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First-Class Travel: A Brief History

Posted 10.05.17  - Culture

Right from the very beginning of leisure travel, when only the richest could afford to cross the English Channel to visit Europe, the object of the exercise was always to do so in style.

Such journeys to the ‘Continent’, which date back to the 1600s, would take months or even years, and were called the Grand Tour (from where we get the word ‘tourism’). Intrepid travellers braved the hardships of terrible roads, unseasonal weather and the constant threat of highwaymen, but were rewarded by being the first British travellers to get as far as Paris or even Venice, where all things Renaissance and Baroque broadened the mind.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, the whole idea of travel had changed. Gone were years of self-improvement in the great cultural centres of Europe. What the modern Victorian wanted was something a little more exotic. By enlisting the services of the Derbyshire entrepreneur Thomas Cook, you could now take a steamer along the Nile, following in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, past the Great Pyramids of Giza and all the way to Abu Simbel. Back in the day, a three-week return cruise from Cairo to Aswan, on a state-of-the-art paddle steamer, complete with ‘luxurious state rooms, private bath-rooms and unrivalled comfort’ would set you back a mere £70.

Paul McCartney performed a spontaneous set of Beatles songs on board [a Concorde], while Joan Collins apparently reserved a seat for her dog.

As always, the problem with long distance travel was that of time. And so when the ‘railway age’ reached its zenith in the early 20th century, crossing Europe on the Orient Express compressed the experience from months to weeks. Weaving its way across Europe to either Athens or Istanbul, this was the ultimate in style, where in the restaurant carriage you would rub shoulders with aristocracy or even royalty. Dressing for dinner has always been de rigueur on the Orient Express, but for those with a taste for blood, this was the train that pursued Count Dracula across Europe in Bram Stoker’s tale of terror. It also gives its name to one of Agatha Christie’s most famous thrillers, while it’s hard to forget the scene in From Russia with Love that takes place on the Orient Express.

Crossing the Atlantic in style once meant taking a grand ocean steamship, where even the quickest of the quick took at least four days. But with the dawn of the Sixties, there could only be one way to cross ‘the pond’: Concorde. At the time, there was a wonderful advert that summed up everything you needed to know about the world’s first supersonic airliner: ‘If you were flying the Concorde tomorrow you’d wear a Rolex.’ In 11 words of copywriting genius we are taken out of the tedium of long haul and into a world of unashamed glamour and eye-watering expense. Paul McCartney performed a spontaneous set of Beatles songs on board, while it was rumoured that Joan Collins reserved a seat for her dog. Where Concorde set the world alight was that it was so fast you could fly to America on a day trip. It was literally a time machine: you would leave Heathrow early in the morning and be in the Big Apple an hour before you took off, ready for lunch in Manhattan and dinner back in Mayfair.

From supersonic flight it’s only one small step to space tourism. And although it’s still in the realms of science fiction, private space flight could soon become a matter of science fact. Richard Branson is predicting that his company Virgin Galactic will be providing orbital voyages for fee-paying customers within a decade. Those rich enough to reach for the stars will join a very elite band of adventurer. In the entire history of space exploration only 559 people have left the earth’s atmosphere. So what do you get for your $250,000? A two-hour flight reaching 62 miles above the planet, a few moments of weightlessness, and the greatest view of Earth you’ll ever see.

Nick Smith - Management Editor of Engineering & Technology magazine and UK Contributing Editor of the Explorers Journal

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