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  • Roland Jackson

On Alp Lusgen

Tyndall's chalet on Alp Lusgen

John Tyndall visited the Alps at a time when their peaks were being climbed for the first time, and Victorian tourists were enticed to their beauties. John Murray’s handbook of 1838, and many other writings of travellers, brought Victorian society in abundance to Switzerland.

Tyndall's chalet on Alp Lusgen, with the Aletsch glacier behind (Roland Jackson)

Belalp, situated above Blatten, Naters, Brig, and the Rhône valley, overlooks the end the great Aletsch glacier, longest in Switzerland, which flows down from the Jungfrau and Mönch at the northern edge of the Bernese Oberland. A local man, Leopold Bürcher had built the Belalp Hotel here in 1856/7, with a wonderful view over the glacier. The co-owner, and later sole proprietor, Gervas Klingele, had the stone building constructed in 1870. It still stands, though the nearby extension and the tennis court (the latter built after Tyndall’s time) have disappeared. The hotel is now owned by the Burgerschaft Naters, and visitors can stay in the ‘Tyndall Room’, with aspects of period furnishing. We did that in 2016: the room gives out on to a balcony, of which there are period photographs showing Tyndall’s experiments with sealed glass tubes, which he exposed to the sunlight to see if the organic contents would be preserved from decay. In the biography I explore the significance of Tyndall’s work on germ theory, and his interactions with Louis Pasteur and other key figures.

Tyndall came to Belalp often from the early 1860s. It was a launching point for glacier explorations and mountain climbs, and a social environment as Victorian society passed through the hotel. In 1883/4 an English chapel was built. It the mid-twentieth century it was take over by the local Catholic bishop, and no trace of the English history remains.

So attached was Tyndall to the location that he had the idea of building his own chalet on Alp Lusgen above the hotel. In 1876, just after their marriage, the Tyndalls were allowed to mark out a site and build their chalet, which they occupied for the first time the following year. As a piece of architecture, it rather stands out against the traditional chalets, but it remains in a beautiful, lone position. If one knows where to look, it can be seen from Brig, perched high on the alp.

The Tyndalls returned every year bar one (when Tyndall was too ill to travel) until his death in 1893. Thereafter Louisa visited frequently. In 1911 she erected a magnificent granite memorial high above the alp, under the slopes of the Sparrenhorn, which she and John had frequently climbed. The chalet stayed in the family until 1964. It is now in Swiss ownership and rarely used, a somewhat forlorn relic, with its historic echoes.

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