The Wye Tour and the Picturesque
Visitors to the Wye Valley today are following in the footsteps of many an eighteenth century traveller, sketchbook in hand, eagerly pursuing the British equivalent of the European Grand Tour. The man who popularised the Wye Tour, promoted the area for its 'Picturesque' beauty, and contributed to its reputation as the birthplace of British Tourism, was the Reverend William Gilpin. The pioneer of the 'Picturesque', he saw the landscape as 'expressive of that peculiar beauty which is agreeable in a picture.'
His writings influenced the remarkable popularity of English landscape painting during the last decade of the 18th Century, and inspired the Romantic poets. Gilpin’s ‘Observations on the River Wye’ appeared in print in 1782, although his journey actually took place in 1770. Arguably the first tour guide to be published in Britain, it was one of a series of illustrated guidebooks to help travellers locate and enjoy the most ‘Picturesque’ aspects of the countryside. In fact, it was many years earlier, in 1745 that the true originator of the 'Wye Tour', Dr John Egerton, started taking friends on boat trips down the Valley from the rectory at Ross-on-Wye. Little did he know that he had started a trend, and once Gilpin’s guidebook was published, demand grew so much that by 1808 there were eight boats winding their way down the Wye.
The Wye Valley was witnessing the birth of British tourism. By 1850 more than 20 of the more literate 'tourists' had published their own accounts of the Wye Tour. Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of Gilpin’s day made the pilgrimage to the great sights of Goodrich, Tintern and Chepstow - among them Pope, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thackeray and Turner. The many guidebooks, engravings and paintings ensured a continuing steady stream of visitors. Some of these works are today held in the collections at Chepstow and Monmouth Museums.
The first of Britain’s great landscapes to be ‘discovered’, the Wye Valley’s particular attraction was its river scenery. The Wye’s meandering course through the Herefordshire Lowlands and especially through the Wye Gorge was and remains alluring to visitors. Most of the truly ‘Picturesque’ scenes were sketched from river level, with the shimmering water as the foreground for the brooding forests and cliffs behind. It was also accessible and small in area: the tour was a linear one, unless you carried on into South Wales. The Wye Valley was also a landscape of ruins, including the castles of Wilton, Goodrich and Chepstow, and ruins were very important to the notion of the Picturesque.
The arrival of the railway in 1876 made the valley even more accessible. In the early 1900s, crowds of up to 1300 would travel on a special train journey to see Tintern Abbey on the night of the harvest moon. Today, the Wye Gorge between Ross on Wye and Chepstow is one of the best known and most visited landscapes in southern Britain.
Tintern Abbey was undoubtedly the most eagerly awaited stop on the Wye Tour. 'A more pleasing retreat could not easily be found' wrote Gilpin in 1770, drawing attention to the mixture of woods and glades, the winding river, the splendid ruin and the surrounding hills, which ‘make all together a very enchanting piece of scenery.’ Wordsworth was also captivated by the abbey and its setting, observing in 1798 in his ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ (actually written in a wood above Llandogo).
The ‘steep and lofty cliffs’, the waters ‘rolling from their mountain springs with a sweet inland murmur’ and the ‘wild green landscape.’ One of the many tourists to marvel at this view was the Romantic poet Coleridge(1772-1834) who wrote: ‘Oh what a godly scene... The whole world seemed imaged in its vast circumference.’
The earliest known aesthetic appreciation of the Wye Valley’s spectacular views and natural beauty can be dated back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century, when John Kyrle developed the ‘Prospect’ at Ross-on-Wye. Kyrle selected his viewpoints not because of their strategic value in military or commercial terms, but because they commanded a good view over the surrounding landscape.
As a consequence of the ‘Picturesque’ Wye Tour even more ‘viewpoints’ arose at points along the Wye Valley. They include those at Upper and Lower Wyndcliff near Chepstow, Yat Rock, and Capler Camp. The viewpoints split into two categories: the views from the river and the views of the river from the cliffs and hills above. Today, it is the higher views that are the most popular; ironically, few of them are classically ‘Picturesque’ in Gilpin’s terms.
Enthusiasts of the Picturesque, inspired by Gilpin, meet to this day. The Picturesque Society, an international society, based in Herefordshire, was formed in 1992 to encourage research into the origins, history and achievements of the Picturesque Movement.