Cornwall and Kamtschatka: Domesticating Cornwall through Pedestrian Travel in Wilkie Collins’s Rambles Beyond Railways (1851)

This article is officially about Wilkie Collins’s and Henry Brandling’s illustrated narrative of their walking tour of Cornwall in 1850, but like all proper travelogues, I need to begin somewhere else. Specifically, I need to embark with a brief synopsis of another travel narrative from the other side of the world and 25 years earlier, namely, Royal Navy Captain John Dundas Cochrane’s 1824 Narrative of a Pedestrian Journey through Russia and Siberian Tartary. Why? Collins does not mention Cochrane’s text directly in his book, and his early statement that his and Brandling’s desire to ‘walk where fewest strangers had walked before’ forces them to choose between the two most obscure places they could think of—Cornwall and Kamtschatka—hardly proves a significant connection between the two adventures. However, because Collins himself invokes an imaginative comparison between the two places before he even begins his journey, the prior existence of Cochrane’s narrative and the two adventures’ shared mode of travel make Collins’s comparison of Cornwall and Kamtschatka more significant than a mere throwaway phrase for dramatic effect. Indeed, I argue here that Cochrane’s 1824 text informs Collins’s 1850 narrative in important ways: it establishes both the idiomatic style of narration as well as the idiomatic method of travel as particularly worthwhile and especially English. Ultimately, it is not just their respective (or imagined) isolation that brings Cornwall and Kamtschatka together, but perhaps more importantly, how the travellers, Collins and Cochrane, move through them.1

More than merely writing a parallel narrative or literary homage to Cochrane’s journey, Collins’s later travelogue joins Cochrane’s in revising the conception of travel for nineteenth-century English audiences: it rejects both the overscripted itineraries of contemporary travel, as well as the cultural snobbery associated with observing the ‘exotic’ from the safety of the standard imperial or tourist gaze. By reading Collins’s narrative as tourist anti-script, Rambles Beyond Railways thus presents a much more nuanced and sympathetic view of Cornwall than recent critics have interpreted, and gives Collins credit for doing something more interesting than playing to urban stereotypes about the English countryside. Indeed, I argue that Collins’s travelogue actively dismantles such stereotypes: in walking through Cornwall by choice, Collins takes the region from the cliché of timeless ‘primitive traditions and folklore,… superstitious natives and dramatic landscapes’ to the present day, and brings it from the ‘“frightening” edge of England’ all the way home to the centre of English culture (Trower 202, 203).

A New Agenda

A walking tour across Russia was not Captain Cochrane’s first choice; in 1820 he had applied, as a Captain in the Royal Navy, to the Admiralty for permission to undertake a pedestrian expedition for ‘ascertaining the course and determination of the river Niger’ (Cochrane 1:3). Having already ‘traversed on foot the beautiful countries of France, Spain, and Portugal’ as well as having made ‘two trips from Quebec to Lake Ontario,’ Cochrane’s reputation as a walker was already well established (1:3-4). The Admiralty rejected this proposal, and Cochrane remained unsure ‘whether from tender regard to the safety of [his] person, or because they considered such an expedition foreign to their department,’ involving as it did a captain without a ship (1:5). Cochrane then applied for and was granted two years of leave, and chose to walk from one end of Russia to the other, from St Petersburg to Okotsk. Cochrane’s itinerary took him out of England, but also out of his official role as representative of English imperial authority. In rejecting his identity as a member of England’s international elite, Cochrane was also better able to reject the popular sites for tourist travel in the region and to go it alone.

In 1824, Cochrane published his popular Narrative of his three-year-long walking tour through what he termed ‘a country considered as next to impassable’ (1:v). The book was in its third edition by 1825, when he left on a walking tour of Colombia. In each edition’s successive Preface, Cochrane responded to his critics, and in the second edition, he specifically referred to criticism concerning his mode of travel: ‘The few critics who have in any way censured the peculiar mode of travelling adopted by the Author in the prosecution of his journey, may rest assured, that in no other manner could he have proceeded to the extremities of Asia’ (1: xii). Eastern Russia’s extreme geography aside, Cochrane’s defence referred both to his civilian identity as well as his pedestrian mode: as a civilian traveller rather than a representative of Imperial Britain, and as a walker rather than a passenger, Cochrane argued he was better able to embrace life with his Russian companions, ‘studying their manners and customs, partaking of their amusements, showing respect to their religion and otherwise conforming’ to life as it was lived ‘in the wilds of Tartary’ (1:vi, ix).

Known internationally as the ‘Pedestrian Traveller,’ Cochrane walked across Europe and into northern Russia. He slept both in small auberges and private homes (and sometimes by the roadside), working and wandering alongside people he met and eventually falling in love with and marrying a Kamtschadale woman, which ended his tour (‘so much then for my travellership’ [1:428]). For the success of his trip, Cochrane specifically credited his rejection of all the trappings of the fully-equipped traveller, as well as those of official Admiralty material and pecuniary support: by relying instead ‘upon [his] own individual exertions and knowledge of man,’ Cochrane asserted, he remained ‘unfettered by the frailties and misconduct of others’ (1:4). For Cochrane, walking was the key to successful travel: it afforded him the most direct access to the life of the region he moved through by allowing him to interact with the local people. Moving at the same pace as Russia’s most isolated inhabitants, Cochrane ‘studied to accommodate [him]self to their manners. [He] uniformly ate, drank, and slept with them; dressed in the same way: bore a part of their fatigues, and participated in their recreations, and [made himself] an acceptable, instead of a disagreeable guest’ (2:268). By accommodating himself to local circumstances, rather than relying on a scripted schedule, Cochrane avoided what he termed ‘the rocks and shoals which travellers usually split upon’ (2:268). For Cochrane, these ‘rocks and shoals’ were the ‘well-lined purse’ and the ‘great foresight’ of pre-trip organisation, which was, according to him, detrimental to the travel experience, begetting ‘timidity or distrust’ in both the local and traveller alike (2:270). By walking with nothing but what he could carry, Cochrane was ‘dependent only upon [his] reception’ by those he encountered, and he tramped through Kamtschatka with little but the clothes on his back (and sometimes not even those), meeting consistently with ‘the most cordial good-will’ of the people he met (2:270, 1:90).

A generation later, Collins—a diminutive, bespectacled, urban-dwelling, sensation fiction writer—seems a far cry from the dashing and intrepid Cochrane, whose years in Tartary garnered him both a wife and the public ire of his Admiralty employers, but through the philosophical underpinnings of their respective travel narratives Collins and Cochrane have much in common. Specifically, Collins’s travel narrative of his time in Cornwall, Rambles Beyond Railways, articulates an approach to travel that is parallel to Cochrane’s in that he, too, conscientiously dispenses with the conventional tourist trappings of the period (much more developed by the time Collins hit the road) and prefers an immersive approach, an approach at odds with the popular Cook tours and organised guidebooks from John Murray insinuating themselves along the newly opened passenger railways and beyond. As Marjorie Morgan and others have noted, the growth of tourism was directly correlated with the growth of the railway in the nineteenth century; Morgan terms it the ‘democratization of travel,’ with Cook’s tours and Murray’s popular Handbooks ‘For Travellers’ sparking the ‘touring frenzy’ (13, 15). Such handbooks led to the establishment of a standardised view, and John Hannavy notes that the ‘tourist traditions and expectations’ established in the mid-1840s ‘endure to this day’ (10). Even at its inception, however, Collins’s walking tour represents something wholly different. Just as Cochrane shed his uniform in 1820, an official identity which would certainly have restricted both his movements and his interactions with locals, in 1850 Collins rejects the organised tourist script, eschewing the ‘volumes of excellent books which amuse us with the personal experiences and adventures of travellers in every [other] part of the habitable globe’ (Collins 4). Instead, Collins chooses to ‘walk where fewest strangers had walked before,’ in a ‘savage’ region equalled in its isolation only, he contends, by the barrens of Kamtschatka: Cornwall (5, 4).

Like Cochrane in Kamtschatka, on his walking tour Collins advocates what one might call a tourist anti-script, to play on Derek Gregory’s concept of tourist guides as ‘scripting’ travellers’ experiences of the places through which they moved (Gregory 115). Instead, Collins frames his journey ironically, paralleling the novelty of this travelling method to the alleged obscurity of his chosen locale. Critics such as Paul Young take Collins’s identification of Cornwall as ‘savage’ seriously, arguing that Collins narrates his travels there in a consistently ‘Gothic register’ that calls attention to Cornwall’s temporal and cultural separation from modern England (Young 56). According to Shelley Trower, such images of Cornwall were perpetuated and exacerbated in both tourist guides and fiction of the period, identifying Cornwall as the ‘“frightening” edge of England,… where anything might happen,’ a trope she also identifies in Collins’s narrative (Trower 203). But whereas Trower and Young opine that Collins’s book contributes to this gothic conception of the region, I want to argue instead that, in fact, Collins actually consistently pushes against this trope. That Collins’s definition of Cornwall as ‘savage’ is ironic seems obvious from his conflation of the southwest English coast with the northern tip of Eastern Russia: it moves in one phrase from the picturesque to the ridiculous. Indeed, as Collins unequivocally records, only those ignorant of Cornwall’s charms see the region as a ‘horribly dreary country, where you could expect to do nothing but tumble down mines, and lose yourself in pathless moors … [and] be cheated, robbed, and kidnapped’ (Collins 5). He contrasts these stereotypes with the charming accounts of things to ‘see and do in the far West of England’ from those few he speaks to who have ‘really been in Cornwall’ (5). His ironic invocation of Cornwall as ‘savage’ thus calls attention to his readers’ preconceptions of the region as a gothic locale, but as Collins consistently shows, this impression is based on prejudice, not reality.

Supporting this ironic reading of the gothic register is Collins’s ready acknowledgement that, even as he and Brandling arrived in Cornwall, the inaccessibility of the location and cultural isolation of the people were a growing and even obvious fiction. As Collins notes in his first chapter, the railway was expanding into the region as he and his companion Brandling were tramping through it, and they were mistaken on at least one occasion for ‘mappers… coming to make a railroad,’ clear evidence that the accoutrements of modern life were not leaving Cornwall behind (57).2 I would argue that Collins uses such clichés for dramatic effect: by playing with the tropes of the conventional travel narrative, Rambles Beyond Railways reveals Cornwall’s reputation as profoundly isolated as a fiction. Specifically, Collins self-consciously employs the conventions of the genre that exoticise the observed Other, both spatially and culturally, by applying these clichés to the English themselves. He thus calls attention to the architecture of artifice that defines travel writing by making such comparisons ridiculous, and therefore visible. With this ironic overlay, Rambles suggests that the people of Cornwall are representative not of an essential foreignness, as Trower and Young interpret, but actually of the national character. Indeed, love of country— ‘we were patriotic’—is the initial reason Collins claims he and Brandling choose Cornwall over Kamtschatka, and he sets out to celebrate Cornwall’s inclusion in the national body, rather than its exclusion (5).  To illustrate his point, Collins employs the metaphor of a unified, living organism: Cornwall is at the border, but remains vital to the centre, ‘just as in the beating of a single artery under the touch, we discover an indication of the strength or weakness of the whole vital frame’ (52). Collins’s agenda of national good will, even at the country’s extreme edge, is a testament to the robust good health of the whole English nation, and Cornwall is most certainly included.

An Open Itinerary

Jack Simmons argues that ‘[b]efore the opening of the railway, Cornwall was almost unknown’ to outsiders, but guidebooks did already exist for the region: Baker Peter Smith’s 1840 A Trip to the Far West predates Collins’s travelogue by a decade (213).3 Official guidebooks were not far behind: even as Collins was publishing his own account, John Murray’s first edition of Hand-book for Travellers in Devon and Cornwall were hitting the bookstands.4  In 1850, however, the options were wide open, for as Collins’s own research showed (he and Brandling ‘asked in vain, at all the towns, for a guide book’), there appeared a dearth of resources for tourists in the region (66). Even as he conducted his tour, Collins remained unsure what kind of travel book he would write; on 29 July 1850, he expressed his intention to his mother to produce ‘a book of some kind,’ for which he ‘journalize[d] diligently’ (Letters 64). Beyond its unique significance as Cornwall’s first popular travelogue, Collins’s narrative fills an unusual niche, for even while it opens the region to the tourist gaze, it eschews the accepted authoritative positions—the ‘compulsion and regimentation’ of sightseeing—increasingly common in travelogues of the period (Gregory 136). These authoritative positions were constructions found not only in guidebooks, but also in writing handbooks for travellers, resources intended to help those wishing to record their experiences, either privately or for publication, which in turn helped to standardise what made it into travelogues themselves. Colonel Julian Jackson’s 1841 What to Observe, or The Traveller’s Remembrancer, for instance, was touted by an advertisement in the Literary Gazette as ‘a work that should be in the hands of everyone, especially those who intend to travel with a view to publication’ (18 Aug 1849: 616). Jackson’s instruction manual offered 600 pages of questions to answer and instructions to follow wherever the reader roamed, and defined travel as nothing less than an extreme endeavour for ‘those adventurous and ardent spirits who wander undaunted among hostile tribes, braving every obstacle and enduring every hardship in search of knowledge’ (Jackson iv). In Collins’s Rambles, however, these tropes of adventure travel—‘hostile tribes,’ the endurance of ‘every hardship’—become an ironic overlay, with the domestic consistently overwriting the exotic. The ‘hostile tribe’ is a group of squalling babies awaiting inoculation, while the greatest hardship Collins and Brandling endure is a dark salon in a depressing inn that is not to their liking (Collins 127). Significantly, Collins undermines the exoticism of the local people: the uniform ‘assistance and the kindness’ with which they greet Collins at every village and town bely the image of Cornish people as ‘superstitious natives,’ as Trower claims Collins identifies them (Trower 202). Instead, Collins actually argues that when ‘personally known,’ the Cornish locals are defined ‘by their virtues’ (Collins 60).

Like Cochrane, who ardently defines his tour as a ‘personal narrative’ rather than as an official account (Cochrane 1:xvi), Collins too distances himself from the tourist rabble, and babble, by producing ‘the story of a holiday walk,’ ‘a simple fireside story’ (Collins 61, 60). Indeed, this was the aspect of Cochrane’s narrative that drew the most pointed criticism from some in the exploration community. Though he described meals, sleeping arrangements, songs, and clothing of people he met, Cochrane received public censure from John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, for being lax in his astronomical and other scientific and statistical records.5 However, like Cochrane, who remained proud to say that his account was free from the encumbrances of any official agenda, Collins delights in the idiomatic style both of his travel and his narration. He draws his inspiration not from a planned itinerary, but from the moments and people he unexpectedly encounters. This is not to say, however, that Collins is exempt from all traps of the ‘invisible eye/I’ that Mary Louise Pratt identifies as the hallmark of the imperial traveller (125). Indeed, Gregory notes in his examination of tourist accounts of Egyptian travel in the period that the ‘quasi-apologetic’ titles of personal travelogues—like Collins’s humble subtitle, Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot— ‘did nothing to diminish the knowing style of their prose’ (118). But if Collins employs certain tropes of travel writing, like his ‘quasi-apologetic tone,’ they throw those he undermines into sharper relief. For example, Collins leaves his travelogue intentionally incomplete, and he calls attention to his omissions in order to distinguish his own narrative from what he considers the ‘bad practice of [other] travel-writers’ who feel compelled to record everything as a way of validating their authority (62). Conventional guidebooks confirmed the legitimacy (and authority) of the tourist’s presence and gaze, and thus protected the tourist within a framework of ‘the familiar’ by offering what Gregory calls a ‘script,’ turning the objects, people, and locations with which they came into contact into a ‘narrativized sequence of interactions [and] the staging of particular places’ considered by the guide writers to be of interest to readers and travellers (116). Tours thus offered not so much an immersion in the culture and place being observed, but rather a ‘dispersed exhibition’ in which ‘[p]laces [were] signposted so that tourists [could] find them as “sites” and locate them within an imaginative landscape where they become meaningful as “sights”’ (134, 116). It is true that Collins hits the Cornwall highlights—St. Cleer’s Well, the Cheese-Wring, the Botallack Mines, the Lizard—but he makes no pretension to offer an authoritative account of Cornwall, actively resisting what he interprets as reader pressure to ‘ransack newspapers and Reports to furnish materials for recording in detail’ the statistics of the region, even calling attention to the strangeness of his single inclusion of statistics (on the pilchard fishery) by italicising the distasteful word ‘data’ (Collins 60, 90).

Rather than adhering to the ‘scripted’ and ‘objective geography’ of contemporary guidebooks, Collins valorizes the personal experience of travel (Gregory 134). Indeed, in celebration of the joie de vivre that comes with idiomatic travel, Collins deliberately obscures portions of his trip, skipping ‘over five intermediate market towns and two large villages, with a mere dash of the pen’ because he does not feel like talking about them, and he almost petulantly refuses to provide the statistics he knows his readers want (Collins 62). Moreover, whereas Gregory also observes that ‘even those [nineteenth-century tourists] of a more adventurous disposition … were usually careful to maintain some sort of distance between themselves and local people,’ over and over again Collins and Brandling intentionally collapse that distance, sitting outside the pilchard processing house to chat with the old men, making an omelette for an overworked matron in her own kitchen, and ‘cheer[ing] away with the rest’ of the spectators during the annual pilchard harvest  ‘as if [their] bread depended on’ it (Gregory 119; Collins 85). Like Cochrane’s, Collins’s efforts seem to focus on making himself ‘an acceptable… guest’ among his generous hosts (Cochrane 2:268). Likewise, like Cochrane, Collins claims to rely solely on personal experience, ‘little anecdotes … in illustration of popular character’ that he can only gain by actual interaction with locals (Collins 52). Visible and accessible on the paths and highroads, and carrying only what he can bear on his back, Collins deals in what he terms ‘trifles’ as the most honest approach to exploration. As he argues, it is only through these small, authentic exchanges that ‘we gain our truest appreciation of the marking signs of good or evil in the dispositions of our fellow-beings’ (52). For Collins, it is only by being a pedestrian that one can ultimately reduce the conventional tourist narrative distance and enjoy an authentic travelling experience; by having their feet on the ground, Collins and Brandling are free to ‘catch the infection’ of Cornwall (85).

Though Collins professes to be inoculated against cliché even as he is infected with Cornwall, the pressure to conform to narrative convention remains immense. Upon visiting the Botallack mines, for instance, he acknowledges the demands of his readers to produce a standardised view:

I have little doubt that the less patient among the readers of these pages have already, while perusing them, asked themselves such questions as the following: – ‘When are we to hear something about the mines? Is not Cornwall a celebrated mining country? Why has the author not taken us below the surface yet? Why do we hear nothing about tin, and copper, shafts, and steam-pumps – why are we all this time kept away from the mines?’ (113)

Questions such as these indicate the tone of conventional interest, supported by instructions by writers such as Col Jackson, who supplied ample information on how travellers could responsibly observe ‘the exploitation or working of mines, [and] the mechanical preparation of ore’ for the public record (Jackson 172). The needling tone Collins parrots in his introduction to the mines suggests his impatience with such paths of enquiry, and Collins turns this expectation for detail on its head by offering not ‘data,’ but a deeply sensory, immersive experience of the mine itself. When asked by a miner, for instance, if they ‘shouldn’t like to strip and put on miners’ clothes,’ Brandling and Collins’s delighted answer is, ‘Yes, we should, of all things!’ (Collins 114). In his description of their adventure underground, Collins makes it abundantly clear that he would never survive as a Cornish miner: the waistband of his borrowed miner’s trousers is cinched ‘under [his] armpits,’ the ‘cuffs of his jacket … turned up to [his] elbows,’ and his glasses are crushed to his face under his headlamp (115). Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for pushing past the passive tourist gaze collapses the exclusivity of the two pursuits (tourism and mining) in which he is simultaneously engaged. The Cornish mine is thus not a ‘sight’ to be driven past at high speed and ticked off the bucket list, but to be gone into, smelled, tasted, and felt as well as seen, and most decidedly not tallied. Underground, Brandling and Collins are physically overwhelmed: they perspire ‘at every pore… and [their] hands, faces, jackets, and trousers, are all more or less covered with a mixture of mud, tallow, and iron-drippings, which [they] can feel and smell much more acutely than is exactly desirable’ (120). Likewise, the roar of the surf ‘a hundred and twenty feet above’ them ‘is felt on the ear as well as heard by it’ (119, 118, emphasis in original). The ‘eye/I’ loses its confidence in the dark, and the urban travellers have to feel their way, relying heavily on the generous Cornish miner who volunteers as their guide.

Collins claims that his narrative of this experience does not ‘pretend to offer more … than a simple record of a half hour’s gossip,’ but the event of going underground belies this casual dismissal (121). By calling attention to the physical immediacy of the experience, and his own discomfort with it, the episode speaks back to the hackneyed authority of the encyclopedic travelogue, those narratives ‘swelling,’ as Collins sneers, ‘with extracts … from Encyclopedias and Itineraries’ but offering little if anything by way of actual information on the tactile experience of Cornish mining (121). Collins dresses in a Cornish miner’s clothes, descends ‘a hundred and twenty feet below sea level’ and is ‘obliged to crawl on … hand and knees’ through subterranean tunnels (118, 117), but he demurs to tell his readers any statistics on the mines; to do so is rather ‘to intrude’ (121).

A Path Less Trodden

Just as Cochrane decides to leave his uniform as well as his wallet in England before setting off for Tartary, for Collins, the art of travel is at its most authentic when it eschews the very trappings of conventional tourism: the luggage, the schedule, the guidebook. In Collins’s words, these trappings decrease ‘the enjoyment of exploring a country’ because they diminish the possibility of contact with locals; as it was for Cochrane, for Collins, it is the ‘welcome given to the stranger by the inhabitants’ of a region that makes for pleasurable travel (Collins 60). This is a privilege, moreover, which ‘only [those] who have travelled on foot can appreciate’ or, his book suggests, can even access (60). As Cochrane understood when he set out in 1820, so Collins records in 1850 that good travel is as much defined by how the traveller himself is perceived, as what the traveller can see. In her study of British travellers’ journals of the period, Marjorie Morgan notices a deep discomfort in this reversed gaze, noting that many tourists felt that the ‘very core of their being [was] out of their control’ when amongst crowds of foreigners (12). Morgan’s research is primarily on British travellers on the European continent, but her argument applies to Collins, especially given critics’ insistence on reading Cornwall as a foreign space. In Rambles, however, I would argue that this sense of dislocation is part of Collins’s pleasure, especially insisting as he does that he travels among his fellow English. Indeed, Collins and Brandling acknowledge themselves to be objects of fascination for the locals: the two ramblers are ‘stared at with almost incredible pertinacity and good humour’ as they make their way from Plymouth to Land’s End (56). Building on Pratt’s concept of interactions between travellers and locals as a ‘contact zone’ open to negotiation rather than a unidirectional stare from occident to orient, and pushing against Gregory’s sense of the tourist script’s rigidity, Kate Hill emphasises the social possibilities latent in such exchanges, arguing that ‘[a]gency is distributed between “traveller” and “travellee,” and there is scope for any party in the encounter either to follow a script … or depart from it’ (3). This is certainly true for Collins and Brandling.  Rather than men at the centre of their own narrative, defined by their gaze outwards, Collins and Brandling are instead redefined by the people they pass on their trails, walking ‘through the country comfortably as mappers, trodgers, tradesmen, guinea pig-mongers, and poor back-burdened vagabond lads… just as the peasantry [please]’ (Collins 58-9). They do not move passively through ‘ethnographic galleries’; rather, they provide themselves as spectacle (Gregory 140). As amusing as some of the speculations are, even the travellers’ apparent novelty is denied, as their consistent identity as “vagrant tourists” suggests the pre-existence of other, conventional tourists, who certainly already exist in Cornwall, but who are invariably only seen ‘driving about in carriages, or travelling expeditiously along high roads in stage coaches,’ their movements dominated by the ‘compulsion and regimentation’ imposed by the coach schedule or guidebook (Collins 5, 50; Gregory 136). Significantly, it is the novelty of their mode of travel—not as travellers, but as travellers on foot—that makes them objects of the locals’ gaze and fascination.

Though Young contends that Cornwall ‘lay beyond civilization’s pale’ because it necessitated that Collins and Brandling accept ‘a perfect independence of high roads, stage-coaches, time-tables and guide-books,’ it is clear from Collins’s own account that their mode of travel is a choice rather than a necessity (Young 60). Indeed, Collins and Brandling do quite well for themselves along the already established tourist route. Walking an average of fewer than twelve miles a day and finding a variety of commercial food and lodging options at the end of each of them, Collins’s trip belies the description of Cornwall, even in 1850, as a timeless, ‘fathomless, while, at times grotesque place… defying rational comprehension’ (60). Admittedly, there are certainly some single locations that Collins encounters that fit this description, but these are the exception rather than the norm. Upon reaching the village of Morvah, for instance, Collins describes the squalor of its single inn, ‘certainly not calculated to cheer the traveller along his onward way’ (Collins 127): the porter is as sour as the ‘middle-aged, melancholy woman’ who serves it, and no beds are made up ‘because nobody ever stopped to sleep there’ (127). This seems a problem of service, however, rather than of locale. Here and elsewhere in Collins’s narrative, this kind of dreariness is never the natural state of things. Indeed, in this case, as in others, Collins attributes the source of the village’s collective misery not to native Cornish recalcitrance but to an invasive species that strangles natural joy: the ‘nasal notes of a Methodist hymn pouring disastrously through the open door’ of a nearby house confirm his suspicion (127).

All through Collins’s ramble, religion, much more than the lack of a railway, becomes a primary marker of difference and distance, and, like Collins, the Cornish people (such as those in Morvah) do not seem entirely pleased by it themselves. Significantly, such religious fervour and the strangeness it engenders occur in only isolated pockets, and are not otherwise connected with the region as a whole, the vast majority of which Collins celebrates as perfectly and joyously English. As in the surreal landscape of Morvah, in the sheltered vale of Mawgan, a bucolic Cornish paradise, the otherwise idyllic scene is rendered strange by ‘the austerities of a Carmelite convent,’ where, Collins describes, the ‘stealthy and far-spreading influence … of that vigilant and indestructible Papal religion’ has infiltrated ‘one of our simplest and prettiest English villages… on our free English ground’ (150, 148, 150). Morgan identifies the homogenous rendering of Catholicism as ‘strange and repulsive’ as a trope of British travel journals in the period, both within the British Isles and beyond (Morgan 94). According to Morgan, anti-Catholic discourse was an important element of British travel writing; John Murray’s first guidebook to the European continent (1836), for instance, ‘reinforced the long-held notion of a natural antipathy and inseparable gulf between Protestantism and Catholicism’ (88). Though Trower argues that Cornwall was defined by Collins as a liminal space vulnerable to cultural attack, and Collins’s surprise at the convent’s presence initially seems to support this reading, his discussion of it does not actually imply that Cornwall is peculiarly susceptible to foreign influence. Rather, his proprietary language when referring the community around it—our England, our village—brings Cornwall firmly within the national fold, and suggests that the foreign, even on Cornish soil, remains utterly foreign. The doors to the convent remain shut to tourists and locals alike, and its ‘dread and secret processes’ remain ‘utterly separated’ from the happy English life that surrounds it (154). What stand—or, rather, sit contentedly—in contrast to the emotional ‘ossification, then death’ of the mysterious nuns (of the twenty, two are even French!) are the modern-day Cornish children nearby, playing and resting on the ‘bank of the village stream,’ their ‘happy curiosity … satisfied’ with the glorious English life around them (154). It is from these children, concludes Collins, observed in a comfortably familiar, English setting, that we can ‘learn best’ what Cornwall offers (154).

Included in the Collection

In the same vein as his moral elevation of Cornish children, Collins encourages a domestication of Cornwall’s broader image in other important ways. Though he plays with its relative obscurity as a tourist destination early on, Collins’s later comments about the region place it firmly within England’s cultural trajectory. His chapter entitled ‘St. Michael’s Mount; A Glance at History through Dissolving Views,’ in particular, offers a palimpsestic narrative of human, and specifically English, activity at the ‘far-famed’ location (91). The chapter provides an imaginative reassembly of significant historical moments: it begins ‘before the time when the first Caesar landed as a conqueror on the shores of Britain’ (93), continues with a view of medieval pilgrims journeying to ‘St. Michael’s chapel for religion’s sake’ (96), moves on to its role as a Royalist garrison in the Civil War, and finishes with a portrait of the Mount ‘as it is in our own time’ (99). The narrative of Cornwall is thus seen through the ‘modern medium of dissolving views’ much like a tourist might see the passing landscape through a train window (91), and the text moves through ancient history into the present time, arriving at a representative ‘picture of our own country in our own age’ (99). In the final view, Cornwall is not left behind to wallow or stagnate in the Gothic anachronistic, but rather is, like the rest of England, a ‘picture of industry and security’ (99). Most significantly for the argument of this article, it is not just the merchants enjoying the ‘glee and gaiety’ of the vibrant scene that the tourist passively observes. In Collins’s final, present view of St Michael’s Mount, a ‘company of excursionists… who have clubbed together to pay a holiday visit to St. Michael’s Mount’ also appear, ‘a happy set of home-tourists of all ages’ (100, 101). As Collins admits, the final scene is ‘less striking and less dramatic than the rest,’ but I would argue that this is precisely the point: this modern picture of Cornwall, more than any other currently on offer, is ‘drawn faithfully from the life’ of the region (101).

If the rest of England, or at least those writing the guides to its regions, considered Cornwall as half-way gone already, as Young and Trower contend, Collins records that this sentiment was not uniformly shared by the Cornish. At Land’s End, Collins observes that an old milestone establishes that the location is ‘the real original first mile in England; as if all measurement of distance began strictly from the West’ (108). The presence of such markers undermines the historical cliché of Cornwall’s chosen isolation, because they count out the miles which join it to the rest of England, rather than those which separate it. Likewise, the two signs, ‘This is the first Inn in England’ and ‘This is the last Inn in England,’ both attached to opposite walls of the same building at Land’s End, attest at least to the Cornish impression that ‘the genuine recognised beginning, and end too, of the Island of Britain were here’ (108). These public signposts do two important things for Collins’s argument: they indicate both geographical and cultural connection, and imply the presence of visitors, strangers interested in viewing what Collins ironically terms the ‘Cornish Ultima Thule’ (103). Indeed, Collins’s comments about the rules of viewing Land’s End reveal an established tourist industry in full swing: ‘Here, as elsewhere, there are certain “sights” which a stranger is required to examine assiduously, as a duty if not as a pleasure by guide-book law, rigidly administered by guides’ (108-109). In fact, the tourism at Land’s End is so established, it is only after suffering through the standard routine that ‘you are at last left free to look at the Land’s End in your own way’ (109). Observing all of Cornwall in his own way, however, reveals that Collins still followed an established path: his visit to the Cheese Wring, Tintagel, the Hurlers, and other recognizable sites of interest were dictated by an already established ‘dispersed exhibition’ of Cornwall.

Return of the Native

In many ways, Collins’s brief but zesty travelogue is less about Cornwall than it appears to be a response to, and a rebuttal against, the increasingly restricted style of travellers’ journals and guides then on the market. Morgan records that by the mid-nineteenth century, ‘nearly everyone’ who ventured from home ‘was a tourist’ rather than a traveller ‘in search of authentic experiences and untrodden paths,’ and this distinction was defined primarily by the tourist’s reliance on the guidebook (Morgan 16). Guides, Gregory notes, offered the tourist the promise of ‘transparency,’ of making the foreign and exotic legible and thus safe (134). Indeed, Morgan observes that guidebooks even converted certain sights into statistics: ‘numbers were safe and convenient’ for tourists eager to ‘inspect the ancient and the exotic from the comfort and security of the modern’ (Morgan 17; Gregory 119). But in Rambles Beyond Railways, Collins steadfastly disagrees. Indeed, it is not Cornwall as such that takes Collins and Brandling off the tracked and scripted path, but a personal conviction that travelling without, though not necessarily beyond, the influence of such dictates allows for a traveller’s emancipation: to take a walking tour is to ‘set forth delivered from a perfect paraphernalia of incumbrances [sic],’ and these include, among other inconveniences, the ‘railway bell,’ ‘extortionate porters,’ ‘the coachman’s detested voice’ and the ‘cramped legs and numbed feet’ of the passenger (Collins 15). Collins’s list echoes the annoyances that Cochrane lumped together in 1824 as ‘the frailties and misconduct of others’ (Cochrane 1:4). This emancipation ‘from the thraldom of railways, coaches, and saddle-horses’ is not only possible in the world’s remaining wild places; it is even available in Cornwall. As Collins enthuses, once the traveller relinquishes his reliance on a tourist’s schedule he becomes a ‘free citizen of the whole travelling world’ to wander where he may (15). Once on ‘your own legs… go where you will, how you will’: Cornwall or Kamtschatka, the place is immaterial; it is the method of travel that matters (15). In this, Cochrane would decidedly agree.

Works Cited

Advertisement. Literary Gazette. 18 Aug 1849: 616.

Baker, William. Wilkie Collins’s Library: A Reconstruction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Cochrane, John Dundas. Narrative of A Pedestrian Journey through Russia and Siberian Tartary, from the Frontiers of China to the Frozen Sea and Kamchatka. 3e. London: Charles Knight, 1825. Reprint Arno Press, 1970.

Collins, Wilkie. Letter to Mrs Harriet Collins. 29 July 1850. William Baker and William M. Clarke, Eds. The Letters of Wilkie Collins. 2 vols. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999. 1: 63-65.

— and Henry Brandling. Rambles Beyond Railways; Or, Notes in Cornwall Taken A-foot. London: Samuel Bentley, 1851.

Gregory, Derek. ‘Scripting Egypt: Orientalism and the Cultures of Travel.’ Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing. Eds James Duncan and Derek Gregory. London: Routledge, 1999.

Hannavy, John. The Victorian and Edwardian Tourist. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2012.

Jackson, Julian R. What to Observe: Or, The Traveller’s Remembrancer.  London: James Madden & Co., 1841.

Morgan, Marjorie. National Identities and Travel in Victorian Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

Pratt, Mary Louise. ‘Scratches on the Face of the Country; Or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen.’ Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 119-143.

Simmons, Jack. ‘Railways, Hotels, and Tourism in Great Britain 1839-1914.’ Journal of Contemporary History 19.2 (1984): 201-222.

Trower, Shelley. ‘On the Cliff Edge of England: Tourism and Imperial Gothic in Cornwall.’ Victorian Literature and Culture 40 (2012): 199-214.

Young, Paul. ‘Rambles Beyond Railways: Gothicised Place and Globalised Space in Victorian Cornwall.’ Gothic Studies 13.1 (2011): 55-74.


  1. According to William Baker’s reconstruction of Collins’s library, Collins did not possess Cochrane’s book at the time of his death. This does not mean, however, that he did not own it at one time, or did not read it; as Baker notes, Collins moved twice later in his life, and ‘seems to have lost a number of books in the process,’ an occurrence Collins found ‘traumatic’ (Baker 35). For his other writings, Collins was known to have drawn heavily on secondary sources: he used both William Ellis’s Polynesian Researches (1831) and Basil Hall’s Fragments of Voyages and Travels (1831, 1833), for instance, ‘during the writing of his first novel Iolani; or, Tahiti as It Was’ (6). Moreover, the books remaining in his possession at his death attest to his continued ‘interest in exploration and travel’ (13). The similarities both of description and purpose to Collins’s pedestrian travel through Cornwall suggest that Collins had read, or was at least aware of, Cochrane’s earlier narrative. []
  2. Though Jack Simmons records that Cornwall was the last county to be connected to what he terms the ‘main railway system’ (in 1859), later in the century, Cornwall was actually at the vanguard of innovative tourist amenities: in 1878 the Great Western Railway leased the ‘[s]plendidly situated and amply comfortable’ Tregenna Castle as a hotel in St Ives, sparking the popular trend of ‘country-house hotels’ that endures today throughout England (206). Simmons also notes the steady state of tourism to Cornwall as the century continued, even in spite of the terrible depression in the county caused by the collapse of the mining industry in the 1860s. []
  3. Like Rambles, Smith’s book is a story of his journey through Cornwall, but it is even more a personal reflection than is Collins’s. W.H. Hudson, himself a travel writer who followed Collins’s and Smith’s footsteps, diplomatically calls Smith ‘an Early Victorian young man in search of a style’ (49). In terms of the readability of his prose, Hudson breathes a sigh of relief that he wrote as little as he did: ‘One is glad that cormorant, book-devouring Time has spared us Baker Peter Smith’ (50). []
  4. Murray’s Hand-Book for Travellers in Devon & Cornwall appeared in 1851. It offered a variety of travelling routes of different distances, with brief descriptions of points of interest and reviews of accommodations along the way. []
  5. This criticism was levelled against Cochrane in a review of the second edition of his book, published anonymously in Quarterly Review. Cochrane undoubtedly knew his attacker, for in the preface to his Third Edition, Cochrane addresses Barrow directly. []