After reading The Road to Little Dribbling, I realise that Bill Bryson is not just a renowned senior traveller (he is 65 this year), but also a ‘grumpy old man’, albeit a very amusing, grumpy old man.
The book is sub-titled More Notes from a Small Island, and that explains it well. Twenty years after the publication of his very popular Notes from a Small Island, Bill has taken another tour around Great Britain to see how it has changed in the intervening period. Mostly negatively in his eyes, but of course that is part of the ‘grumpy old man’ syndrome.
However, to be clear, Bill Bryson is a massive fan of Great Britain. He has chosen to live here, far from his native Iowa, and gives several reasons why, the most important being the countryside:
‘Nothing – and I mean, really, absolutely nothing – is more extraordinary in Britain than the beauty of the countryside. Nowhere in the world is there a landscape that has been more intensively utilized – more mined, farmed, quarried, covered with cities and clanging factories, threaded with motorways and railway lines – and yet remains so comprehensively and reliably lovely over most of its extent.’
That provides the underlying theme for the book. Bill travels the length and breadth of Great Britain, admiring most of the time, but being harshly critical when he sees his utopia being damaged by, for example, insensitive commercial decisions, poor government policies or simply the individual selfishness of litter louts.
Throughout the book there are cameo biographies of famous historical figures, plus some of individuals whom the author believes have not had the recognition they deserve, like Basil Brown and Charles Sharland. You’ll have to read the book to find out who they are.
Similarly, there are informative descriptions of well-known places around Great Britain, like Blenheim Palace (not a happy visit) and Durham Cathedral, and also of places that are not so well known, but well worth visiting, like Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where an Anglo-Saxon boat and treasure were unearthed, and the Fishing Heritage Centre in Grimsby.
His tour starts in Bognor Regis and ends at Cape Wrath in the far north of Scotland. These are not randomly chosen places, but are at the ends of his so-called ‘Bryson Line’ – the furthest distance you can travel in Great Britain in a straight line without crossing salt water!
Fortunately, Bill does not travel in a straight line, but tours around. After making short shrift of Bognor Regis, he heads past the Seven Sisters and Dover to London. Then his journey takes him west to Devon and Cornwall, before passing through East Anglia and Oxford on the way to the Midlands.
He is attracted to visit Skegness by its famous ‘bracing’ mascot, the ‘Jolly Fisherman’. However this led to a bit of trouble, as the mascot was used on the book’s front cover without permission. Skegness Council threatened to sue the publisher, thus giving the town more publicity than it has had in many a year!
Finally Bill has a quick look around Wales and the North, before making the difficult journey to Cape Wrath – to find nothing much there, just like his starting point of Bognor Regis.
This is a must-read book for all senior travellers. He is one of us and understands what annoys us and what we enjoy when travelling around.
He gets very frustrated with the National Trust ‘because of its irksome sense of its own perfection’. This was noted after he was told not to photograph inside a lighthouse. Why not? ‘Because it is Trust policy’ was the response.
He gets great pleasure now from the little perks that accompany advancing years. When visiting the home of the Victorian artist Frederick Leighton in Kensington, he notes that: ‘I liked Leighton House immediately, not least because my ticket price was reduced from £10 to £6 on account of my great age.’
You are absolutely guaranteed to discover some new, interesting places to visit as you proceed through the pages. You will also gain lots of snippets of useful information, such as that cows are more dangerous than bulls when rambling around the British countryside! And most certainly you will be entertained. Expect to find yourself laughing out loud on occasions, although you may realise that actually you are laughing at your own grumpy idiosyncrasies!
It is published in hardback and paperback by Doubleday, 2015 (ISBN 9780857522344), and can be obtained at a discount price from the Book Depository with free world-wide delivery.
POSTED 22nd FEBRUARY 2016 by STEVE HANSON