Gap years are a bit of a cliché these days. When I hear those two words, it conjures up images of uni students posing in various touristy locations, thinking they’re exploring.
The gap year has a longer history than I thought, though. It grew out of the year-long tours the landed gentry used to take. Travelling to “find yourself” has been a rite of passage for students and academics for almost 500 years now.
The grand tour
For the sons of the aristocracy, the idea was that a year or so travelling the world would arm you with the right skills to run massive estates or sit in Parliament. Like most young men abroad, though, a lot of grand tours descended quite quickly into boozing, dancing and womanising.
Most grand tours started in France. After picking up a French guide (French was the most commonly spoken language on the continent at the time), tourists would head to Paris to indulge in some light dancing, fencing and riding. After a jaunt across the Alps and a stay in urban Switzerland, the tourist and his entourage headed down into northern Italy, spending time in Milan, Turin and Florence, with side trips to Venice, Pisa and Bologna. After the obligatory trip to Rome, most headed back north, stopping off at Innsbruck, Vienna or Dresden before slowly making their way back to Britain.
All this grand touring had an effect on European culture. The fact you needed to come back with cases full of books, statues and trinkets to prove you went led to the antique markets of Rome and the popularity of European literature in the UK. Romantic poetry was directly inspired by Keats and Shelley visiting Rome. And Batoni made a career painting the English bumbling around the Roman ruins.
The decline of the grand tour started on the 5th July 1841, when Thomas Cook organised for 500 people to take the train to Loughborough for a day-trip on the newly opened Midland Counties railway. The concept of the package holiday was born, and it was an idea that completely changed travel.
The invention of railways and the package holiday suddenly made travel available for everyone. What started with day-trips to coastal resorts and summers spent in Scotland grew into a new way of exploring the world. Gone were the days of travelling alone or with a few servants. Heading off with a hundred of your fellow countrymen for two weeks of sun, sand and sightseeing was in. By the time Cook died in 1892, the company he founded had offices around the world and was selling 3.5 million tickets a year. The grand tour, which had survived war, conflict and controversy was dead.
The one-size-fits-all nature of the package holiday is both its biggest strength and biggest weakness. I mean, how much of a country can you really experience when you’re surrounded by 60 fellow tourists while a man points things out with an umbrella? After the world wars, people wanted to head out on their own, get a unique view of foreign lands and perhaps find a richer, more spiritual existence along the way. It’s no surprise, then, that India was the location of choice. Young travellers flocked to take on the hippie trail from Delhi down to Goa. The philosophy was to travel light, make your own way and hangout with as many people you could on the way. It’s a route and a concept that’s still popular.
By the late 60s, people began to add Thomas Cook’s ideas to backpacking by combining it with the hippy ethos of spreading love and understanding, man. Nicholas Maclean-Bristol led the way when he set up the company Project Trust in 1967 and sent three volunteers to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The idea was to take a group of impressionable youths who wanted to find themselves and send them to country that needed help. The aim was to help people learn to live independently, develop some skills and learn about a new country.
In the 70s, the idea of travelling the world, meeting new people and doing good had started to take off. Flights were still too expensive for many young people, but driving was more affordable. You could easily buy an old bus, van or motorcycle and head off on your own.
In 1977, GAP Activity Projects (now called Latitude Global Volunteering) started offering volunteering placements for students who wanted to travel a bit between college and uni.
The gap year today
By the dawn of the 1980s, all the foundations of the gap year as we know it were in place – all that was needed was some gappers.
Suddenly, the idea of going on a gap year was the cool thing to do. Once the preserve of the super-rich or hippies, cheaper air travel and a more developed network of hostels and communes allowed more and more people to take off and “discover themselves.” In the same way grand tours were thought to build character, these days, spending a year travelling is the done thing for university students. It’s almost like we’ve come full circle.
So, what about the gap year these days? It seems that families, workers on a career break and retirees are keen to take a year out. A gap year still seems to be worth it from an employment point of view – a study on Gapyear.com reported that 63% of employers looked favourably on candidates who have spent some time travelling.