In the Swiss footsteps of Byron

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Byron's expedition to the Swiss mountains is explored in new works to be performed at the City of London Festival. The first is tomorrow. The poet's journey also inspired John Walsh to follow his trail to the Jungfrau

In 1816 George Gordon, Lord Byron, left England in disgrace. His marriage to Annabella, Lady Byron, had broken down publicly, barely a year after the wedding. He was widely thought to be the father of his half-sister Augusta Leigh's child Elizabeth – and was rumoured to be a sodomite. Byron, who only four years earlier had been lionised by the public on the publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, was now vilified as a wife-beater, an incestuous adulterer and an abuser of boys. He was cut dead at society parties and trashed in gossip journals. Scurrilous cartoons showed him lying in the arms of an actress.

He made a list of all the historical reprobates to which he had been (unfavourably) compared: they included Caligula, Henry VIII, George III, Heliogabalus, Epicurus, Apicius and Nero; at least three were famous homosexuals. "He is completely lost in the opinion of the world," wrote Mary Godfrey to Thomas Moore. "I look on him as given up to every worthless excess for the rest of his life."

So he left. "Exiled from my country by a species of ostracism," as he wrote sadly. But his flight from England was to prove one of the most significant journeys, not only of his life, but of literary history.

He crossed the Channel to Ostend with his old friend John Hobhouse and his physician, John Polidori. They travelled to Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, thence to Cologne, Bonn, the craggy Drachenfels mountains and the forests of the Rhine. Wherever they went, he and his party were objects of notoriety and scandal. Byron's features were recognised everywhere; their arrival was announced in the local papers. In Geneva they met Shelley, his young wife Mary, and Claire Clairmont, Byron's lover. The four stayed there, entwined in romance and creative rivalry, for three months, mostly at the Villa Diodati by the lake. It was here, in mid-June, that Byron suggested they should all try their hand at a ghost story – and Mary Shelley, aged only 18, wrote Frankenstein.

On 29 August, Byron left for an expedition to the Swiss mountains. He saw his first avalanche, heard the roaring of ice springs below him, and slid alarmingly down the ridge of a glacier. He despaired of English tourists. At Mont Blanc, he found one lady asleep in a carriage "in the most anti-narcotic spot in the world!", and heard another declare, a wave of her hand taking in the immensity of summits, boulders, pine forests and torrents, "Did you ever see anything more rural?"

In September, they hit the Bernese Oberland, in the canton of Berne – according to Byron, "the district famous for cheese, liberty, property and no taxes". He kept an Alpine journal and, from 22-26 September, its gathering excitement is plain to see. After crossing Lake Thun, he arrived at Interlaken and "entered upon a range of scenes beyond all description or previous conception". He gazed in wonder at the Jungfrau mountain, the valley of Lauterbrunnen and its 900ft waterfall, the Staubbach Falls, which he compared to the long white tale of the pale horse upon which death is mounted in the Book of Revelations.

He climbed the Wengen mountain and recorded: "On one side, our view comprised the Jungfrau, with all her glaciers; then the Dent d'Argent [the Silberhorn] shining like truth; then the Little Giant [Kleine Eiger]; and the Great Giant [Grosse Eiger] and last, not least, the Wetterhorn... On the other, the clouds rose from the opposite valley, curling up perpendicular precipices like the foam of the ocean of hell during a spring tide." He rhapsodised about the town of Grindelwald, its glaciers "like a frozen hurricane". Later he saw the Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes would meet his twice-fictional demise a century later and, after watching the locals waltzing at Brienz, he returned to Interlaken, glumly noting, "The wild part of our tour is over ... my journal shall be as flat as my journey".

Byron's Alpine journal is a record of travel rather than mystic urgings, but its legacy was obvious. Filled with a new Wordsworthian passion for nature, and its power to affect the human mind, he wrote Manfred, a three-act "dramatic poem" about a reclusive demi-god and magician who lives alone on a mountain, maddened by guilt and longing extinction; instead he is tormented by the spirits of the universe who offer him everything but the death he desires.

Byron admitted to his publisher, John Murray, that he'd recently read Goethe, but "it was the Staubbach and the Jungfrau – and something else – much more than Faustus" that had made him write it. What was the "something else"? His private sorrow, mingled with guilt, embarrassment and his hatred of both the British upper classes and the reading public, the "spirits of the universe", who once offered him everything. From this cluster of images came his invention of this early Superman, brooding and solitary, a romantic hero dwarfed by the immensity of the natural world.

Manfred acquired a second and third life since its publication in June 1817. Schumann set it to music in 1852. Tchaikovsky's Opus 58 was the Manfred Symphony. Nietzsche was so impressed by the Byronic concept of the Superman, he was moved to write a piano piece. And now, the City of London Festival has been inspired to send a group of artists to the Jungfrau region, retracing the great man's steps: Judith Bingham the composer, Alberto Venzago the photographer, and Aidan Andrew Dun, the poet, have all contributed works to the festival.

How does the modern Byron follow his footsteps? You no longer need horses and guides: you need a Swiss Pass, which gives you unlimited travel, for four days or more, on all railways, boats and alpine "postbuses". It is, frankly, the only way to travel.

I took my 12-year-old daughter Clementine, who had never seen the Alps, or indeed any real mountains, before. We exclaimed, Byronesquely, at the height and immensity of Swiss double-decker trains, by the ever-presence on them of orange-wigged Dutch football fans, and the ubiquity in shops of Victorinox army knives and expensive cuckoo clocks. But she loved the ever-changing views.

Lake Thun is unchanged since Byron's time, wide and peaceful, fretted with small yachts. Interlaken, perched between the Thun and Brienz, has a boringly touristic main street, a charming old town called Untersee and a truly fabulous hotel, the Victoria-Jungfrau. Built as two separate hotels in 1854-6, and joined together 40 years later, it's a dream of Versailles glamour with lots of the original furniture: the candlelit, crystal-chandeliered Terrasse restaurant sparkles like a child's vision of elegance and features a cigar-smoker's bar; the main lobby is a cool boulevard of steel, glass and black decor – and the huge, luxurious spa is the finest I've ever come across. It's all eye-wateringly expensive, but a true destination hotel.

Clementine and I stayed in the more low-rent Hotel Interlaken, where Lord Byron himself parked awhile in 1816. It's an ancient site (as the Closter Guest House, it was mentioned in chronicles in 1323) but isn't wearing well; the decor is unchanged since the 1970s; the loo seats are plastic and the bathroom soap dispenser is the most grudging I've ever seen. The restaurant was unexpectedly good.

The mountains are, however, the point. You take the train to Lauterbrunnen, then two cable-cars yank you up to the mid-mountain village of Mürren, where you admire the green lower slopes of the Schilthorn, as white mist obscures the valley, then suddenly clears to reveal its glorious, awesome dimensions, the gigantic, graceful declivities folding into the valley's green floor.

Two cable-cars later and you're in the Piz Gloria, a viewing tower plonked on top of the Schilthorn: this is where they filmed On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the production designer created a revolving restaurant, which is still there. The visiting Swiss, German, Japanese and Indians (who flock to the Alps because they feature in so many Bollywood movies) jostle to get a seat in the revolving section, but nothing of interest can be seen through the windows; the summits are shrouded in mist. We ate our uninspired bratwurst rösti and Wiener schnitzel feeling we were in a student canteen in Croydon rather than a hi-tech pillbox perched on one of the highest eminences in Europe.

Never mind. Cable-carring down to Lauterbrunnen town is like parachuting into Arcadia: the town's sweet, cuckoo-clock chalets are dotted about a beautiful meadow between two sheer mountain walls. The Staubbach torrent that Byron admired still crashes down the sheer sides, spreading out like a horse's tail near the ground: you can follow a zigzag path and emerge through a tunnel into a ledge behind the cascade of water – but if the wind changes, you'll find most of the waterfall going straight down your neck.

The climactic trip involves a Toytown tram with wood-slatted seats that runs from Lauterbrunnen, through Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, through the frozen wastes of the Eiger to the Jungfraujoch, an observation deck just below the Jungfrau summit. The tram ride is fantastic, with its splendid views of the Big Three – the Eiger (Ogre) Monch (Monk) and Jungfrau (Virgin) – gradually coming into focus.

Sudden splashes of little waterfalls distract you from the awesome view over the giant valley. And then you're at the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe, where the air is so thin that you feel as if you're about to faint, and signs tell tourists to go easy on the stairs. Up above, on the Phoenix open-air platform, a brace of lanky Holland supporters in comical footie gear are filming each other. Again, there's not much of a view – the massive panorama is denied us once again – but then a sudden clearance of wind lets you glimpse the immense, white, soft shoulder of an adjacent Alp, its unimaginable vastness half-turned away from you as through there could be no point in your seeing it plainly. It's like a completely alien being – you have no business here, disturbing its ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep.

The descent is lovely, as the green foothills and valley views unfold before you like a gorgeous film; the town of Grindelwald, perched beneath the biggest mountains, is a joy to walk around. But it nags at your heart a little to think how much Byron's Alpine trip – that inspired his creation of Manfred on the mountain – was a success only because the weather was fine. It's shocking to think that one of the key images of Western Romanticism might never have been, had the weather in September 1816 been as rubbish as in June 2008.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

John Walsh travelled to the Jungfrau region as a guest of Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30; myswitzerland.com).

Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com/uk) offers return flights to Zurich, Geneva and Basel from £49. The Swiss Travel System (00800 100 200 30; swisstravelsystem.co.uk) offers passes and tickets for exploring the country by train, bus and boat.

Hotel Interlaken (00 41 33 826 68 68; Interlakenhotel.ch) offers b&b in a double room from Sfr290 (£138) per room per night. Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa (00 41 33 828 28 28; Victoria-jungfrau.ch) offers b&b in a double room from Sfr680 (£323) per room per night.

ABOUT THE FESTIVAL

The City of London Festival (0845 120 7502; colf.org) features two concerts related to the Jungfrau. John Sessions and David Owen Norris perform a programme of words and music telling the story of Byron's exile from England, with music by Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann and a new commission by Judith Bingham, at 8pm tomorrow at Mercers' Hall, Ironmonger Lane, London EC2. Eleanor Bron and Counterpoise perform the London premiere of Edward Rushton's 'On the Edge', a Swiss melodrama with music and poetry by Liszt, Schubert, Strauss, Wagner, Goethe and Shelley, at 7.30pm on 10 July at Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, London EC1.

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