Clare Balding finds Bill Bryons's latest literary tour of the UK to be charming and irreverent
The Road to Little Dribbling
(Doubleday, £20, *£16.50)
Twenty years after the publication of Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson is persuaded (by his publisher) to revisit the hills, dales, small villages and ancient monuments of the UK. Rather than retrace his steps moaning about how much things have gone downhill, Mr Bryson decides to take the longest straight-line route possible. Ask most people and they will say ‘That’s Land’s End to John O’Groats’, but, for reasons that Mr Bryson explains, it’s not. In fact, the longest straight line runs from Bognor Regis on the south coast to the most north-westerly point of Great Britain, Cape Wrath in Scotland. From now on, it will be known as ‘The Bryson Line’.
As it happens, he doesn’t stick to the line or anything like it, with diversions to Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District and Durham, and the book is all the more entertaining for it.
If you’re trying to imagine what Mr Bryson is actually like, I wouldn’t go for Robert Redford (who plays him in the new film of A Walk in the Woods). He’s big and bear-like, with a furry beard and an inquisitive manner, quieter than you might expect, sincere and uncynical. In his books, he’s very rude about places or people he imagines poking in the eye. In person, he is kind and not at all violent— I know because I recently walked with him for my Radio 4 programme Ramblings. Bill is now number one on my list of walking companions and, in my head, my new best friend.
Much of his humour lies in the venom he unleashes on rude, ignorant people, high charges for seeing historic monuments, unclean hotels or restaurants that won’t serve Sunday lunch.
He has a particular hatred of the supposedly comforting slogans that adorn cushions, mugs, tea towels, aprons, coasters, dog blankets, T-shirts and sweatshirts. He wants to bring out a range of useless items emblazoned with the words: ‘Keep Calm or F*** Off. I Don’t Care Which.’ He can turn on a sixpence from being lyrical to political to mischievous. During a rant about a tour round Blenheim Palace, he writes: ‘The rooms were small and airless and cramped. To make matters worse, somebody in our group was making the most dreadful silent farts. Fortunately, it was me, so I wasn’t nearly as bothered as the others.’ I snorted with laughter when I first read that and again in repeating it here. It’s just so unexpected.
His brilliance is in bringing a landscape to life not just by describing the things he sees, but by giving voice to the people he meets. ‘The thing about walking is that, generally speaking, it is a great deal more fun to do than to read about’, he writes. Having tried to write a book about walking myself, I know exactly what he means. Mr Bryson is unstinting in his admiration for the British countryside, evangelical about its preservation (he was President of the CPRE for five years) and all too aware that we are in danger of taking it all for granted. ‘Nowhere in the world is there a landscape that has been more intensively utilized—more mined, farmed, quarried, covered with cities and changing factories, threaded with motorways and railways lines—and yet remains so comprehensively and reliably lovely over most of its extent.’
The Road to Little Dribbling is consistently and unendingly fabulous and may well be sold out by the time you read this as I intend on buying a copy for everyone I know.