It is the truth universally acknowledged that all students must watch the infamous ‘Gap Yah’ video. If you have ever laughed along to one of your flatmates’ jokes about how they, ‘chundered everywharr’ the night before, but had no idea what it was that everyone found so funny, then you have failed yourself.
However, even for those who may not have heard the wonders of vomiting over various areas of the developing world, we are all familiar with the student’s rite of passage; the gap year. But where exactly did it come from? Why do so many of us choose to travel, sometimes thousands of miles, for no apparent reason? And why exactly do parents across the country permit their adolescents to venture out to potentially, sometimes definitely, dangerous lands?
The origins of the gap year can be found in the 17th Century with the ‘Grand Tour’. The first recorded use of the term was by Richard Lassel in his book The Voyage of Italy, and technically the experience often lasted more than a year, extending to up to three or four in some cases.
It was a traditional tour of Europe, which was undertaken by wealthy, young, upper-class gentlemen. The exposure to both the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the innovating Renaissance was an aim of those who embarked from England to warmer climates. Many returned with crates of arts, books, pictures, sculptures and items of cultural value which would be displayed in homes, as well as galleries, which were built specifically for their exhibit.
By the 1840’s, the Grand Tour had evolved into a large-scale rail transit, and the experience may have been akin to that of the InterRail gapyear-ers of today. Travel of this sort rendered European excursions much more available to women, and subsequently it became a part of a woman’s education to travel to Italy. Furthermore, (and importantly!) the railroad enabled travel to be extended to the middle classes, as it became less of a burden not simply in terms of cost, but also of safety and effort.
The development of the railroad, both in England and abroad led to the success of a name that is instantly recognisable to us; that of ‘Thomas Cook’, the now high-street holidaymaker. During his lifetime he did more for middle class travel, and indeed for the gap year than is commonly known. He decided to offer excursions through the rail companies, who would charge for the train ticket and food, in exchange that he would conduct a tour. His first real success came when he arranged for 165,000 people to attend the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, and following this he began grand, circular tours of Europe, establishing the idea of ‘inclusive independent travel’. Extending across the Americas, Africa and Asia, his tours soon increased both in scope and greatness.
The evolution of the gap year continued in the post-war world, in the midst of the Swinging Sixties, where the wide-eyed youth of the exciting new, (seemingly) more liberal generation departed to India on hippie trails, building on the idea of ‘independent travel’ begun by Cook.
The growth of the gap year industry continued throughout the succeeding decades, and the demand for the quintessential gap year adventure is clear through the sheer number of companies who organise trips across the Globe today.
But how do we define a 21st century gap year? Certainly the European destinations of the Grand Tour do not limit the traveller of today, though of course, this is still a popular option. With the ease of flight travel, countries such as Australia, Thailand and Vietnam have garnered a fashionable reputation with gap year travelling. Perhaps this can be attributed to the great history and rich cultures offered by these countries. Or indeed, the mysteries of countries such as Vietnam, which has only been open to tourists for just over 20 years, provides students with the sense of adventure to which they are so starved at home. Or perhaps, and most likely, it’s the sun, sand and sea that we crave; mythical sights for those familiar with the tropical climate of Manchester.