The Wye Tour and the Picturesque

The Wye Tour was the birth of tourism in the Wye Valley


Visitors to the Wye Valley today follow in the footsteps of many an eighteenth century traveller, sketchbook in hand, eagerly pursuing the British equivalent of the European Grand Tour. The pioneer of the “Picturesque”, the Reverend William Gilpin saw the landscape as “expressive of that peculiar beauty which is agreeable in a picture.” His writings contributed to 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 and Several Parts of South Wales etc., relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty' made in the summer of the year 1770 was published in 1782 and became a resounding success. 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. Picturesque principles became fashionable and attracted notable artists, poets, royalty and the increasingly wealthy middle classes who took the Wye Tour  and many sketches, paintings, travel diaries and writings were produced in an attempt to capture this elusive quality.

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 wending their way down the Wye.

These tourists viewed their scenes whilst gliding down the river Wye which led to the views being observed almost as theatrical sets on stage and the Picturesque principles were easily absorbed into theatre and garden design.

The first of Britain's great landscapes to be 'discovered', the Wye Valley's particular attraction was its river scenery. The river'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, and ruins were very important to the notion of the Picturesque.

Tintern Abbey was undoubtedly the most eagerly awaited view 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.”However although he enjoyed the Abbey on the whole his rather exacting formulae for determining the "correctly picturesque",made him disatisfied with the abbey. "A number of gable-ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross aisles, which are not only disagreeable in themselves, but confound the perspective."

After the Abbey, the highlight of Gilpin’s tour was the cliff ascent and walks at Piercefield. Now the site of Chepstow racecourse, in the mid 18th Century, Piercefield had been developed by its owner Valentine Morris into a park of national reputation. The sensational developments at Piercefield were one of the earliest examples of Picturesque landscaping. Morris laid out walks through the woodland and included a grotto, druid’s temple and giant’s cave. He also developed viewpoints along the clifftop above the Wye – although ironically Gilpin considered these to be “Romantic” rather than “Picturesque”. Today, an overview of the clifftop woods at Piercefield can be seen from the Eagle’s Nest viewpoint at the top of the 365 steps. This lookout point, created in the 19th century, also has outstanding views of the Wye, the Severn Estuary and, on a clear day, the Cotswold Hills.

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, Symonds 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.

Another legacy of the Picturesque movement is The Kymin above Monmouth, with its round house giving panoramic views across the town. The passion for the Picturesque also influenced the design of Sufton Court, near Hereford, and Goodrich Court. It also led to the incorporation of Little Doward into the private landscape of Wyastone Leys, today the location of a concert hall.

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. 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 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 Symonds Yat and Chepstow is one of the best known and most visited landscapes in southern Britain.

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. The Society publishes a quarterly journal “The Picturesque” and organises events and excursions. New members are welcome

The Picturesque Movement

Landscapes for Life