The English need to travel

Wanderer Above the Sea Fog (c. 1818) by Caspar David Friedrich.

Snippets 154.  Last week we looked at a quote from John Bull and His Island (1883), by Max O’Rell, in which the author (who hailed from France) examines the peculiar character of the English and what sets them apart from the rest of the world.  It is an amusing book, often satirical, but O’Rell’s admiration for the country and its people also shines through.

Being part of the community of WordPress blogs for a few years has been an interesting experience.  I have not just posted here myself, but also spent a lot of time enjoying the writing of other bloggers, and one thing that has really struck me is the abundance of interesting travel blogs.  It seems to be the big thing on WordPress.  The following quote might help to illustrate the wanderlust that exists in many of us, which perhaps is an innate quality, for the English and probably elsewhere.

Call the Englishman wild, eccentric, — mad, if you will; but to do great things one must not hesitate at straying from the beaten track. He will brave every conceivable danger in order to be able to say that he has climbed to the summit of Mont Blanc, or that he has been nearer the North Pole than any other explorer.

Obstinate as a mule, stubborn as a bull-dog, the difficulties in his path will but act as incentives to him. He has traced himself a programme: nothing will prevent his carrying it out. He leaves England with his diary written beforehand. He has settled to be at the top of a certain mountain at a certain time; he is bound to be there : and I promise you that, if he has not rolled down some precipice, there you will find him…

Every Englishman of good family can manage a boat, drive a carriage, and is at home in the saddle. Accustomed from his childhood to bodily exercise, he thinks nothing of a hundred mile walk or a row from London to Oxford. A walking tour from London to Edinburgh is not at all an uncommon thing to hear of. The outfit of an English tourist is no encumbrance to him: he puts into a bag a flannel shirt, a dozen collars, and a couple of pairs of socks and, stick in hand, off he goes. I know one who walked last year as far as the north of Scotland. His friends teased him for having made up his mind to take the train to the border. “A little pluck,” said they to him, “do the whole on foot while you are at it, your railway ticket will destroy all the merit and charm of the affair.” The year previous, during the summer holidays, he had walked a distance of over a thousand miles in Norway.

This habit of walking is kept up by Englishmen to a very advanced age. Go to the provinces, you may there see old men doing their five or six miles every day; when they knock off, it is to take to their beds, and prepare to go and sleep in Abraham’s bosom. In the country, in France, our old men, gouty or crippled with rheumatism for the most part, pass half the day at table; after their dinner, you may see them leaning on the arm of an old servant, crawling along the public promenades.

In France, a man is often old at sixty; the effects of a youth, too often spent in dissipation, and of a life in most cases sedentary, become sadly apparent, and if he live to a great age, the closing years of his existence are a burden to himself and to those around him.

…but such is not the case in England: here every one dies of a green old age. I have an old friend in his eighty-eighth year, who, summer and winter, religiously takes his tub every morning, and who would not think of sitting down to luncheon without first having done his three or four miles. He is bright, cheery, will sing you a song at dessert, and never forgets to tell you of the peas he means to sow next year. Methinks he will gather many a bushel yet.

It is very difficult to find reliable sources for life expectancy at the tail end of the 19th Century, in order to back up O’Rell’s claims, but it does seem that France was lagging behind Britain by a few years.  The figures were also highly skewed in those days by infant mortality, so tended to be more a reflection of that, rather than how well people fared in later years.  However, O’Rell makes a compelling argument for the benefits of an active lifestyle.

The painting that illustrates this snippet is by Caspar David Friedrich, my favourite artist.  If you are not familiar with his work, do a search for The Stages of Life and Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, both incredibly beautiful, atmospheric and meaningful paintings.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Britain, History, Inspiration, People, Snippets, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The English need to travel

  1. I like the title..john bull etc.. it’s rare that I come across European views of the English.


  2. Ged Maybury says:

    I would hazard the guess that O’Rell’s view of the fit/adventurous Englishman was strongly coloured by the company he kept. Hanging out with well-fed aristocracy – with lives full of discretionary income and free from relentless toil in some cruddy working-class job. O’Rell would certainly see plenty of spry chaps as described.
    Methinks he also had a low opinion of the French in general (and perhaps it was well-earned!)


    • I think you’re right about the company he kept. In his day he was one of the most famous writers in the world (although sadly forgotten now) so he lived the lifestyle that went with that. As for his opinion of the French, being French himself it was mixed, but then his opinions of every country was mixed. The funniest of all is his writing about America, in particular in “A Frenchman in America”. Love that book.


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