It seems everyone’s getting on board with hiking; even Taylor Swift’s a fan. Roderick Gilchrist dons his walking boots and meets the mountains off-season for a blissful return to nature and a curious encounter with Sherlock Holmes…
It was 2,500 metres up the Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland’s beautiful Bernese Oberland when I began to wonder if a hiking holiday among the high summits was such a good idea. Eagles were circling above the snow lines and dusk was falling on the slopes over the pine forests when I had to accept I hadn’t a clue where I was or how to get to my hotel which in panic I couldn’t remember the name of or even the village it was in. HELP!
Intoxicated by the idyll of alpine air, wild flower meadows and pretty, friendly brown cows collared with tinkling bells who like to be stroked, I foolishly strode out ahead of my guide and now found myself alone in a remote valley. Ah, but here was help. In a mist shrouded farm a goat herder was cutting wood. Pointing to an ancient drover’s path I asked if this was the way back to civilisation. ‘I wouldn’t go there,’ he cautioned in gutteral German. ‘A bear with her cubs foraging for food has been reported in the past and if she is around she might not be pleased to see you.’ Gulp. Was he having me on?
And would my friends, who by now must have noticed I was missing, send out a St Bernard with a flagon of reviving brandy around its neck, to find me, as romantic legend insists is the traditional way of tracking the lost? Probably not.
Bears in the woods, eagles on high, the muffled rumble of spring avalanches high above, what next? It was at this critical moment Dame Fortune smiled. The goat herder guided me to a Hansel and Gretel-like wooden chalet where a kindly matron calmed me with gluhwein and local raclette cheese, worked out where I needed to be and then drove me several miles to my auberge in the ski village of Grindelwald.
‘Please let me pay you,’ I asked. ‘No, just tell the people in England of our hospitality to strangers in the mountains,’ was the only requested reward.
Jungfrau means young virgin, because like a bride the mountain is always cloaked in white, the snow at the top never melting. Her sister peak, however, the unforgiving Eiger, looks truly foreboding, easily earning its dark moniker, The Ogre.
The north face of the Eiger, at 4,000 metres commanding the very roof of Europe, is considered the most dangerous ascent in the world for climbers many of whom have died attempting to conquer it, their lifeless bodies hanging by rope twisting in the wind, clearly visible to the naked eye from the village below.
We arrived in Grindelwald that morning after passing through the verdant valley of Lauterbrunnen lorded over by majestic snow-capped summits where foaming waterfalls tumble hundreds of metres through silent woods before emptying into the fathomless Lake Briensersee.
This other worldly Eden bewitched J.R.Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings, who came hiking here just before suffering trench fever on the Somme where he hallucinated that cavalry horses were dragons. Haunted by the celestial beauty of the valley and still suffering nightmares from the carnage of the First World War Tolkien’s fertile imagination freebased into the dark fantasy of Lord of the Rings.
The cosmic peaks that bewitched Tolkien are the Misty Mountains of his mystical epic, the damp forests below his Middle Earth: Lauterbrunnen is Rivendell and the Elves, Hobbits and other creatures scurrying in the glades are the Italian labourers he witnessed digging tracks and tunnels while building the railway that leads to the top of the Jungfrau, today besieged by Japanese tourists taking selfies.
In the winter the landscape here is of course a canvas of snow, a white out, wonderful for skiing but when the thaw arrives it’s possible that the blue of the sky, the green carpet of the lush meadows and the peaks combine to make it even more scenic.
Tolkien was following in the footsteps of many other famous names from history drawn to the pristine beauty of the Bernese Oberland not to ski but to ramble. The region was created billions of years ago when the earth’s tectonic plates collided forcing up jagged peaks like monsters’ broken teeth and sinking hidden valleys giving the range the look of being forged by giant’s hands.
Byron came walking here after German author Goethe first alerted the world to one of nature’s most mesmeric natural wonders. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes followed, Tolstoy with no distractions began War and Peace here and Brahms found the serenity inspired him to write some of his gentlest symphonies.
‘Today it is James Bond who brings so many here,’ my guide tells me laughing. The OO7 film On Majesty’s Secret Service was shot around the Schilthornmountain with its views of the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc, and Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant at the 3,000 metres peak, which was the set for Blofeld’s lair where he kept a harem of 20 nubile girls, one of them Joanna Lumley.
‘The Japanese all want to see where George Lazenby rescues Diana Rigg,’ he adds so they can put the picture on Instagram. ‘All the stars got together up here the other day to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. The tourists went mad when they saw them.’
Hiking is bang on trend. Millennials have discovered there is no better way to switch off from social media and business types to escape the pressure of office burn out. Pop star Taylor Swift is an addict and so is former prime minister Teresa May. Walking connects us with nature, reduces calories, calms the mind and increases brain capacity. I could get evangelical about it.
My guide offered me Norwegian walking poles that make it look as if you are skiing on dry land but I declined thinking they are only for the elderly. Foolish. The poles actually are designed to transfer your weight from knee joints, always vulnerable, to the more load tolerant upper body.
As a hiking rookie (you hadn’t guessed?), our four-day trek from car-free Wengen to Meiringen where an Italian baker invented the meringue, mercifully was not too ambitious, just six or seven miles a day with lengthy rest stops at friendly restaurants for delicious lunches. Luggage was sent ahead to Belle Epoque hotels and rustic retreats almost inaccessible by car but reached by funicular and cable gondolas magicking us over meadows of dwarf blue croci, eidelweiss and buttercups, a botanist’s dream.
At the 250-year-old, family-run woodland hideaway Hotel Rosenlaui, with its pretty cream facade with green shutters, there is no wifi or television (hurrah!), electricity is powered by glaciers and the only running water to hear in the bedroom is the river outside fed by its celebrated gorge.
When the first visitors arrived in the 18th century they were awe-struck by the God-like size and power of nature, viewing it through a spiritual filter in which man was almost impotent, a belief reinforced by the Trummelbach Falls, a Niagra-esque torrent of water, where 20,000 litres cascade inside the mountain from a height of 1,000 metres every second. That’s some shower.
While staying at Hotel Rosenlaui, hardly changed since Victorian times, Conan Doyle rode the open-sided wooden funicular to the top of the Reichenbach Falls, a booming curtain of melting snow, where he killed off the Baker Street sleuth in The Final Problem. His ingenious plot saw Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty, ‘The Napolean of Crime’, attack his enemy while he gazed at the torrent, the two tumbling into the abyss and drowning.
Every year on 4 May, the anniversary of Holmes’ death, a group of British eccentrics drag up in deerstalkers, cape and Moriarty’s funerial black top hat and morning coat to re-stage the tussle, which concludes with dummies of both men being thrown over the top into the water. Bonkers.
There’s an amusing video of this cabaret in the little waiting room where we gather for the funicular, an exact replica of the wagon Conan Doyle rode in, watched in bemusement by Asian tourists who probably have no idea who Sherlock Holmes is, but know all about James Bond.
We can’t actually reach the ledge where Holmes fell because tourists’ feet have made the pass there too dangerous, but a plaque marks the spot of this fictitious drama and in nearby Meiringen a bronze statue of Holmes smoking his pipe graces the town square.
Over strong local beer in the backwoods hostelries, where farmers still gather to practise for yodelling championships, the superstitious will whisper it’s possible that in the forest at nightfall Gandalf, the white bearded wizard of Lord of the Rings, can be seen marshalling his army of Hobbits and Elves to fight for Middle Earth.
Well, they do say Old Hobbits die hard.
For more information, call 00800 100 200 30 or visit MySwitzerland.com. Swiss Air offers flights at £84 one way (0345 601 0956; swiss.com). The Swiss Travel System provides travel passes exclusively for visitors from abroad (swisstravelsystem.co.uk).