Byron and Hobhouse in the Bernese Oberland

Padraig Rooney


Lord Byron and John Cam Hobhouse were university chums. Hobby had been best man at Byron’s unlikely and short-lived wedding to Annabella Milbanke in 1815, and had accompanied him on a gap year to Albania in 1809. They stayed with despot Ali Pasha, who liked a bit of slap and tickle. Byron was partial to the local Greek youth, in particular Eustathius Georgiou:

“Our parting was vastly pathetic, as many kisses as would have sufficed for a boarding school”.

Hobhouse edited the smut from their travels, sexed up the orientalism, and published his account with fine period-costume plates as Journey through Albania in 1813. He was short, plain and prosy, in contrast to his dashing, poetic friend. In letters to him, Byron used a coded Latin to communicate same sex satisfaction — pl&optC — “coitum plenum et optabilem,” a phrase from Petronius’s Satyricon meaning full intercourse, and plenty of it. A bit of rumpy-pumpy with the same sex was a hanging offence at the time.

Byron had a good run of poems to his credit that summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati outside Geneva. Childe Harold III and The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems were published at year’s end, their sales fuelled by the author’s infamy. Once Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and a pregnant Claire Clairmont had returned to England, Byron and Hobhouse went on a 10-day trek through the Bernese Oberland in September.

Both men kept journals. Byron’s travel account was addressed to his half-sister, Augusta. Hobhouse is better on the details of where they spent the night, what they saw, and the number of fish caught. The difference in detail is indicative of Byron’s methods. He was gestating his next long poem, Manfred, into which are sublimated many of the sights and incidents of their mountain trek.

They set off around Lake Geneva by charabanc, with two saddle horses, on 17 September, 1816, accompanied by a Swiss guide called Berger, who had been with Byron since London. Hobhouse’s manservant was also Swiss, a Fribourgeois called Joseph Poisson. This was Byron’s second excursion around the lake. The one in June, by boat with Shelley, had been stormy but productive.

They spent their first night at the Hotel de l’Ancre at Ouchy, Lausanne’s erstwhile port. This is now the pricey Hotel Angleterre & Residence, offering a late riser package which would have pleased his Lordship. His stay in June 1816 brought forth The Prisoner of Chillon; like that other good-bad prison-poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it became a popular favourite.  Today there’s a plaque on the wall, one of five along the shores of the lake commemorating Byron’s rainy summer in Switzerland. He kept to room 18 while Hobhouse went to the town to dine with Mr. Parry Ockeden in Bellvue, whom he’d met at Madame de Staël’s salon in Coppet. We get the feeling of Byron wanting to husband his thoughts in verse rather than dissipate them in dinner talk, clear from the lines in Childe Harold III written earlier in the summer:

“and thus I,
Still on thy shores, fair Leman! may find room
And food for meditation…”

After a fitful night, the two gentlemen and their servants followed the lakeshore round towards Vevey. Byron rode the young colt, the carriage following, the lake water sometimes encroaching on their path. “The country all vines, and getting more precipitous until the vineyards raised on terraces supported with regular walls,” noted Hobhouse. Byron evokes this old terraced landscape in divine terms in Childe Harold III:

“the vines
Which slope his green path downward to the shore,
Where the bow’d waters meet him, and adore,
Kissing his feet with murmurs;”

They visited St. Martin’s Church above Vevey to pay their respects to the graves of two regicides, General Edmund Ludlow and Clerk of the Court Andrew Broughton. Ludlow and Broughton had signed the death warrant of Charles I in 1649. Both regicides had gone into exile in Switzerland.

After breakfast at Les Trois Couronnes, they put up at a farmer’s cottage, as Byron described it, in Clarens, where he had stayed in June – at 8 rue des Artisans. Maison Vinet et Byron is still there in a dark back street, which 200 years ago must have backed onto the lake. The poet’s eye was beginning to rove and “on the steps of a cottage in the village — I saw a young paysanne  — beautiful as Julie herself”. The gentlemen made an excursion up the vine-covered slope to the “Bosquet de Julie,” setting for the famous tryst in Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse, apotheosised by Byron in Childe Harold:

“Clarens! sweet Clarens, birthplace of deep Love!
Thine air is the young breath of passionate thought,
Thy trees take root in Love;”

They continued to the Château de Chillon. Byron was revisiting the inspiration for his summer poem which had been sent a month earlier to his publisher Charles Murray, care of Shelley.

The American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed at Byron’s Hotel (the first to be named after him) in Villeneuve in 1859 and made the dutiful visit along the lakeshore to Chillon. By then Byron’s poem had made it a site of pilgrimage for any young buck on the Grand Tour. Hawthorne remarks on Byron’s liberties with the truth: “The arches are … at such a height above the floor that we could catch no glimpse of land or water, or scarcely of the sky. The prisoner of Chillon could not possibly have seen the island to which Byron alludes, and which is a little way from the shore…”

This tiny island 40 metres square is “Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,” according to Byron’s prisoner Bonivard. Called Ile de Peilz, Peace Island, it is formed of alluvial silt from the outpouring of the young River Rhone, and has since been shored up by the municipality. Visible from the upper floors of Chillon, it is “wedded hopelessly to an inane couplet,” in the words of writer William Sharp. Here’s the couplet in question, for what it’s worth: “And then there was a little isle, / which in my very face did smile.” Byron has done better. He goes on to describe the “three tall trees” growing on it, replanted by the commune of Villeneuve in 1851, only one of which survives on the island to this day.

Hobhouse’s no-nonsense approach to travel writing comes to the fore:

“Came down, got into the charaban, and drove again to Chillon and past, to a torrent which turned a mill. Came back in the evening by starlight. Good tea, good Vaud wine, good Friburgh beer like porter. Bed bad, and damp – could not sleep, after this beautiful day’s tour.”

The next day they were up at five to climb Dent Jaman, a peak rising behind Montreux and today reachable by train. Byron, struggling with his clubfoot, fell and cut his finger. The mules likewise tumbled, but Hobhouse scaled the summit in one piece. Both men admired the view of Lake Geneva and the Savoy Alps beyond. Byron describes Lac Jaman with unabashed pre-Freudian imagery, “in the very nipple of the bosom of the mountain”.

In the evening they descended the other side to the village of Montbovon, today a five-hour walk over the mountains behind Montreux. It is in a region known as the Gessenay or Saanenland, where canton Fribourg meets canton Vaud, where German meets French, the so-called linguistic Röstigraben. Montbovon was for centuries a transit point on the cheese road, where wheels of Gruyère went south over the mountain to Lake Geneva, the Valais and points beyond. Our hikers ate at the inn and were farmed out to locals for the night. The inn in question must have been l’Ancien Auberge de la Croix Blanche, the old diligence post built in 1725, restored and classified as a historic monument in 1960, and still standing just below the main road. Hobhouse finally caught a “decent trout” in the wild River Sarine that runs behind the village but was disparaging about the inn: “very mediocre indeed in appearance — no meat to be had — my fish and an omelette served. We slept in private houses hired by the host — a very good room I had with fine chest of drawers and slept well…”

At Rougemont they left the jurisdiction of Vaud and entered that of Bern:

“Paid twelve francs for tea, coffee, and cold meat, this being reckoned a poor country, as no corn is grown here, and the bread is sent from Thoun [Thun].”

At Zweisimmen further along the valley they kipped at the Lion and Bear, were charged forty-five francs and knocked it down to thirty. The Bären inn survives, past the roundabout on the left as you motor to Interlaken. The oldest hostelry in town, the tourist office assured me. It’s not, understandably, shouting about the literary connection:

“By Joseph’s help good supper, but infernal bed, with fleas… Great disturbances about the bill – our coachman sure they bled him at the jugular.”

Hobhouse is complaining about the prices again at Weissenberg and still not catching many fish. They descended to Thun on the Aar River, where it flows out of the western end of the lake.

They stayed at the Freienhof, the town’s 15th-century inn, where Byron wanted to give a wide berth to a party of English tourists called Clinton. The following morning the carriage with the guides went by road while the gentlemen were rowed the length of the Thunersee, landing at Neuhause, a short distance from Interlaken. This straightforward means of navigating the lake hasn’t changed in a thousand years. Byron’s wandering attention was caught in Interlaken by a pretty girl selling fruit: “blue eyes, good teeth, very fair, long but good features, reminded me of Fanny, bought some of her pears and patted her upon the cheek – the expression of her face very mild, but good, and not at all coquettish.”

At Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland, Hobhouse’s comments on fellow travellers show tourism remains essentially unchanged: “the only inn at Lauterbrunnen was full with young ladies and gentlemen, and a red-waistcoated groom, who observed the place was not much like England”.  This inn was the Auberge Bären, now the Chalet Rosa, where Lauterbrunnen’s main street divides at the approach to the Staubbach Falls. The inn being full, they gladly lodged in sight of the Falls in the house of the local curate. Byron was much taken by the waterfall:

“It is neither mist nor water but a something between both – its immense height (nine hundred feet) gives it a wave, a curve, a spreading here, a condensation there – wonderful and indescribable.”

Byron’s excitement makes its way into Manfred Act I, Scene ii, where there is a dialogue on the edge of a precipice with a chamois hunter, who saves Manfred from suicide:

“And you, ye crags, upon whose extreme edge
I stand, and on the torrent’s brink beneath
Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance;”

From Lauterbrunnen they made the ascent to Wengen and over the saddle at Kleine Scheidegg, negotiating the difficult terrain on horseback and pelting each other with snowballs at the top.

“In two hours we were just opposite to the majestic Jungfrau and the two Eighers, the first a mass of rock and ice and snow, whose roots and whose summit were visible close to us.”

They watered the horses on snowmelt just below the ridge on which Hotel Kleine Scheidegg sits today – a marshy declivity still there, appearing and disappearing with the seasons. The two men climbed the easy slope of what appears to be the Lauberhorn, now known locally as Byron’s Hill.

“We lay down a short time contemplating this glorious scene, the wildness of which had, however, been somewhat infringed upon by the apparition of two or three females on horseback…”

On their three-hour descent to Grindelwald, Hobhouse went off-piste to the valley of the Schwartz Lütschine for a spot of fishing. He caught nothing.

In 1816 there was only one inn in Grindelwald, the Bear, where Hobhouse slept badly. “A goat with a bell running about the gallery, and noisy couples about, above, beneath…” Nonetheless they were on the upward path by seven, following the present-day hiking trail, the Via Alpina, along the edge of the Wetterhorn glaciers.

Byron was most impressed by the Rosenlaui glacier “lost in the masses of snow which cover the tops of these great Alps.” Today the glacier is sadly suffering reduced circumstances, like an old dowager on the tourist trail to whom busloads of Chinese day-trippers pay homage. The Reichenbach Falls, down which Sherlock Holmes would plunge at century’s end, disappointed the hikers after the marvels of the Oberland. They lodged that night at the Hotel Weisses Kreuz at Brientz, tucked into the eastern extremity of Brienzersee. Its east- and south-facing terrace has one of Switzerland’s more beautiful views in the evening. The hotel is proud of its literary heritage—the names of Goethe, Uhland and Byron adorn its gable today.

Four female singers serenaded the inn’s guests. Hobhouse, more curious about people than Byron, has the details:

“Madelaine, Elizabeth and another Madelaine Flick were three of their names; a fiddle afterwards struck up below, and we, going down, found Joseph capering in Allemand with shoes and stockings off, greatly to his own delight and very well. The more gentlemanly Berger joined afterwards in waltzing”

Byron, clubfoot preventing any capering, went to bed early. Next morning they were back on the lake, rowed by women, and reached Interlaken in three hours. Byron was in his element and touchy-feely on the boat: “one very young and very pretty, seated myself by her, and began to row also.” He had a roving eye: “saw another, and very pretty too, and tall which I prefer, I hate short women.”

Byron laments being back in “insipid civilisation” and consoled himself by buying a dog he called “Mutz”. In Bern he dined at the Falcon while Hobhouse went to look at what appears to be a museum — a cabinet of natural history — where the large stuffed birds of Switzerland intrigued him. They didn’t dally long in Bern, and proceeded the same day to Catholic Fribourg, crossing the Sanguine River into war-marked French-speaking Switzerland.

“We did not arrive at Fribourg until nine at night. Climbing up the terrace streets of this old town, just perceiving the hill of the hermitages on our left, we put up at the Hotel des Marchands. Had good beds, a fire…”

By mid-afternoon, passing tobacco fields despoiled by the rainy summer, they enjoyed the evening ride along the shore of Lake Neuchatel. “Very pleasing and soft,” writes Byron, “but not so mountainous, at least the Jura not appearing so, after the Bernese Alps.”

On the morning of the 28th September Hobhouse breakfasted well and commented on the pension of the renowned Swiss educationalist Pestalozzi in Neuchatel. At Cossonay further down the valley, Byron dined. The most likely candidate for his custom is Auberge de la Couronne, the former diligence post, now a Thai restaurant. Hobhouse went behind the chateau to lie down in a field and take in the view:

“From this field I looked down upon the deep woody dell in which runs the Orbe, on the swelling plains of mead- and wine-land set with villages, on the Lake of Geneva and its Savoy hills, with the Clarens mountains – in short, on one of the most lovely prospects in Switzerland.”

At Aubonne the oldest inn in town is the Hotel du Lion d’Or on the Place du Marché. The sign hanging from its front has a lion rampant and the date 1790. It was a Saturday in late September. Hobhouse had supper alone with Berger, who discussed Bern taxes and pig killing.

Byron was not happy. The full realisation of his exile from England had been brought home to him in the mountains. In the last entry of his journal, written in the Golden Lion, he sounds the lacrimae rerum note and knows his affair with his half-sister Augusta will not be resumed:

“And neither the music of the Shepherd, the crashing of the Avalanche, not the torrent, the mountain, the Glacier, the Forest, nor the Cloud, have for one moment lightened the weight upon my heart …”

The university chums left Geneva together for Italy on 5th October. They got back on the coach. For Byron it had been a truly inspired summer, writing the poems that would make his reputation, in a landscape forever associated with his name.

“The clouds above me to the white Alps tend,
And I must pierce them, and survey whate’er
May be permitted, as my steps I bend”

In February 1817 he finished Manfred. Allegra, the child he had fathered with Claire Claremont and had seen fit to take from her, died of typhus in a Ravenna convent, aged five. Hobhouse revisited Geneva in 1828 after most of the principal players of that summer had died – Polidori, the progenitor of Dracula, by suicide, Percy Shelley drowned – poor Shelley who never learned to swim. Byron, grown stringy and grey like an ageing rock star, died at Missolonghi in Greece in 1824. Hobby lived to a ripe old age and kept on fishing.

Padraig Rooney

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.