr139 (£97), room only.
Hotel Grichting & Badnerhof, Leukerbad (00 41 27 472 77 11; hotel-grichting.ch). Doubles from Sfr340 (£236), including breakfast.
Rigi-Kulm (00 41 880 18 88; rigikulm.ch). Doubles from Sfr228 (£158), including breakfast.
Grandhotel Giessbach (00 41 33 952 25 25; giessbach.ch). Doubles from Sfr230 (£160), including breakfast.
MySwitzerland.com; 00800 100 200 29.