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GRAND TOURS AND COOK'S TOURS: a History of Leisure Travel 1750-1975. Lynne Whithey. Aurum. pound;18.95.

The invention of the package tour by Thomas Cook in 1841 was only one step in a history of the English abroad that spans more than two centuries. Harry Ritchie travels back in time.

One of the great myths of our time is that there was once a golden age of travel when one journeyed at a civilised pace in luxury to empty beaches and vine-covered bars where tuppence would buy a choice meal and the owner's tearful respect. In this perceptive, intelligent and well-researched study, Lynne Whithey quietly chips away at the common notion that tourism ain't what it used to be - by the simple method of describing the reality of tourism in the past.

The notion that someone could travel abroad to have a good time - rather than to flee persecution or kill foreigners - developed only recently, in the mid-18th century. For the best part of the next 100 years, the concept of "leisure travel" remained an Anglo-Saxon one. In 1830 Alexandre Dumas reflected that tourism was "the third British invention to overturn the world, with humour and the steam engine".

Until well into the Victorian period, foreign travel was confined not only to Britons but to Britons who were young, male and rich. But the aristocratic blades like James Boswell and William Beckford who ventured abroad in the 18th century didn't go too far, sticking to the itinerary that comprised the "Grand Tour": Paris, Geneva, Rome, Florence and, time and energy permitting, a couple of other Italian cities. The young blades were supposed to be immersing themselves in the local culture of these parentless treks to immerse themselves in the local taverns and brothels as well.

The legacy of the Romans and the Renaissance made Italy a high point of the Grand Tour until post-revolutionary Paris took over by offering the novel attractions of public museums and strange, new-fangled establishments called restaurants. Romantic ideas about the wild and the sublime in nature soon turned Switzerland into a choice destination - so much so that in 1820, in a remote Alpine village, William and Dorothy Wordsworth were disconcerted to come across friends from England. But the wild and the sublime could be found much closer to home, in places also lauded by the Romantic poets. Just as the work of Sir Walter Scott acted as a brochure for the Trossachs, so Wordsworth's poetry inspired thousands to see his beloved Lake District.

Wordsworth failed to appreciate the irony that he had played a vital part in promoting Cumbria's burgeoning tourist industry - his poem "The Brothers" opens with the lament, "These tourists, heaven preserve us!" More and more places, at home and abroad, attracted more and more visitors who were taking advantage of the Victorians' rapidly expanding railway network. This in turn speeded up the flight of the upper-class from once-exclusive resorts, a classic example being the royal family's abandonment of Brighton after the rail link from London opened in 1841.

That same year a young and enterprising lay preacher called Thomas Cook hit on the idea of chartering trains for group excursions to local temperance meetings in the Midlands. Soon Cook progressed to organising trips to the seaside and to Scotland, and then, in 1851, to the Great Exhibition in London.

Although Cook soon faced competition from the likes of Henry Lunn (whose brand-name also lives on, in Lunn Poly), his brainwave of providing accommodation as well as transport ensured spectacular success. By 1900 the Thomas Cook agency was selling six million tickets a year.

Cook had been inspired by Christian idealism as well as by profit, for he thought that rich and poor alike had the right to travel, and that by exercising that right travellers would break down barriers of class and nationality. But Thomas Cook and his tourists had to contend with the intolerance of the British elite, who castigated the new class of travellers as fools, lacking in initiative, incapable of appreciating the places they visited, and driven by stupidity and fear to travel in packs.

The same criticisms had been made of the 18th-century rakes on their Grand Tours, but the rakes' descendants chose to ignore that fact as they sought ever-more exclusive resorts, such as Nice, Cannes and St Moritz, while castigating the "herds" and "flocks" of tourists.

Though she doesn't make the point, Whithey shows how leisure travel - like education, literacy, a varied diet, adequate shelter and a say in government - was once the preserve of a privileged minority but has gradually become, over the past 150 years, available to the majority. This development has been industrial capitalism's greatest triumph, but you would never guess it from the vilification of state schools, newspapers, tinned food, suburbs, an extended franchise - and popular tourism.

My only regret about this fine book is that it stops at 1915, when, for all Thomas Cook's efforts, foreign travel was still for most people an impossibly exotic notion - unless, of course, you were young and male, in which case you could pay a probably fatal visit to northern France. I hope Whithey writes a sequel, one that describes the period that has the strongest claims to be travel's golden age, when truly affordable package tours meant that millions of people could go on foreign trips - out of uniform. I'd say that golden age started around 1975.

Harry Ritchie's 'The Last Pink Bits' is published by Sceptre (pound;6.99)

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