Pre-eminent travel writer, Bill Bryson, has done it again, bringing the charm of his adopted country, Great Britain, to fans of his first tour around the British Isles, “Notes From A Small Island.” An American who has lived in England for decades, from where he has written his numerous best-selling treasures of travel narratives, Bryson has chosen to return to the subject that brought him fame.
Gaining inspiration while preparing to take his British Citizenship Test, Bryson took the advice of his publisher, who suggested he check back in on how things had changed across the U.K. since writing about it twenty years earlier. Bryson, known for being as sharp as a tack, with Mark Twain-style, self-deprecating humor, will have readers laughing out loud in the first few pages of his new book, “The Road To Little Dribbling; Adventures Of An American In Britain.”
The notion was to travel from tip-to-tail in Great Britain, trying to visit as many new haunts as possible. He begins his odyssey in the hamlet of Bognor Regis, once a destination on the southern coast for seaside visitors, which has now slipped into outdated slumber, as more travelers opt for cheaper vacations to the Mediterranean.
To go to an unknown point on a map and simply observe—mainly while walking, which is always a crucial part of Bryson’s explorations—is the epitome of traveling. As always, Bryson finds humor in the unexpected and even in the unpleasant. He describes the bus from Bognor Regis to Brighton as, “the sort of vehicle you would expect to be put on if you were being transferred between prisons.”
Woven into the inevitable Bryson humor is the crotchety old man voice that emerges regularly. His writing is filled with both a love for and a criticism of his adopted country. Pervasive throughout the book and a universal lament throughout his travels seems to be how much the modern increase in cars has altered the experience of exploring and living in Great Britain. Car parks have come to dominate otherwise pristine shore lines in places, or villages have become nearly inaccessible because of parking nightmares.
Bryson juxtaposes this consistent critical observation against his profound appreciation for the British passion for hiking, which he tries to do in nearly every place he stops. The entire country is designed for walking, and even though it is covered with farmland and fences, there are stiles everywhere that ease the crossing, and there exists an understanding that walking through a farmer’s field is perfectly normal.
“Britain is just about the perfect size for a country—small enough to be cozy and embraceable, but large enough to maintain a lively and independent culture.” In smooth Bill Bryson style, he seamlessly inserts historical tidbits about that culture he so admires.
Famous lighthouses, treacherous coastlines, and remote buildings with historical plaques commemorating notable people all find a spot in Bryson’s narrative, as do familiar sites like Stonehenge, the Lake District, and the island’s many famous museums. But what he most comes back to throughout the book, and the thing he most loves about Britain is the scenery, the calming beauty of the pastoral landscape that dominates the island.
“Britain is packed so solid with good stuff—with castles, stately homes, hill forts, stone circles, giant figures carved in hillsides, you name it—that a good deal of it gets lost. It is a permanent astonishment to me how casually strewn with glory Britain is.” Bryson is clearly the ideal person to deliver the treasures of the United Kingdom to those who appreciate a little gravitas with their travel humor.