Anglophiles stuck on this side of the Atlantic can get lots of British culture by way of television — Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Doctor Who and the renewable resource of Jane Austen adaptations. But for a sense of the actual country beyond the screen, you could hardly ask for a better guide to Great Britain than Bill Bryson.
Bryson’s new book is in most ways a worthy successor and sequel to his classic Notes From A Small Island, written 20 years ago. Forty years after first moving there, he has even applied for British citizenship, a process that provides some amusingly Brysonian anecdotes.
Like its predecessor, The Road to Little Dribbling is a travel memoir, combining adventures and observations from his travels around the island nation with recounting of his life there, off and mostly on, over the last four decades.
Bryson is such a good writer that even if you don’t especially go in for travel books — I don’t — he makes reading this book worthwhile. Take this description of the pier at his starting point, Bognor Regis: “The pier at Bognor perfectly encapsulates its decline. Once it was a thousand feet long, but various owners took to lopping lengths off it following fires or storm damage so that today it is just a stub three hundred feet long that doesn’t quite reach the sea.”
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Determined not to simply retrace his stops from Notes From A Small Island, Bryson instead figures out the longest straight linear distance within Great Britain — no zigzagging or crossing saltwater allowed.
He dubs that route — from Bognor Regis on the southern coast to Cape Wrath in Scotland — the Bryson Line. Being Bryson, he doesn’t exactly follow it but meanders around the country visiting various interesting sites. But he does tag up at each end.
The primary pleasure of this book is its digressions, the historical information about some person or place that has been mostly forgotten. Bryson is a master at excavating these bits and shaping them into short, fascinating tales.
He visits the grave of George Everest in Hove, a place with which Everest had no connection — just like the mountain named for him, which he never visited or even saw. We learn about a mid-20th-century planned community outside of London. Naturally, this car-free paradise was to be called Motopia. It was “essentially to be a single giant building, built around a network of courtyards and standing in an eden of lakes and parkland.”
The memoir side of the travel-memoir hybrid is less enlightening or amusing. A little griping about parking (or the lack of it) goes a long way. And spending so much time complaining about misspellings in Trip Advisor reviews or the prominence of reality TV stars in celebrity magazines is a little beneath a writer of Bryson’s talents.
Mostly, though, Bryson is that curmudgeonly but entertaining uncle you love to talk to at parties, and he’s an exceptionally well informed one. Despite his dismay at the prevalence of litter and the increase in car traffic, he still delights in the idiosyncratic British treasures that have survived thousands of years of settlement on the island. Like the National Trust-managed estate that is perfectly preserved in the deteriorated condition or a bridge made out of cast-iron: “It is at once elegant and decorous, yet wholly utilitarian. Every bit of it has a purpose and yet it is endlessly agreeable to look at, too.”
Bryson makes his journey in several discrete pieces, and that might well be the best way to take in this book. When you’re fed up with American traffic or culture or political rants on Facebook, just pop over for a walk around the British countryside or a journey on a British train with Bryson. Despite his claims that modern Britain is increasingly unfamiliar to him, he obviously knows the country well and loves it even more — because it is the home he chose.
Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN.